What would James Madison do? and Why?

Work in progress

Rarely in the course of human history has an idea, and the document which grew out of it, set in motion the massive change in the experience of so many people around the globe, as did the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the political system established by the US Constitution. After deliberating through the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, 39 of the 55 delegates representing 12 of the 13 post-revolution states (Rhode Island didn't send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention) on September 17 of 1787, against all odds, in secrecy, authored the US Constitution, a document that forever changed the relationship of citizens with their government. Building on the ideals expressed in the Declaration of independence that “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” they provided a democratic framework for our body politic. It was largely due to the efforts of James Madison, who was called by many “the Father of the Constitution”, that the Convention took place at all and that the product of the Convention, the US constitution, was written and approved and then ratified by the citizens of the 13 states.

For the past 8 years I explored Madison’s political philosophy, his analytic skills and personal qualities as he confronted the political dysfunction of his time. I have contemplated how his efforts can guide us through our own political challenges. I have grown to appreciate Madison’s dedication and contribution to the ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as the skills he employed to construct the architectonic document containing the DNA of our nation’s political institutions.

At this political moment, when distrust of the federal government and many other institutions is at an all-time high, and more Americans are questioning the value of democracy, it may serve us well to ask what would the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, think of contemporary developments in American politics. Would he reassess the framing of the challenges he understood to confront the government of the world he lived in? What would he make of our current congress, presidency, courts, media, and most importantly citizens. What would he do confronted by the “dysfunction” of the political organism he conceived and helped bring to life and nursed through the first decades of the infant republic? How would he refine the diagnosis of the body politic and how would he leverage the developments of the past 231 years to achieve the vision he set forth in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights that he shepherded through the first congress? How would he understand and leverage scientific developments impacting daily life?

Recognizing Madison’s contribution to our American Constitutional Republic is helpful for evolving a more modern, up to date, treatment plan for the “mortal disease(s)” that have developed in our “body politic” . The constitutional Madison was a problem solver for the challenges confronting the government that was created based on the Articles of Confederation, a loose union among the thirteen states. Elsewhere we explore Madison’s world view in general and his understanding of human nature in particular to shed light on the constitutional architecture he proposed for the “mortal disease of republican government”. We further review Madison’s preparatory research for the Constitutional Convention, which included the analysis of the “Vices of the Political System”. Expanding on the disease metaphor, the series utilizes the medical case presentation as an organizing framework to understand and more effectively address “Vices” of the US body politic at this political moment. This introduction leverages a Madisonian informed framework to better understand our current “ national vices” and explore strategies to reclaim the role of the citizen. In particular I focus on the impact of passions and factions that energize them on the body politic. Madison’s writing in Federalist 9 and 10 serve to understand the constitution thinking and the constitutional treatment he contributed to in laying the foundations for the United States.

The, “DNA” (the intelligently designed governmental structure) building on division of federal and state authority, checks and balances, centrality of the citizen in the political process provided for constant advancement of individual well-being, seen peaceful national elections and succession of political power. In the 231 years since it took its place among the nations of the world, the United States has become a global superpower and the standard of living of our citizens has been unprecedented.

James Madison, was not a physician however he was using medical metaphor to provide a diagnosis of the governments that had existed at the time and to provide a treatment plan to address their pathology. His use of the disease metaphor, that included a description of the pathology and symptoms of the post revolutionary war government structured by the Articles of Confederation, were instrumental in the creation of the constitutional architecture of the American republic as a treatment plan.

As a physician I found Madison’s use the disease metaphor particularly intriguing. In particular what inspired me was Madison’s ability to communicate through the Federalist papers his reasoning for the constitution. Similar to the activity of a physician treating a person suffering with a disease, Madison used aspects of the Medical Case Presentation to achieve his goal for “individual freedoms”. He described the “symptoms” (vices) of the political system of his time; study the history of political institutions, offer an assessment of the problem and provide differential diagnosis, engages in compromise, created a treatment plan, and then monitored and adjust the treatment plan to changing data and environment.

“By a faction” he writes, “I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

He identifies the symptoms of the government defined by the Articles of Confederation:

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. “

The causes for the dysfunction, Madison diagnosed,

“must be chiefly, if not wholly, [the] effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.”

For this malady, he identified two treatment options:

“There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects”.

Madison then set forth two ways to remove the causes of faction -- rejecting both, for one meant destroying liberty and the other changing human nature -- and two ways to control the effects. His political schema involved the latter, extending the size of the territory and refining, enlarging the public views through the republican principle of representation and active participation .

Had Madison been familiar with current understanding of human physiology, anatomy and pathology would he have been able to make our constitutional representative democracy more resilient? Would he utilize a more systemic approach to address problems facing the body politic? Would he have greater trust for citizens as they interact in the political ecosystem?

I believe he would do all of the above.

Delving into Madison’s view of public opinion serves as a backdrop for exploration of contemporary relevance of his evolving views. To focus on Madison doesn’t suggest that his thoughts and actions along his many decades of life and particularly during the development and implementation of the constitution but rather provides a framework to explore the foundations as he and his fellow founders utilized to bring about the US. These insight can help us better the rationale as well as the process utilized. We have more than two centuries to test the assumptions and diagnosis that Madison had about the body politic and to examine in the pathology that we currently experience using tools on modern society. Madison had more than the three lives detailed in Noah Feldman’s recent book about the thoughts of a genius, partisan and president. Each of these Madisons had a front row seat to the early republic.

This series will explores James Madison’s world view in general and his understanding of human nature in particular to shed light on the constitutional architecture he proposed for the “mortal disease of republican government”. It further addresses Madison’s preparatory research for the Constitutional Convention, which included the “Vices of the Political System”. Expanding on the disease metaphor, the series utilizes the medical case presentation as an organizing framework to understand and more effectively address “Vices” of the US body politic. An illustrative “case” that highlights the use of this approach features the pathology associated with the opioid epidemic, a devastating problem confronting 21st century US. The challenges of the opioid crisis as a symptom and the role of the political and social ecosystem in its emergence, devastating impact and potential treatment are introduced. Madison informed framework and citizen engagement tools are introduced and utilized during the upcoming six month experiment.

For a more detailed chapter about What Would Madison Do? contact us

What Would James Madison do? Chapter Draft

Shrink the Government

Psychological insight about our politics