I spent a lot of time on my flight back from Pittsburgh last night thinking about what I truly believe to have been one of the most important relationships in American history. I was thinking on the role of a man largely overshadowed in American history by the greatness of a contemporary but without whom, that greatness would have likely been far less assured. These two men, viewed as individuals, are each of such importance as to warrant individual accolade but together they formed one of the most significant partnerships of the formative years of the United States.
These two men were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Jefferson was the great idea man, a man of such intellect as to be considered a man out of time, at least a century ahead of his putative peers. James Madison was actually an intellectual match, but was Jefferson’s alter ego with a different skillset – where Jefferson was the supreme strategist, the master of what should and can be, Madison was the consummate tactician, the master of what is and what realistically can be done, and in this role, he became the overseer of Jefferson’s lofty ideals in a world of practicality. Jefferson was the sizzle, Madison the steak.
Absent of the influence of Madison, it is without question that Jefferson would still be known to history as a great thinker, inventor and philosopher, but partnered with Madison, Jefferson became known to the world as the progenitor of the most powerful and free country the world has ever known, was part of its governance for the majority of his life and remains influential even today, some 187 years after his death – on July 4, 1826 (John Adams also died the same day).
For all of his strengths, Jefferson was somewhat thin skinned. He famously hated conflict, seeking to avoid discord and achieve unity without reservation. One of his gifts was the ability to accumulate power and use it to foster unity during very unsure times for the nascent American Republic – but for all of his skill in achieving public and political comity, his ultimate personal harmony proved to be elusive. Jefferson was keenly sensitive to criticism, once stating:
I find the pain of little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise.
I find myself in agreement with his sensitivities. I have at once sought to be forceful in position and respectful of other points of view – in this, I have not succeeded. Perhaps it is not possible to be confident of a stance and show deference to others, especially when emotions are strong, the stakes are high and brothers are pitted against each other, one as confident in his foundation as the other.
In addressing dissent to my positions from people whom I consider part of my political and philosophical “family”, I have been less than charitable and for that, I remain sincerely chastened. I have been intemperate and unnecessarily harsh, exhibiting the characteristics which I detest when displayed by others. I did propose that the NSA issue was tailor made to divide the political right, splitting Republican and conservative, classic liberal and libertarian while doing nothing to harm the “progressives”, liberals and Democrats and true to form, I have been complicit in achieving what is turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy – the evidence is here on this blog.
Wars are often fought among brothers – there can be no more bewildering or ultimately brutal and devastating battles than those that divide a family against itself.
Jefferson suffered the battles of his founding brothers greatly. In his mind, as they were deeply rooted in natural law, his ideas were so infinitely self-evident and filled with such universal truth that he sometimes chafed at the reality that not everyone saw them as such. James Madison was the moderating effect to Jefferson’s angst, possessing the ability to understand, manage and implement the Jeffersonian ideals in a world beset with concerns of a less philosophical, more practical nature – without the loss of Jefferson’s philosophical spirit.
Jefferson’s role in the formative processes leading to the eventual Constitution of the United Sates is often thought to be muted, as he was in France serving as the emissary to that country. While Jefferson was simultaneously managing the affairs between the young America and the country that was owed a great philosophical and monetary debt (without France’s support, there would likely be no America today) and receiving information on the issues at home, he was also in the middle of radical change in French politics – the French Revolution (the Bastille was stormed while Jefferson was living at le Hotel de Langeac). Madison was Jefferson’s “man on the ground” in America, corresponding frequently and relating the events of the Constitutional Convention and all discussions related to the formation of the new country. In one of those early correspondences, it is clear that what was true then about the role of the federal and the states remains just at true today. In October of 1787, Madison wrote to Jefferson:
It appeared to be the sincere and unanimous wish of the Convention to cherish and preserve the Union of the States. No proposition was made, no suggestion was thrown out, in favor of a partition of the Empire into two or more Confederacies.
It was generally agreed that the objects of the Union could not be secured by any system founded on the principle of a confederation of sovereign States. A voluntary observance of the federal law by all the members, could never be hoped for. A compulsive one could evidently never be reduced to practice, and if it could, involved equal calamities to the innocent & the guilty, the necessity of a military force both obnoxious & dangerous, and in general, a scene resembling much more a civil war, than the administration of a regular Government.
Hence was embraced the alternative of a Government which instead of operating, on the States, should operate without their intervention on the individuals composing them; and hence the change in the principle and proportion of representation.
So here we are again with the NSA, the DOJ, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, et al, resulting from the accumulation of years of actions leading to the usurpation of power by the federal from the states and the people. The federal government has effectively grown into what Jefferson detested, a monocrat – or rule by the one.
In this debate, I engender no ill will toward, or deviation from the intent of my brothers. My protestations have not been in favor of the current situation or even in defense of the actions of the NSA. My exhortations have been that we do have actions that, while they well may not be “right”, they do appear to be consistent with current law – and that they are, as a practical matter, laws that were enacted in the manner prescribed by the Constitution, thus creating a duty that they be given credence in review and discussion of these matters. While I have made no assertion that these laws should not be objects of suspicion, that they should not be avoided and eventually changed, the absence of my suggestion that they should be immediately ignored has been interpreted as acquiescence to them and as a result, I have become some sort of enemy of liberty and slave to the machine.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
My points are that we can extricate ourselves from these situations using the same methods that got us into them and we shouldn’t lose faith in the constitutional republic that created the greatest country that history has ever known. I see disrespect for the law and for the institutions of government as the first step to the destruction of the Constitution and subsequently of America. It occurs to me that to take this position is a tacit admission that the citizens of our Republic are powerless before their monocrat master as if this master is something separate from the people, that it is some grand conspiracy and collusion of secretive forces beyond our control. I refuse to believe that. If there is fault to be found, it is not in the beast we have created but in the ignorance, apathy, sloth and envy displayed by a disaffected, detached and complacent citizenry.
Tossing out a system of governance that has resulted in so many benefits of independence and self-rule is not the answer, for once it is in the dustbin of history, with what do we replace it?
What is it that can improve on the basic principles of liberty previously enshrined in the body of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?
I can conceive of no such improvement.
Our familial differences are of method, not of outcome.
Our friend Texas95 made the point that it isn’t the principles and ideals of the founders that are failing, it is that we are not governing with respect to them – of this; I am in complete agreement, writing on this subject in January of 2012:
The temptation in these trying times is to throw out the system of government and go to something “better”. We need to recognize why our government is functioning the way that it is before deciding to toss the baby out with the bathwater.
Let’s look at what our government is actually charged with doing.
Our Constitution is designed for doing a very limited number of things and doing them well:
- to form a more perfect Union [more effective than the Articles of Confederation],
- establish Justice [via assuring that each person is treated equally by government],
- insure domestic Tranquility [provide a platform for a stable society],
- provide for the common defence [protect the sovereignty of the nation],
- promote the general Welfare [PROMOTE, not provide], and
- secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity [assure the longevity of our nation]…
It is not designed to be the arbiter of success or to redistribute income and wealth in the Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.
America doesn’t need a new governmental system. What we absolutely don’t need is the socialism of the Obama administration, the Marxism of the Occupy Wall Street “movement” or the communism of the columnists of the New York Times. Our Constitution (and the governance that flows from it) was never designed to operate under such circumstances. What we are doing today just as ineffective as trying to change a flat tire with a frying pan or to fry an egg with a lug wrench. Our government isn’t working, not because it isn’t the right system, it is because the things that it is being driven to do were never part of its scope. It didn’t leave us, we left it.
If we can herd the cats back to what the Constitution actually is designed to do (and that is a BIG “if”), return the power to the states that has been usurped by the federal government and have the states governed by the will of their people, we can save America. If not, we may start looking more like the Weimar Republic in its dying days.
We are given to the notion by conventional wisdom that the art of political compromise is a necessity, that it is the tool by which each entity, by each on its own receiving a little less that it desired, are in fact producing a solution yielding more; however, it is difficult to see how this multiplicative equation has been effective when the compromise is one of principle governing the goal and not of mere tactics used to achieve the goal. Modern “compromise” has come to mean the sacrifice of one principle to another, equating “compromise” to “losing” on the one side and “winning” on the other.
This definition of “compromise” has led to the ability of corrupt people to create a corrupt government, reminding us all of another of Jefferson’s quotes, this one from 1838:
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
“The government”, significant and powerful it may have been allowed to become, is not some ancient, immortal, gargantuan kraken, impervious to attack and defeat by mere mortals – and yet we incorrectly perceive it to be so. Again deferring to the words of Jefferson in a letter (which includes his “water the Tree of Liberty” quote) to William Stephens Smith in 1787:
The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, & what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.
SSDE – same shite, different era. The “progressives” have replaced the British and our modern media play the role of the gazetteers. Knowing this is why I have cautioned against jumping to conclusions on the NSA issue.
Thousands of years of human history record the efforts of men to govern themselves and have proven that there exists no form of government impervious to the machinations of evil men or the unintended consequences of the legitimate actions of bleeding hearts seeking to improve the human condition through the use of government.
It is as it is because we allow it to be – but the fact remains that because of the majesty of a single document, the Constitution, we, the people, do have the power to change it through whatever method we desire.
I simply choose to believe that the usurpers can be beaten at their own game. All it takes is for the strategist and the tactician to work as one – as Jefferson and Madison did – and for reasonable men of common sense and incorruptible nature to refuse to compromise on principle and stand in opposition to this grist mill of tyranny that seeks to grind the bones of patriots to dust.