Father of Constitution made all the difference

Posted: Mar 22, 2001 12:00 AM
Friday marked the 250th anniversary of James Madison's birth. What a guy.... The Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787 - and Madison would become the key player. The group that assembled there was probably the noblest ever to meet with a single purpose. They bickered and quibbled sometimes, as men will do; a small number seems to have carried a disproportionate share of the work, as usually happens when conventions and committees set out. During the several subsequent sweltering months the 55 delegates produced the United States Constitution - described by Thomas Jefferson (who was not there) as "unquestionably the wisest (document of government) ever yet presented to men." The waters of subsequent history have worn it here and gouged it there. Along the way, the public has altered and added to it 26 times. It has been dismissed as "flawed," as even its drafters knew it was. Its drafters themselves have been disparagingly sociologized as a conspiracy of "haves" who crafted the Constitution to keep "have-nots" forever down. But the document has endured; with death and taxes, it almost has become the third certitude. Ask the next X-number of people who pass you on the street who holds primary responsibility for the Constitution, as the pollsters recently have done, and few will give you the right answer. Most will say Mr. Jefferson. Only 1 percent will name the man from Montpelier, Va. - 5-foot 2-inches (probably), dressed almost always in black - a thinker so self-effacing, so quintessentially private, that even though he served two terms as president he is eclipsed in history by his party-giving wife. Without Madison, we would have no Constitution. At 36, and a bachelor at the time, he brokered the convention, took detailed notes of its proceedings (the only delegate to do so), wrote the basic document, steered it through the deliberations, and sold the finished product to a majority of the 1,706 delegates to ratifying conventions in the several states. He didn't write particularly grabby stuff, but it was profound nevertheless - like this: "It may be a reflection on human nature that (constitutions) should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." And this: "Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." How we arrived here from the moment, on Sept. 17, 1787, when 39 men signed the Constitution, can be most aptly explained by our abiding belief in what the Constitution says. We have proceeded through a combination of ignorance and consensus. Few of us really know what the Constitution contains. But practically all of us know it is largely responsible for what we are and how we live - for the property we possess, for the justice we enjoy and the liberty we have. We do know, and deeply, that without the Constitution our lives probably would be profoundly worse. Forgotten or regarded as merely peripheral, James Madison wrote the Constitution and shepherded it through. He, and that remarkable assemblage, gave us the machine of government on which all others, ever since, have variously been modeled. They gave us but a piece of parchment. But they gave us much more: a living testament, the third certitude, that has made all the difference.