In Response to: University History [6]

For James Madison, Class of 1771, Princeton’s most influential alumnus, the received view is that Madison’s genius produced the Constitution, the brilliant numbers 10 (benefits of extended republic) and 51 (separation of powers) of The Federalist Papers, and the Bill of Rights. However, his presidency, marred by the British burning of the Capitol and the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, an event not repeated until another Capitol invasion two centuries later on Jan. 6, 2021, is seen as underwhelming at best. 

Recent historians, however, have noticed the continuity of Madison’s genius into his presidency. They have admired Madison’s scrupulous adherence to constitutional principles even in the face of New England opposition to the War of 1812. That opposition flirted with secession and even offered to negotiate with the British for a separate peace — considered treasonous under the Constitution both then and now. Yet contemporaries observed that Madison restrained his executive power from infringing freedoms of speech and press and other civil liberties. It was noted that the war concluded “without one trial for treason or even one prosecution for libel.” 

This is not hyperbole. Contrast Madison with the actions of other wartime American presidents. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, giving military leaders authority to arrest, detain, and silence government critics. 

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, successfully suppressed freedoms of speech and press in order to silence critics of World War I. Indeed, Wilson pushed for passage and enforcement of the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, thus curtailing a broad swath of dissenting speech. 

FDR also had a mixed record — proclaiming the importance of the four freedoms of speech and worship and from want and fear, while incarcerating over 120,000 people of Japanese descent, about two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, during World War II. 

Even President John Adams, a founding father with deep intellectual understanding of the Constitution, suppressed freedom of press and speech under the Alien and Sedition Acts during America’s Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800. 

In contrast to these presidents, Madison walked his talk of furthering individual rights. 

Why does all this matter? Like Washington before him, Madison wanted to show posterity how the holder of executive power under the Constitution should behave — not only what to say but also how to act, which should be with restraint and even respect for and consideration of opposing views. Today, we are confronted with a host of political leaders of all stripes who are quick to manipulate events for the expansion of personal power and selfish gain, while concealing their bad behavior under a veneer that all is done to protect freedom, actually their freedom at the expense of others. We hold up Madison — and the Constitution he did so much to bequeath to us — as a standard against which to assess the integrity and honesty of our leaders today.

Note: I admit that Madison never solved the issue of slavery and did not free his own slaves. His failure to do so, however, does not detract from either the model of executive power he lived as president or his promotion of a system of government where individual rights have now been expanded to all.