James Madison’s Ultimate Test

Given the lack of confidence in either of the two major party presidential presumptive nominees, earlier today I tweeted out the following thought-provoker:

Madison Tweet Copy

What prompted this was a passage from another old unpublished lecture of Harry V. Jaffa from 1996 that I happen to have found during recent book research:

[Madison] believed that the statesmanship of the wise and the good that went into the architecture of the Constitution would compensate for the lack of wisdom and virtue in those who would thereafter dwell within its precincts. But neither Madison nor anyone else ever imagined that it would compensate entirely, or over too great periods of time, or in the presence of great crises, for the absence of wisdom and virtue. Above all, it would not compensate for too great ignorance of the Constitution itself, or of the reasons why the Constitution—if not the politicians and parties—deserved to be respected and revered.

There are a whole lot of points to be drawn from this short meditation. To restate and adapt Jaffa’s thesis here: The Constitution’s design is intended to be able to survive even the assaults of an anti-constitutional president such as Obama. But the survival of constitutional government depends more upon the public’s understanding of and attachment to the principles of the Constitution. It is a fallacy common to both left and right to look for the “leader” who can, through the presidency alone, repair the nation’s ills. This trend, long in the making, represents the erosion of constitutional literacy on the part of the people at large.

On the other hand, without the occasional president who has a serious understanding of and commitment to constitutionalism, the succession of constitutional assaults by Obama and (perhaps) Hillary Clinton will erode the last residual restraints of our system. This dilemma is what makes the current election scene so perilous.