Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Madisonian Musings

The American Philosophical Society, with atmospherics

         I had a most enjoyable experience this past weekend as a guest speaker at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.  This venerable academy, the nation’s premier intellectual “club”, was founded by Benjamin Franklin and other worthies in 1743.  In its early years practically all the great names of the Revolution and nascent Republic were members.  Jefferson was president of the Society at the same time he was President of the United States.  The APS has a beautiful building in Philadelphia Old City, just a stone’s throw from Carpenters’ Hall, the venue of the meeting of the first Continental Congress.  The Academy maintains an important library with many unique holdings.  One area of special strength is American Indian history and culture in the period of the first two centuries of European contact.  The society’s Latin motto is Nullo Discrimine, from a line in the first book of Virgil’s ├ćneid in which Dido, Queen of Carthage (“Tyria”), welcomes the sea-born foreign refugees from Troy: “Trojan and Tyrian shall be treated by me with no distinction”.

            Philosophy had a rather capacious meaning in the eighteenth century, and the Society defines its purpose broadly as “promoting useful knowledge.”  Such knowledge is of many kinds, and the several talks were somewhat disparate in character, with topics including the physiology of gustation, the history of cookbooks, Sephardic music in Brooklyn, and early protocols for making treaties with Indians.  Useful knowledge can also be aesthetic.  There was a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren of the University of Chicago.  Three young string players from the Curtis Institute of Music performed Mozart’s “Divertimento” in E-flat major (K. 563).  There is not a lot of music for string trios, and this was the first time I had heard this marvelous piece live.

            The penultimate talk—my own being the very last—was by Jack Rakove, an American historian from Stanford, among whose many achievements is the edition of the Writings of James Madison for the Library of America.  His provocative title was “James Madison’s Dilemma—and Ours”.  Oversimplifying only grossly, the shared dilemma is what to do about an aging constitution, and the solution is to change it.  Rakove was speaking four days after a national election that had in unequal proportions anesthetized and electrified the nation and continues to monopolize journalistic punditry; yet so clear was his intellectual focus on the subject at hand that by no wink or nod did he reveal his personal political preferences.  He did, when questioned, suggest what he regards as fairly obvious imperfections in the Constitution.  One of them was the electoral college, which can defeat the fundamental democratic principle of voting equality.  A second was life tenure in the Federal judiciary, instituted to preserve the judiciary from politicization and now guaranteeing that political motivation plays a prominent if not principal role in judicial nominations and confirmations.

            For probably obvious reasons James Madison is the Favorite Founding Father on my campus.  We call him “the first Princeton graduate student.”  After taking his baccalaureate degree here in 1771, he stayed on for some post-graduate study under John Witherspoon, college president and Signer of the Declaration.  Nonetheless, I realized in a flash that I have read too little Madison.  Both he and Jefferson (among others) fully recognized the experimental element of the republican venture and assumed that Americans would learn from their experience and act upon it.  That means they would change the Constitution when it needed changing.  Jefferson at one point seems to suggest that the document should be rewritten every twenty years or so.  Contemporary America seems to regard it as an untouchable sacred text.  I have a theory about this: the pseudo-sacrality of the Constitution has waxed as the sacrality of the Bible has waned.  But never mind.

 Statue of John Witherspoon on the Princeton campus

            When I got home I fetched my Madison down from the shelf and poked about a bit.  Very soon I came to the following.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated from Philadelphia on March 27, 1780, Madison expresses his alarming opinion that at no previous moment of the Revolution has the situation been more dire.  “Among the various conjunctures of alarm and distress:…Our army threatened with an immediate alternative of disbanding or living on free quarter, the public treasury empty; public credit exhausted…Congress complaining of the extortion of the people, the people of the improvidence of Congress, and the army of both; our affairs requiring the most mature & systematic measures, and the urgency of occasions admitting only of temporizing expedients, and those expedients generating new difficulties.”  Although this makes mere “gridlock” sound venial, it would be difficult to characterize the American government’s performance of the last several years more succinctly than does that final phrase.   But Madison himself tops it with this zinger: “Congress from a defect of adequate Statesmen more likely to fall into wrong measures and of less weight to enforce right ones…”

            I ask you in all candor, and entirely without partisan inflection, whether you can point to any member of Congress whom you would identify as a Statesman, let alone an “adequate” one?  The population of the United States is now roughly a hundred times what it was in 1780.  The voting franchise has been hugely expanded since that time.  What we now count as the first Congress didn’t meet until 1789.  How is it to be explained, then, that in and around this pathetic group of Continental congressionals of whom Madison is complaining there were probably twenty undoubted Statesmen?  On the other hand, no current member of Congress is a slave-holder, either.  The only Africans covered by Nullo discrimine, unfortunately, were Carthaginians.   So there is gain, and there is loss.