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Happy Birthday, James Madison. Thank You for Fighting So Hard for Our Constitution

Wouldn’t it be quite the scandal if the president of the United States were to pimp out his wife and her sister to use their sexual favors to win the endorsement of his influential predecessor? It was a smear that James Madison had to endure in the year leading up to his election and inauguration in 1809 as the young nation’s fourth president. 

Keep that in mind next time you hear someone complain about the “unprecedented” partisanship and harsh tone of today’s politics. And keep in mind what the Founders overcame when politicians and pundits today bemoan the “intractable” problems our nation faces.

Today marks the 260th anniversary of Madison’s birth and an opportunity to remind ourselves that the men who secured the early Republic, starting in the 18th century, endured bitter accusations and political games and struggles that would make many of us blush today. Despite all the struggles and rancor, the Founders succeeded in establishing a republic based on limited government and protection of individual rights. Their struggles should give hope to those who are now fighting to restore government to its proper constitutional bounds.

Today, Americans concerned with restoring constitutional restraints on government face a daunting battle at every turn: fighting for First Amendment free speech rights leading up to federal elections, restoring some meaning to the Commerce Clause by stopping the Obamacare individual mandate to buy health insurance, preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from usurping the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and on and on. Yet the struggle is not unprecedented.

Consider Madison’s fight for ratification of the United States Constitution. The document, now widely revered for its wisdom and (intended) limits on government power, was far from an easy sell. Indeed, it was far from certain that America would even succeed as a nation-state. Back then, James Madison and other leaders feared turbulence and contention between the states. They perceived that lack of a strong federal government was already undermining commerce, ruining monetary policy with runaway inflation, fostering faction between the states, and undermining national defense. In a letter to Madison, George Washington fretted about an “impending storm.”

With tremendous effort and voracious historical and philosophical research, Madison led the effort to make the case for a stronger republic and abandon the Articles of Confederation of 1781, which were conceived as a “league of friendship” between 13 sovereign and independent states. He envisioned a “compound republic,” in which federal powers were limited and enumerated but were also national in their operation.

To achieve these goals, Madison and his allies did what so many columnists, activists, and bloggers do today—they embarked on a daunting national P.R. campaign. In 1787, Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton all penned essays that appeared in New York newspapers and then circulated around the states. In these 85 essays (29 written by Madison), which became known as the Federalist Papers, they made the case for the Constitution.

Consider also the challenge of infighting and disagreements among ideological friends—that is, among fellow champions of liberty. Patrick Henry declined to attend a convention to reconsider the Articles of Confederation, because he “smelt a rat.” Ditto Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Nelson, colonial heroes and signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rhode Island declined to participate entirely in the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Compromise was ultimately needed. The Founders sought to balance power between large and small states, between northern and southern states, and, sadly, between slave and free states. Another necessary compromise consisted of protections and safeguards for liberty, to assuage those most concerned with runaway government power. In 1789, as a member of the new U.S. House of Representatives, Madison introduced the first amendments to the Constitution, now known as the Bill of Rights. On December 15, 1791, those first 10 amendments had been ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution.

It took many contentious years for Madison and his contemporaries to forge the Constitution and lobby for its ratification. Hopefully, the determined efforts of those great men continue to inspire us today to carry on the fight to defend the document they bequeathed to us. The last thing we should want is for Madison and his fellow Founders to call use a bunch of wimps.

Christine Hall is Communications Director for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.