Monday, June 28, 2010

Takeaways from Madison's Montpelier, Part I

I spent last week in the foothills of Virginia at James Madison's home, Montpelier. I attended a tour and lecture series, along with forty other social studies teachers from around the country, on "James Madison and Constitutional Citizenship". I should preface with a reminder that these are my reflections on the week, not those endorsed by the center. That said, here's the first part of my takeaways:

 Because the trip was paid for by the National Endowment for the Humanities (am I a hypocrite?), we were reminded that we were here "in the interest of the American people, at the expense of the American people". Now if we can just get our students to believe that.

Answering the wrong question with the right answer is still wrong. Figure out what needs to be figured out.

Government is not oppressive, the people are.

All learning is counterintuitive, if it wasn't you'd already know it.

Ignorance in the mind is tyranny in the state.

The US Constitution is written in the present tense. We are "We the People". Or as Jefferson put it "the earth belongs to the living".

It makes much more sense for the president to take his oath of office on the Constitution than the Bible.

James Madison, unlike his more famous counterpart Thomas Jefferson, was a powerful speaker not because he was overly emotional or great with language, but because we was well read, well prepared, and well respected.

If you are considering a law, first ask yourself: "is the problem worth coercion". Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

James Madison, "the father of the Constitution", did not want the rhetoric of the original drafters of the Constitution to be used to interpret it in the future. He wanted the Constitution to be interpreted by each successive generation. This really calls into question the phrase "strict constructionist". This can be seen in how Madison deals with the National Bank over time.

Who benefits from complicated constantly changing law? Lawyers.

We discern truth by holding it up to every argument. We then are the jury.

Madison is America's best pragmatic reformer. Guess who's second best?

There is value to be found in the gray. Black and white issues are easy, embrace the complicated.

"Common sense" comes from our common heritage.

Though the founding fathers did not free slaves, it was probably politically impossible, they made sure not to protect its future. In fact, the 5th Amendment even applied to slaves.

When Madison speaks about tyranny he knows what he's talking about. On slave holding Montpelier, he is a tyrant.

To Madison, prudence is the most important characteristic of a good citizen. Mine would probably be indifference toward issues that don't concern you.

Not only was it legal, but also possible that Marquis De Lafayette, a french born American citizen could have been president. Here's Article II, Section 1, Clause 5: "No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution".

The Tea Act, which eventually led to the Boston Tea Party, actually made tea cheaper to the colonists. It was the smugglers that would be hurt by it.

In nature we are all equal. We must agree on that before we create a political system.

One speaker asked this question: "Do you love your ideology more than you love your country?" I'm not sure what my answer would be.

The point of being a representative republic was to prevent mob rule. In the 1700's the mob was the lower class.

One of the most unique things about America is that we made ourselves.

The Constitution is the past restraining the present from harming the future.


  1. I love freedom more than I love my country. But I love my God more than I love my freedom.

  2. Me too, but that wasn't the question. Do you love your ideas (and their results) more than you love you country (and by country I mean what your nation represents, not the people in it)?

  3. Nice post. In particular "All learning is counterintuitive," which is a brilliant line I wish I'd thought of myself.

  4. Very interesting. I, too, was struck by "All learning is counterintuitive, if it wasn't you'd already know it."

    I don't think I agree with it though. Much of learning is making conscious what you already knew unconsciously. That's what the best writers and best comedians do: They make observations that make perfect intuitive sense but that you had yet to explicitly consider.

  5. Are you sure that is the question, Harrison? "What your nation represents" sounds like ideology to me. Why couldn't Madison have meant "the people in it" by "your country?"

  6. Welcome to my neighborhood! Hope the weather wasn't too hot!

    I agree with Justin re: learning being counterintuitive. I'll add that a lot of what we teach ourselves is simply discovery of the unknown (to us).

    Were these all insights generally shared on the tour, or did you have a special guide, or did you pick this up in your research as a result of the trip?

  7. Per the counterintuitive line: Great comments all around. Perhaps I should change it to "All learning is counterintuitive, except when it's not".

    Per the ideology line: Maybe I misinterpreted the question. To me it felt like a sense of patriotism was being asked, not humanism. I love people (or at least want to) of all nations, and I think my ideology will result in their best outcome. Or even if it doesn't, most of my ideology is allowing them to do what they want. So if its not good for them, it's probably their fault.

    Per the insights question: The lines with quotes around them were from one of the lecturers. The rest were later reflections on what was discussed.

    Thanks for all your thoughts everyone and don't forget, this is only part one!

  8. Hey cousin, I think we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to give up our creature comforts freely and defend our nation, our laws, and the right for the rest of us to sit in Starbucks and wax eloquent about the Hollywood gossip. Many Americans do just that everyday - as Americans we need to focus on God, Family, and Country not Satellite TV, Espresso, and Mutual Funds.

  9. Although I think there is value to what you are saying Donna, I'm very weary of patriotic speech that asks citizens to make sacrifices for thier nation. Nations exist to defend those TV's, espressos and mutual funds.

  10. I thought this was really interesting: There is value to be found in the gray. Black and white issues are easy, embrace the complicated.

    As well as the counterintuitive learning part. In economics, I like to think that a lot of it is very intuitive (ie. the law of demand), but the terminology and way of formalizing intuitive concepts is sometimes very counterintuitive.

  11. Thanks Liz. Your comments about economics are spot on. In some ways, economics is an intuition all to itself.


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