Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Takeaways from Madison's Montpelier, Part III

This is the third post in a series about my experience at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison. The week included readings, lectures, tours, and groups discussions. Here are the first and second posts transcribed from my notes from the week. Just a friendly reminder, these ideas are mine and are not necessarily those endorsed by the Center for the Constitution. Here is part three of my takeaways:

Both because of structural changes by states and the increased power of political parties, the electoral college does not function like it was originally intended. Though I have no idea if there is a politically feasible was to fix it.

When a court rules, it's labeled an "opinion". That's important when understand the fallibility of the judiciary.

Federalism, that is division of power between the parts and whole, existed in Old Testament Jerusalem with the twelve tribes.

The Constitution was meant to restrict the government's ability to be swayed by the people's "passion".

Nowadays people complain about the partisan griping in Washington, DC, longing for the days when American politicians were more harmonious. Although it may be measurably worse, that is hard to measure, that harmonious time never existed. One of the first meetings of our nation's leaders to discuss the federal government's duties had to take a day off because things got so intense.

It is important to note, most (probably all) of the drafters of the Constitution were frustrated with it. It was built on compromise.

Key to understanding anything: What is the relationship of the parts to the whole?

Do not be fooled by false options. Sometimes the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Counterintuitive teaching is not only interesting, it's Biblical. Jesus himself is regularly quoting using this format: "You may heard this, but the truth is this".

In any discussion, ask yourself if the opposite is also true.

Originally the founders were afraid of a overly powerful legislature. Overtime, it has the executive and judicial branches that have increased their power the most. Look at how often the legislature simply looks the president for leadership. This has occurred because the people love the presidency, and the presidents allow it.

When the executive does the job the legislative branch, it fails to do it's own job effectively.

The power to declare war rests with Congress, from Madison's perspective, to prevent the executive from grabbing more power during a time of crisis. This balance fails when we have quasi-wars: Vietnam Conflict, War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc. This is partially discussed by John Yoo on the Daily Show.

James Madison is the only American to make the executive powers and then use them. For this reason alone we should pay more attention to his presidency.

Every "great" president is one that stretched the bounds of his position.

Though James Madison thought building more roads and canals would unite the country to great benefit, his last act as president was to veto that legislation on the grounds that is was unconstitutional. Today the Supreme Court is seen as the only branch required to make such decisions.

In our loud times, we can' appreciate a quite leader. We praise the showman, not the workman.

One of the speakers for the week emphasized the original role of impeachment as a punishment for politicians overstepping their bounds. Sadly, it has mostly been used for petty crimes (not following a contrived law or lying under oath).  Crimes should be punished legally. Constitutional matters should go the Senate. However, impeachment can't be used correctly unless the people understand the Constitution.

James Madison was a politician that learned and changed his mind. Do we want our politicians to be learning on the job? Jon Stewart certainly doesn't when he plays competing sound bites.

If James Madison was born today, which party do you think he would join? The automatic answer for me was the Libertarian Party, which would probably agree with him on issues the most. However, I don't think he would join a party of government opposition that is so in the minority they cannot participate realistically in government. There is some wisdom from him there.

It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

Saying there is a trade off between government and freedom is a false choice. Here's a quote from Stephen Colbert that puts it nicely: "I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."

As I sat in what I called "nerd camp" I had to ask myself, and the group, if what we were doing really mattered. Sure 40 teachers were convinced of the benefits of Constitutional presidencies and together we may convince 4000 students, but that is just a fraction of the voting public. The group decided it does matter, because America has a lot to gain from learning what we have to teach.


  1. "Saying there is a trade off between government and freedom is a false choice." Wow, Harrison. Never expected to hear that from you.

  2. Something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

    There is definitely a positive relationship between government and liberty at the outset (think the Articles of Confederation). Eventually though the parabola does turn downward (think communism).

    Where that change happens is still gray for me.

  3. Anonymous1:37 PM

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. The National Popular Vote bill does not try to abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President (for example, ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote) have come about without federal constitutional amendments, by state legislative action.

    On June 14, 2010, after a detailed study of the issue in 2009 involving over 6,500 League members from over 200 local Leagues, the League of Women Voters endorsed the National Popular Vote bill at their annual convention in Atlanta.. "We support the use of the National Popular Vote Compact as one acceptable way to achieve the goal of the direct popular vote for election of the president until the abolition of the Electoral College is accomplished"

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%, Iowa --75%, Michigan-- 73%, Missouri-- 70%, New Hampshire-- 69%, Nevada-- 72%, New Mexico-- 76%, North Carolina-- 74%, Ohio-- 70%, Pennsylvania -- 78%, Virginia -- 74%, and Wisconsin -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Maine -- 77%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, and Vermont -- 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas --80%, Kentucky -- 80%, Mississippi --77%, Missouri -- 70%, North Carolina -- 74%, and Virginia -- 74%; and in other states polled: California -- 70%, Connecticut -- 74% , Massachusetts -- 73%, Minnesota -- 75%, New York -- 79%, Washington -- 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 30 state legislative chambers, in 20 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  4. Yeah Anonymous! I can't wait till only Texas and California get to decide who's president!


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.