One of our great American political pastimes is the effort to link the Founding Fathers to one’s own political perspective. It is, after all, the ultimate validation of what passes for a political position or ideology these days.
This past week, one such expression of Founding Father prescience has been circulating the Internet. It is allegedly (more on that in a moment) part of an essay published by James Madison in the old New York Post, the newspaper owned by Madison’s partner in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton.
It reads like this:
We are free today substantially but the day will come when our Republic will be an impossibility. It will be impossibility because wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. A republic cannot stand upon bayonets, and when that day comes, when the wealth of the nation will be in the hands of a few, then we must rely upon the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions.
Talk about seeing into the future! It’s like Madison was moving through time to grab a glimpse of the nation he birthed 225 years into the future.
While Madison’s statement leaves little room for doubt as to what one of our more remarkable founders thought about the challenges his creation would face in the years to come (fortunately, the nation’s 4th president wrote in understandable English rather than the confusing quatrains of Nostradamus), it turns out to be extremely difficult to source this statement in order to insure that Madison actually offered these words.
Isn’t that always the way with the great prognosticators?
The best authority for the notion that Madison did, indeed, issue this remarkable prediction comes from its inclusion in a book published in 1972, entitled The Great Quotations: The Wit and Wisdom of the Ages. The book was written by George Seldes who is believed to have spent some thirty years researching the book for accuracy.
The alleged essay is also quoted in a 1900 piece written by Daniel De Leon, a leader of the American Socialist Movement whose writings drew comparisons and distinctions between Madison and Karl Marx.
While it is up to the reader to determine whether these sources are trustworthy, the quote would seem to make sense when viewed through the prism of Madison’s personal experience. Consider that the very experiment in government that Madison and his co-founders were embarking upon was a repudiation of an English system completely controlled by the wealthy aristocracy for the aristocracy. Consider further that America, in the days of Madison, viewed organizations formed to accumulate wealth—such as corporations—to be highly suspect. So much was this the case, corporations of Madison’s era were extremely limited in what they were permitted to do. Indeed, most states did not allow corporations to own property or to venture beyond the business purpose expressly stated when filing for their charter. Corporations were further limited in how long they were permitted to exist before being required by law to wind up its operations.
It is also worth noting that, in addition to Madison’s prediction that the nation would someday face its end as a result of the concentration of wealth, he additionally warns, in the quote in question, against allowing our nation to be built on war when he writes, “A republic cannot stand upon bayonets… “
Madison would repeat his concerns about this ‘double threat’ in another of his admonitions found in the following quote, this one more easily sourced:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. [Emphasis added.]
Via Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (1865), Vol. IV, p. 491
So, how is it that today’s voices and representatives of the wealthy and the war-makers are the very same people in our society who pretend to rely most heavily on what they tell us is a strict interpretation of the Constitution and the intent of the Founders?
Clearly, this would appear to be a disingenuous point of view when none other than James Madison—often referred to as “The Father Of The Constitution”—reaches out from the past to tell us he not only vehemently disagrees with such an interpretation of his intentions but went so far as to predict that this exact behavior would be our undoing.
More likely, we have arrived at the day James Madison warned us would come. We have arrived at the day where our Republic is becoming “an impossibility” as we witness astounding wealth disparity and watch in amazement as states throughout the nation under GOP control work to disenfranchise voters. We have arrived at the day when we seem to exist in a permanent state of warfare.
We have arrived at the day when we must now “rely on the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions.”
So, who represents the wisdom of the best elements of the country?
Is it Herman Cain who tells us that the unemployed have nobody to blame but themselves? Is it Mitt Romney who wants us to believe that bankers are people just like the rest of us, despite the fact they are paid millions per year while so many of the ‘rest of us’ are either unable to make a living or just barely eking out enough to put food on the table? Is it Rick Perry who believes that one of the most important government programs to aid and support the middle class and the poor in their old age is nothing but a Ponzi scheme?
I don’t think these people, and their skewed understanding of what America is supposed to be about, qualify as the best elements of our country. Far more importantly, neither would James Madison.
This leaves each American to ask themselves if they intend to get behind those who represent the wisdom of the best elements of this country or those who support the politics and policies that will make the United States, in the words of James Madison, “an impossibility”?
As we head into the presidential election season, compare any of the above-listed potential candidates and compare them with the current occupant of the White House. No matter how much disappointment you may feel that you’ve suffered at the hands of the current administration, is there any question whatsoever who is more likely to preserve the nation that James Madison had in mind?
I think Madison’s preference would be clear.