Posted: 2009-03-08

The Great Collaboration

The founding of the United States forged many friendships and many of those are worthy of note. There is the one between George Washington and James Madison. Washington was a military man, and his nature tended toward the chain of command. As the first president, he was expected to establish the required balance between command and cooperation that defines a co-equal branch of a democratic government. Madison played an important role in moderating Washington's more imperialist preconceptions, and helped to form the President as an equal citizen with towering responsibility and limited power.

There was the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. During the Revolutionary War they strategized and fought together. They (along with Benjamin Franklin) travelled to France and negotiated treaties with the European powers. The correspondence between Jefferson and Adams throughout their lives reflected the storms of controversy that raged between two old friends who disagreed on nearly everything but could not abandon their deep respect for each other.

Madison and Hamilton (along with John Jay) worked closely together on The Federalist Papers, the early and eloquent explanation of the nature and meaning of the Constitution. Madison was an agrarian, and believed that the best use of American labor was on the family farm. Hamilton, an industrialist, believed that the manufacturing of goods held the best hope for America's future. Madison was left-wing, insisting that the common man be the primary source of governance. Hamilton was right-wing, insisting at first that the presidency be a lifetime appointment. Nonetheless, despite the fact that liberalism's greatest voice, Thomas Jefferson, was in France during its construction, the U.S. Constitution with its shocking infrastructure of popular rule was signed by both Hamilton and Madison.

In various historical records, each of those friendships is sometimes referred to as a "great collaboration." When we consider the Great Collaboration though, we are referring to its most common usage — that association between Thomas Jefferson and his friend James Madison. Thomas Jefferson was a radical in the best sense of that term. Radical derives from the Greek radice meaning root. A radical is one who attacks the root of the problem. Conservatism and political opportunism, however, tend to resist the radical. It was Madison (a somewhat more cautious and politically savvy liberal) who tempered Jefferson's proposals making them more palatable to the Congress and ensuring him some degree of political success.

Seeing how laws could become implausible traditions that plagued the populace, Jefferson proposed that each law should last for only one generation and then expire. When he wrote of this to Madison, his radical idea was reviewed in light of the sentiments of the day and went no further. Madison, though younger, held a more practical view of politics and contributed that tempering influence to Jeffersonian brilliance. Jefferson believed that the land was a common gift to all men and that every family should have land and be secure in its use. Modern political commentators would call this Communism. Jefferson simply saw it as justice. Jefferson also believed that the presidency should be term limited. It took the better part of 200 years for that to become common wisdom. Through their long friendship, Madison tempered Jefferson's views, assuring a governmental structure that could be accepted by the representatives of the time.

Madison and Jefferson, serving in 1776 on Virginia's Revolutionary Council, drafted a Guarantee of Religious Freedom. At the time, Virginia maintained a State Church and this was an attempt to dis-establish it. The resolution did not pass because, the story goes, Madison did not provide free whisky to the electors. One could imagine the lesson Madison learned from that failure.

Madison is remembered as the father of the Constitution. Influenced by recommendations he received regularly by post from Jefferson, it was Madison who actually crafted much of the structure and wording of our founding document. There were compromises intended to assure the support of conservatives such as Adams and Hamilton; but the document itself remains a revolutionary treatise on human liberty. In its pages lie no evidence of king or subject. The legislative branch is not similar to the British Parliament of the time but more a scholarly amalgam of the mechanisms of ancient Sparta and Athens. Considering the wide array of opinions held by the representatives of the thirteen states, ranging from agrarian slave-holders in the south to industrial libertarians in the north, Madison's shepherding skills seem nothing short of miraculous. The result of his labor remains a hallmark of republican design to this day, recognizing the individual as the ultimate governing power.

The Bill of Rights, which was approved shortly after ratification of the Constitution, does not guarantee rights to citizens; but instead, merely recognizes rights inherent to all people. The Bill of Rights does not seem to apply only to American Citizens. In fact the word "citizen" is not used in the first ten amendments. The rights apply to "persons" and "the people." It defines a government bowed in righteous deference to humanity itself.

Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of Independence and Madison, the father of the Constitution shared a common reverence for democratic governance and the communication skills necessary to propagate it. When Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, the nation was fuming for rebellion. Jefferson distilled the boiling cauldron of dissent into a brilliant document that presented the seething discontent of the colonies on a chilled platter of Socratic reason. None of Jefferson's ideas were too radical for the oppressed landowners hankering for deadly violence. After the war, and after the painful decade as a loose confederation of colonies, a more sober assembly gathered to form a meaningful democratic federation. It is not clear if the final draft of the Constitution would have been possible if Jefferson had been directly involved in the negotiations. I personally believe that the necessary compromises required that Jefferson's ideas be filtered at every point through Madison's pragmatic sieve; and yet, without Jefferson's constant prodding, the document might have fallen short of the bold experiment it has birthed.

Ours is a constitution that both limits the power of government to infringe upon basic rights and also empowers an active government to preserve those rights. The government is not the enemy because the government is we ourselves. The President is not our leader, he is our employee. Our representative represents us and we serve our role as citizens by keeping that person always aware of our views, praising for wise votes and clearly disapproving of error. If your speed dial doesn't include your representative and your senators, you are not fulfilling the function that the founders envisioned for you.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Constitution is also an enigmatic document. It repeats a specific date a few times and the words around that date seem to make no sense. The date is 1808. While the northern states sought to abolish slavery in their new land, the southern states held out their firm conviction to preserve it. There were already southern states that were rethinking this. Virginia, for example, was already suffering misgivings regarding the practice and a few anaemic laws were being put in place to simplify the transition of African slaves to free men (usually by exporting them to Liberia). Unfortunately, most of the southern states were unswerving. After weeks of arguing it became clear that the southern states would not join the union if slavery were prohibited.

In this regard our founding fathers suffered a brief bout with cowardice. In order to solidify the thirteen states into one union, it was agreed that the subject of slavery would not be discussed in the halls of congress for twenty years. The Constitution never uses the word "slave" but it does call out "persons held to service or labor." It identifies the year 1808 (twenty years after ratification) as the last year of the moratorium against that not-to-be-mentioned topic.

Benjamin Franklin, from what I can determine, was the only founder to violate the ban. He brought a bill before congress in 1790 to abolish slavery. The congress responded as if Franklin (a Quaker) had spat in their beer. They were shocked and confused. They couldn't refute his reasoning but, honestly, they'd all decided to avoid this subject. Even discussing whether to discuss it represented a breach of the carefully crafted contract. In the end, Franklin (then a very old statesman) was turned out of the chambers. He died with many great accomplishments to his name. Abolition of slavery in the U.S. was not one of them.

We have found that reading and listening to the Constitution has proved to be enlightening. It is a rich document which, like Shakespeare, can be understood in different ways in different contexts. Taking an hour out of a week to listen to it seems to always bring out something new. To read it out loud with fellow citizens boldly claims it as our own.

If you've read this far then you're interested enough in the Constitution to host a reading. All the materials you'll need are on this website. Voice the Constitution with friends, neighbors and total strangers, then let us know how it went. We've posted our readings to get things started. Let us know how else we can help. Contact Julian or Janette with any questions. We'll do our best to help.

        Julian S. Taylor


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