I have been wondering what James Madison, the namesake of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, would think about the 2016 presidential contest. Madison, commonly acknowledged as the Father of the Bill of Rights, did not shy away from political controversy, but even he may have been chagrined at the tone and tenor of our recent election.
The contentious election season left many Americans stunned, both by its results and by its aftermath. The media, exercising its First Amendment rights, told us for months that the election outcome was certain — and the final vote surprised us all. In the days leading up to and following the election, individuals across the political spectrum felt threatened as they expressed their political opinions. There was angry name-calling. Some friendships were broken. Attempts to disrupt political events and peaceful protests occurred throughout the country.
Freedom of speech, freedom to assemble peaceably, and freedom of religious thought and practice have all been challenged on our nation’s streets, campuses, political rallies, and through some social media posts.
The nation seems utterly divided. How do we heal a public that has been wounded by angry and verbal insults? How do our cities heal when their downtowns have been overrun by people voicing their anger through violent protests? How do we go forward as a nation if the protections of our Bill of Rights are continually ignored, challenged and misunderstood?
As calmer heads prevail in the days to come, we will certainly witness the lawful and peaceful transition of power, but probably not without protest — both lawful and otherwise. The challenges to the Bill of Rights, the most significant protection for individual citizens against government excess, will likely continue.
James Madison himself initially rejected the call to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. Only when challenged by James Monroe in the heat of a congressional campaign about his views on religious liberty did Madison assert his commitment to a bill of rights. On winning his congressional seat, Madison went to work proving Monroe wrong by drafting and securing the successful passage of the Bill of Rights in Congress.
Committed to the values of limited government and individual liberty, Madison ultimately advocated for a bill of rights to “fortify the rights of the people against the encroachments of government.”
There is something profoundly powerful when citizens understand their civic responsibilities and exercise their rights as they fulfill those responsibilities. As Madison said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Only citizens with knowledge and understanding of our nation’s constitutional principles can preserve our liberty.
Established by Congress in 1986, the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation was created to strengthen the teaching of the history and the principles of the Constitution in America’s secondary schools.
Today, nearly 1,500 James Madison Fellows, including U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. (a New Jersey Fellow from the Class of 1995) and National Council for the Social Studies President Peggy Jackson (a New Mexico Fellow from the Class of 2002), are helping students and colleagues better understand and appreciate the protections of the Bill of Rights.
Foundation Trustees Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, are staunch advocates of improved and expanded civic education. As Mr. Cornyn notes, “There is a fundamental need to teach young people, who will be tomorrow’s citizens, knowledge and understanding of the basic principles of limited government and constitutional liberty on which individual freedom and public good depend.”
But James Madison Fellows cannot alone provide the requisite knowledge and skills for our citizenry. The cure for this social ill must be a renewed national emphasis on civic education in our local school districts, encouraged by state and national governments. A handful of nonprofits, supported by just a few philanthropic sources, emphasize improved civic education as their primary mission, but much more is required if we are going to reverse the decline in civic knowledge.
In 1822, James Madison wondered, “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”
If our generation needs the Bill of Rights to protect our liberties, future generations will need the Bill of Rights even more. Only a renewed determination to educate our citizens about the Bill of Rights can provide the much-needed support for our freedoms.
• Lewis F. Larsen is president of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia. (www.jamesmadison.gov)
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