365 Days of Earrings

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reclaiming Madison's Constitution

I went on a pilgrimage today. My husband John and I drove southeast, through the Virginia countryside, to the home of James Madison, the father of the United States Constitution. For me, this is truly hallowed ground.

As a senior in high school, I read many excerpts of the Federalist Papers, learning through primary documents about the arguments that Madison used to persuade his countrymen to ratify the constitution. We learned that Madison devised the "Virginia Plan," creating the balance of powers. He was the only member of the Constitutional Convention to arrive with a comprehensive plan. He lobbied, he negotiated, he worked it out. Ever since, I have thought of Madison as a master researcher, writer, compromiser, and persuader.

I last visited Montpelier in 2000 when my daughter Phoebe, age 8, was fascinated with Presidents. She took notes. Montpelier then belonged to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and much of the tour showed renovations done by Marion duPont Scott, an heiress who hosted large parties related to the horse-racing venue she created on the property. Since 2003, the Montpelier Foundation has restored the house to the conditions when James and Dolley Madison called it home. Montpelier now rivals the greatness of Monticello and Mount Vernon. Of the three, it is my favorite.

Today I sat in the second-floor library where Madison spent the winter of 1789 to 1790 crafting the Bill of Rights. According to the film shown there, in preparation for writing the constitution, he read 400 books in 7 languages. I sat within those same 4 walls. Looked out the same windows toward the frontier. The floorboards are original. A hallowed place.

Our government is paralyzed by people who refuse to compromise, or even to listen to each others ideas. Our founding fathers conducted research in foreign languages, wrote persuasive essays, negotiated and made deals... That is the spirit in which the constitution was written.

Madison did his best to cobble* together a document that was acceptable to the people of our infant nation. Then, he persuaded them to add 10 amendments, our Bill of Rights. Stone by stone he built a foundation. We need a modern mason to come along and restore the spirit of Madison's constitution--not to restore the archaic beliefs like slavery and misogeny that were accepted in Madison's day. It's time to reclaim the constitution for Madison.

*"Cobble together" is a shoemaker allusion. But cobbles are stones. I cobbled together these earrings a few days ago. Stone by stone. That's how progress is made. Stone by stone.

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