James Madison and Public Opinion
The Role of Citizens in American Republican Government
"public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one."
James Madison “Public Opinion” The National Gazette, December 19th, 1791
Rarely in the course of human history has an idea, and the document which grew out of it, set in motion the massive change in the experience of so many people around the globe, as did the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the political system established by the US Constitution.
On September 17, 1787 after deliberating in secrecy and against all odds through the hot Philadelphia summer , 39 of the 55 delegates representing 12 of the 13 post-revolution states (Rhode Island didn't send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention) , authored the US Constitution, a document that forever changed the relationship of citizens with their government. Building on the ideas and ideals expressed in the Declaration of independence that “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” the delegates provided a democratic framework for our body politic. It was largely due to the efforts of James Madison, who was called by many “the Father of the Constitution”, that the Convention took place at all and that the product of the Convention, the US constitution, was written and approved and then ratified by the citizens of the 13 states.
For the past 10 years I explored Madison’s political philosophy, his analytic skills and personal qualities as he confronted the political dysfunction of his time. I have contemplated how his efforts can guide us through our own current day political dysfunction. I have grown to appreciate Madison’s dedication and contribution to the ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as the skills he employed to construct the architectonic document containing the DNA of our nation’s political institutions.
At this political moment, as Americans are challenged by the COVID-19 Pandemic, economic uncertainty and greater realization about the devastating impact of systemic racism it is understandable that distrust of the federal government and many other institutions is at an all-time high. As many Americans are questioning the value of democracy, it may serve us well to ask what would the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, think of these contemporary developments in American politics. Would he reassess the framing of the challenges he understood to confront the government of the world he lived in? What would he make of our current congress, presidency, courts, media, and most importantly citizens? What would he do to confront the “dysfunction” of the political organism he conceived , helped bring to life and nursed through the first decades of the infant republic? Would he reevaluate his understanding of human nature and their impact on the body politic? How would he refine the diagnosis of the body politic and how would he leverage the developments of the past 233 years to achieve the vision he set forth in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights that he shepherded through the first congress? How would he understand and leverage scientific developments impacting daily life? Most importantly, what would he think about the political deliberative process occurring and how would he seek to “cure” the current “violence of factions”...
Delving into Madison’s view of public opinion serves as a backdrop for an exploration of the contemporary relevance of his views about the importance of public opinion for democracy. In addition to the importance of the checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government and federalism Madison recognized the critical role of citizens within the body politic. Public opinion was a critical aspect of having citizens as sovereigns of their government. Translating the theoretical role of public opinion to practice has been challenging, yet it is no less important today than it was at the founding of the nation. We have had more than two centuries to test the assumptions and diagnoses that Madison had about the body politic and to examine the pathology that we currently experience using tools in modern society, it is important to examine and seek ways to embrace public opinion to reclaim the citizen role within the body politic of the United States in the 21st century.
This article will further explore and provide an answer to the questions about the role of public opinion in a democracy, in particular:
1. Democracy and its challenges
The public sphere and its challenges
Public opinion and the birth of the republic
2. Madison and the start of the nation
3. The Madisonian approach to public opinion
4. The current state and challenges of public opinion
5. The potential for informed citizen engagement (Deliberative Democracy)
6. The framework for case presentation
If you would like to learn more about the effort, or to help with the development of the framework contact us.