Staying Home on Election Day? What would James Madison Say?

Staying Home on Election Day? What would James Madison Say? October 1, 2016

Staying Home on Election Day. What Would James Madison Say?

Garrett Ward Sheldon is the John Morton Beaty Professor of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Virginia (at Wise). His book, The Political Philosophy of James Madison framed this interview. The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave’s videos can be seen at and he blogs regularly at

Moore: Far too many have tried to convince us that various founders were Bible-believing Christians. In Madison’s case, we do have a pretty solid example, don’t we?

Sheldon: Madison’s uniformly Christian family environment and education, as well as his constant references to Scripture and the Faith show he is one of the most believing of the Founders.  As I argue in the book, we cannot understand his political thought, or the U.S. Constitution without recognizing this Christian perspective in Madison. This is largely Augustinian and Reformed theology, with an emphasis on the reality of the Fall, human sin (even after salvation, in this world), redemption solely through God’s grace, and total reliance on God’s Providence.  This leads into his support of religious freedom, which he saw as the best means of Christian evangelism.

So, America as a “Christian Nation” isn’t the presence of an official state Church, but the liberty and tolerance of all beliefs (and non-beliefs) and the free, full expression and practice of religion (or “free exercise” as the First Amendment states).  Madison, with other evangelicals, had the faith that God would spread the Gospel, and use of His followers would just be enhanced by a free religious environment.  This was proven for Madison, fifty years later when the Faith had spread rapidly through the Second Great Awakening with the Westward expansion and made the United States, as Tocqueville observed in DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, one of the most Christian countries on earth, culturally and morally.  In the Calvinist sense, the church influenced the government, but informally, by having believers as “magistrates” and by rightly advising and correcting the state.

Moore: Is being dubbed “the founder of the Constitution” an accurate descriptor for Madison?

Sheldon: Madison is considered “The Father of the Constitution” for several reasons.  His contributions to the FEDERALIST PAPERS (which argued for the ratification of the Constitution) are the most penetrating and persuasive of the PAPERS.  He kept the best record of the PROCEEDINGS of the Constitutional Convention; he defended the principles of the Constitution throughout his life and career, e.g. in the Virginia Resolutions that defended the rights to Free Speech and Press as well as Due Process of Law against the Federalist assaults on these rights in the Alien and Sedition Acts. Perhaps most importantly, Madison assiduously studied all the historical constitutions between the time he graduated from Princeton and the Constitutional convention and gave an informed rationale for our Constitutional Republic, federalism and rights.

His Christian realism informed the system of “checks and balances”, dividing power and limiting the “ambition”–the political sin–of any one person or group.

Moore: Madison had a realistic view of man’s fallen nature coupled with his conviction that people were made in the image of God. How did these guard him against utopianism on one hand, and pessimism on the other, when it comes to people being able to make any good contribution to society?

Sheldon: I am not a theologian, but it seems that Madison was not a strict Calvinist in that he didn’t believe in “total depravity.”  He certainly repeatedly details the sins, deceptions and evils of man; but he says there is a certain amount of virtue in human nature, allowing self-government and freedom, so we don’t have to have a brutal state to keep people down and in line.  It may be the influence of John Locke that has a certain optimism that a “moral law” inside people shows them that to enjoy their own rights to life, liberty and property they have to respect those rights in others (and not kill, steal and enslave).  Locke says the state can be “limited” to basically the judicial function, leaving other aspects of life to individuals, because only a few are criminals.

Moore: I was surprised to see Madison following reflection on Franklin: “…little did I ever except to hear Jeremiah’s Doctrine that ‘the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.’” Given Madison’ realistic view of man’s sin, what caused him to be surprised in this instance?

Sheldon: That reference to the shock that Franklin was a traitor (a rumor at one time) was not so much that such evil could exist, but that Franklin was considered such a patriot.

Moore: Why did Madison later align more with Jefferson and less with the Federalists?

Sheldon: Madison worked with Jefferson from early in the Revolution.  He was more in favor of a strong central government to balance the authority of the states than Jefferson, but they agreed on most things.  Madison, with Jefferson, split from the other Federalist, notably Adams and Hamilton when the latter expanded the power of Washington, DC beyond Constitutional limits (especially in federal control of the economy, and violation of Constitutional rights to Free Speech, Press and Due Process of Law).  They went on the form the “Democrat-Republican” Party which defeated the Federalists in 1800 and represented the “will of the common people” for the next several decades.

Moore: I was struck by how others believed Madison was not necessarily as intelligent as Jefferson, but they found him “more profound.” Would you fill out why that was the case?

Sheldon: I’ve written much on Jefferson and admire his intellect greatly, especially his “Renaissance Man” qualities of knowing something about everything: politics, philosophy, art, music, architecture, science, agriculture, etc. etc.; but his mind doesn’t have the depth and profundity of Madison’s.

Jefferson is a bit of a Romantic, and poetic; he gets a bit overly emotional and dramatic at times, whereas Madison is cooler and calmer.  Once, while in France and enamored of the Revolutionary change there, Jefferson proposed changing the constitution every twenty years, for each generation.  Madison patiently explained that this would be impossible –and impractical– as people are born every year and it would be hard to define a “generation.” Jefferson quickly agreed. Often, Madison had this calming, rational effect on Jefferson’s more exuberant “flights of fancy.”  That’s why they were such a good team.

Moore: Full disclosure. Right now, I plan to stay home for the coming election. I could give a number of reasons why, but will hold off. Speculate on how Madison might counsel me in this regard?

Sheldon: I think Madison would advise us to follow our Christian conscience in this year’s election.  On principle, he would encourage us to vote for the Presidential candidate who would most respect the Constitution and Rule of Law, our democratic customs and traditions, especially the freedom of religion.






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