July 4th is one of my favorite holidays. To begin, I’m a summer person with a July birthday. This is always a holiday where I can count on my kind of weather – warm! But it’s also a time for a guy like me to reflect on what I love about my country instead of what I don’t.
What I DON’T love about my country is the way its politicians and media-talking-heads wield their power these days. Yes, I go to the voting booth and cast my ballots. And yes I subscribe to two daily newspapers and watch cable news fairly frequently. But when I evaluate the performance of the lawmakers, the investigative journalists, or the gas bags on the tube, all I can do is lament the gulf between those power brokers and the ones I celebrate on July 4th – the ones that most excite my patriotism. The sad thing is, most of them have been dead for well over a hundred years.
This July 4th, my daughter Rebecca and I headed south into the region of Virginia known as the Piedmont. Typically, when lovers of history think about celebrating July 4th in the Piedmont, their minds immediately turn to Monticello, the home of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence on that date in 1776. Monticello is my favorite spot in America, and Jefferson is my favorite American historical figure. But yesterday, Rebecca and I decided to leave Monticello to the casual tourists. We drove instead to two more esoteric sites -- the homes of Jefferson’s two immediate successors in the White House, who also happened to be two of his best friends.
Our day started at Montpelier, the home of the nation’s fourth President, James Madison. I heard one of the Montpelier docents refer to Madison as an “underappreciated” President. And that got me wondering, could that really be true? Madison is widely known as the Father of the Constitution and is one of the two primary authors of the Federalist Papers, the critical document used to sell the Constitution to our fledgling Republic. Given those accomplishments, not to mention the fact that he served for eight years as President at a time when the young nation was at risk of foreign takeover, how can people possibly not fully appreciate Madison?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the docent was right. Madison is kind of a forgotten man, at least relative to his accomplishments. His visage can’t be found on any commonly used piece of currency. There are no legends about him that have found their way into American culture. He is not a figure who has made his way into Hollywood productions. He’s not a war hero. And he’s not even the central Virginian intellectual from the early days of the Republic that people most like to speak about. So yeah, why did we go visit the home of this schmoe, anyway?
I’ll tell you why – because Madison is a national treasure. He overcame severe depression to create a set of laws that have remarkably stood the test of time. This guy was a true philosopher, whose genius resulted not from having invented an original system of political ideas but rather from knowing how to take the state-of-the-art political philosophies of folks like Montesquieu and Locke and turn them into a living, breathing set of practical applications. Do you appreciate, for example, a government that remains religiously neutral, and that carefully separates power between the federal government and the states as well as between the various branches of the federal government? Thank James Madison.
Some politicians go into the occupation for the glory. They like the cut of their own jib – and the fact that their name is always in the paper. Madison? There’s a man, we were told at his house, who didn’t even sit at the end of the table in his own dining room. His wife Dolly had that honor. James placed himself in the middle where he could pick and choose the conversation in which to participate, or simply to eavesdrop on.
One of the parts of the tour I found most interesting was the stop in Madison’s first floor study – the place of his death. The docent explained that one of the doors to the study opens right up to the dining room. When Madison was an octogenarian suffering from severe arthritis, he would lie on his bed in the study and, without seeing the folks in the dining room, simply join in their conversation. I got the feeling that this wasn’t a vain man. He was just someone who loved to learn and to serve. And boy, did he ever serve. For as much as we love Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, is there another document in our National Archives more impressive than Madison’s Constitution?
Yes, I know that Madison owned slaves. But given that he was an affluent white Virginian, you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold that against him. He was simply behaving in that regard the way people of his lot in life behaved. No matter how much they traded for in the market, slaves commonly functioned as the bulk of a plantation owner’s assets; and back then, just like today, few people give away the bulk of their assets.
Aside from the slavery issue, the problem I had with Madison’s house was his graveyard. It is a beautiful little graveyard, but there was something seriously amiss. Madison’s gravestone was significantly larger than all the others. Even Dolly’s was dwarfed by the stone celebrating our fourth President. That didn’t feel right to me. It didn’t seem in keeping with the Madison I love. He was a republican with a small “r” and a democrat with a small “d.” I wouldn’t think he’d want such a fuss made about him as an individual. Wasn’t he just Jefferson’s “little brother”? Hell, he barely won re-election in 1812 – and look at what that year has come to symbolize – the burning of our nation’s capital by foreign troops.
I suspect that, as Presidents go, Madison’s head didn’t swell up. And that’s kind of why I love him. That and the Constitution. We owe the man a lot – and a pilgrimage to Montpelier is the least we can do.
Truth be told, Montpelier was the destination I most looked forward to when I woke up on the morning of the 4th. But my final destination, Ashlawn-Highland, turned out to be at least as meaningful. If Madison was Jefferson’s little brother, Monroe was the little brother’s, little brother. Though one thing I learned at his home is that Monroe and Madison weren’t always good friends. It was Jefferson who brought these two former political opponents together; essentially, the great Jefferson got to pick his two ideological siblings and foisted them on each other. But I get the impression that as they grew older, both Madison and Monroe appreciated the set-up.
We don’t even have to look past the years of Madison’s Presidency to see how much he respected Monroe during the last half of their lives. Monroe served, contemporaneously, as his big brother’s Secretary of State AND his Secretary of War. I can hardly fathom how that can be possible, but Monroe pulled it off, and went on to win two terms in the White House, just like his older “brothers.”
The docent at Ashlawn-Highland had a couple of agendas. First, she had to explain to visitors who had just come down the road from the much more palatial Monticello, which was only two miles away, that Ashlawn-Highland was still a pretty darned sweet residence as early-19th century residences go. And second, that James Monroe needs to be remembered as great in his own right, and not simply as one of those non-descript Presidents like the eight who followed Andrew Jackson and preceded Abraham Lincoln.
I listened for the docent to identify something about Monroe that was truly unique and memorable. It wouldn’t have been hard for his predecessors. Washington was the modern Cincinnatus, who could have been king but opted instead to be “just” a President. Adams was the voice of Revolution, the little engine that could, whose force of will made sure that a group of colonies never gave up the dream of independence. Jefferson was the quintessential Renaissance Man, about whom it was said after JFK once assembled “the best and the brightest” of his day, that “this was the greatest assemblage of intellect in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” And, as we have seen, James Madison drafted our most prized political document – arguably the most influential secular document since the Magna Carta.
By contrast, what the hell can we say about Monroe that we can’t say about, for example, Millard Fillmore?
For one thing, as the docent reminded visitors to Ashlawn-Highland, when Jefferson and Hamilton wanted someone who can “get things done,” they called upon Monroe. No, he wasn’t an orator. No, he wasn’t much of a writer; as they’d say today, he was prosaic, not poetic, and anything but quotable. But he was a tireless public servant. And was he ever a diplomat. I don’t mean that in the sense of a person who speaks with the right euphemism, but rather in the sense of knowing the wisest positions to take and the proper way to advocate them so as to accomplish our greatest political objectives on the world stage.
Stated differently, if our society today ever truly got sick and tired of watching Israelis and Palestinians fight over a small land mass in the Middle East and had at our disposal a functioning time machine, I’m thinking we might just want to summon James Monroe and whisk him off to Jerusalem. If anyone could get that dispute ironed out, it’s him. It’s no coincidence that after he served as Secretaries of War/Peace and became President, they named his tenure the “Era of Good Feeling.” When it comes to statecraft, that man just got it.
And yet we’ve just forgotten him. Again, let’s please remedy that failure.
Before Rebecca and I left Ashlawn, we hung out on the lawn with one of the “re-enactors” who was wearing the garb of a soldier in the early Republic and was kind enough to show visitors what it was like to fire one of the old early 19th century rifles. He reminded us that before we get overly sentimental about the leaders of yesteryear, we might want to keep in mind that the partisan squabbles back at the beginning of the 18th century could be every bit as vicious if not more so than the political jousting we hear about today. And he also called to our attention that lest we invariably read the noblest of motives into the conduct of our founding fathers, we might want to “follow the money,” for therein lies human motivation more often than not.\
Given that this blog is called the “Empathic Rationalist,” I suppose I should be hard-headed enough to think about the re-enactor’s words and not romanticize the past into something utopian. But there is something about the early days of our nation’s history, and in particular, the stories of those who led us during those pivotal decades, that never ceases to leave me humbled and appreciative. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to keep my eyes dry inside those two houses – and I am a man who doesn’t cry often. Something overtakes me when I consider men like Madison and Monroe.
Maybe I am moved a bit by the fact that those men remain underappreciated. But there are many underappreciated historical figures, and I am not nearly so moved by thinking about them. The difference is that these men in particular grappled on a very practical basis with our species’ fundamental questions of political philosophy, and through a combination of luck, pluck, brains, and common sense, they showed us all THE WAY.
At a time when one Pope is conferring sainthood on another, in part due to his predecessor’s alleged “miracles,” I nominate two secular figures for that same title. And the beauty is, we don’t even have to call what they accomplished a “miracle.” We can just call it a holy land.
At a time when people are rioting in Egypt over the birth pangs of democracy, let us not forget that the great republican experiment known as the United States is still going strong after 237 years. No, it’s not perfect, but if we all had the brains and the work ethic of a Madison or a Monroe, it could be pretty damned close.