Sunday, December 7, 2003

Small, mighty Madison worthy of more respect

By Richard Labunski
Guest columnist

He was barely 5 feet 4, weighed a hundred pounds, had a quiet voice that was often hard to hear, and was so shy he dreaded having to talk to a group larger than a few people. Yet he was a towering figure in American history.

His name was James Madison, and every year on Dec. 15, the anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, he should be remembered by a grateful nation for his remarkable accomplishments.

Mostly on his own, Madison wrote and pushed through Congress what became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. If not for his efforts in the face of almost impossible odds, we would not have had a Bill of Rights then or perhaps ever.

No American did more for this country while being appreciated less. His legacy, which should be widely celebrated, suffers indignities that it does not deserve:

• No monument in Washington, D.C. has been constructed in his honor.

• No form of U.S. currency bears his image.

• His beloved state of Virginia does not even have a sign on Interstate 64, the main east-west highway, to direct visitors 20 miles north to Montpelier, his estate opened to the public in 1987.

Madison's accomplishments are many, including serving as secretary of state and president, when he led the nation through the potentially disastrous War of 1812.

He helped organize the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and write a document that created a government that has endured for more than two centuries.

He vigorously debated the energetic and charismatic Patrick Henry at the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788. Madison led the Constitution's supporters to an 89-79 vote victory.

If Virginia, the largest and most important state, had not ratified then, there would be no union. Washington could not have been president, and New York would have followed with its rejection of the new government.

A promise had been made to the American people that Madison was determined to keep: In return for ratifying the original Constitution that had no Bill of Rights, the new Congress would immediately propose amendments to protect individual liberty.

Madison's adversaries opposed such amendments. They wanted to reverse the shift of power to the new federal government and believed that focusing on a Bill of Rights would prevent the passage of more radical amendments.

Many in the First Congress either opposed a Bill of Rights or believed that more important business must be considered first. It took all of Madison's extraordinary legislative skills to persuade two-thirds of the members of each house to forward the Bill of Rights to the states.

Congress approved 12 amendments, 10 of which became part of the Constitution on Dec. 15, 1791.

The nation should pause on each anniversary of that ratification to remember the Virginia statesman who would have looked so small next to Washington and Jefferson, both over 6 feet tall, but whose accomplishments are second to none.


Richard Labunski is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. He is writing a book about Madison and the Bill of Rights.

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