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James Madison and the Dilemmas of Democracy

February 17, 2011

Myron Magnet in The City Journal:

In the roster of famous last words—from Goethe’s “More light!” to Nathan Hale’s “I regret I have but one life to give for my country” to John Maynard Keynes’s debonair “I should have drunk more champagne”—surely the final utterance of James Madison deserves an honored place. Bedridden with rheumatism at 85, the fourth president had spent 19 years in retirement at Montpelier, the columned brick Virginia plantation house where he had grown up since age nine or ten; where, as a young legislator, he had pored over history and political philosophy to help frame his plan for the United States Constitution; and where, as a 46-year-old ex-congressman, he had brought his wife of three years to live with his parents on their 5,000 rich Piedmont acres. […]

The liberty that Madison, a true Enlightenment intellectual, most hotly defended as the Revolution loomed was freedom of thought, man’s God-given birthright and the engine of human progress. At Princeton, he had wholly embraced the Scottish Enlightenment ethic of President John Witherspoon, an Edinburgh-educated iconoclast (like Madison’s beloved schoolmaster Donald Robertson) who strove to “cherish a spirit of liberty, and free enquiry” in his scholars “and not only to permit, but even to encourage their right of private judgment.” [More]

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