Discussing the Republic with Dr. David Marion

Dr. David Marion, Elliot Professor of Government

Montpelier Students Hampden Sydney

Every American should feel the emotional tug of Montpelier, the lifelong home of James Madison.

The Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison envisioned a republic that would be equal to the great aims of the Declaration of Independence, that is, a nation based on the consent of the people and committed to protecting their fundamental liberties. The debt that we owe Madison is best appreciated by a study of American constitutional history, and what better place to engage in that study than Montpelier?

It was with considerable pleasure, therefore, that I accepted an invitation to discuss the origins and operations of our constitutional republic, as well as the challenges that we face today at all levels of government—local, regional and national— with a distinguished group of international leaders who gathered in May at Montpelier as guests of the U.S. State Department.

Although my specific charge was to discuss American-style federalism and the manner in which powers are separated and divided within our governments, I began with a review of Madison’s mission: how best to establish a decent and competent democracy that could offer the American people security, prosperity and freedom. Madison was well aware of the unhappy history of democracies and confederacies, both ancient and modern, before he immersed himself in his labors as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. His vision of an extended or national republic that divided powers both vertically (federalism) and horizontally (separation of powers or an internal system of checks and balances) was carefully designed to resolve the seemingly intractable problems that historically had resulted in democracies being short-lived and poor guarantors of safety and happiness. Madison was confident that the American people were up to the job of vindicating the democratic model of government.

To say that my audience kept me on my toes is an understatement. I was peppered with questions not only about how American-style federalism and the system of checks and balances were intended to work in theory, but about whether they have measured up to the expectations of leading founders such as Madison. One participant wondered whether our large deficits and national debt are evidence of a systemic failure, while another asked if the problems that plague cities like Detroit suggest a deficiency with the American model of democracy.

I responded with the observation that Madison never underestimated the challenge that we faced in fashioning a decent and competent rights-oriented republic, and he well understood the challenges we would face in trying to preserve such a republic over an extended period of time. I added that Madison likely would be pleased with what we have accomplished and hopeful that we were up to the task of maintaining the vitality and integrity of the constitutional order that he labored so hard to establish. With any luck, the international leaders who attended the session on May 12 left Montpelier with a heightened appreciation not only of the governmental side of the American constitutional system, but of its cultural side as well.