US – History – James Madison and the Centred Left – 5 July 2012

I discovered this Washington Post article today which was run yesterday, on the fourth of July. It’s worthwhile reading for Americans, or for anyone elsewhere interested in or concerned about America. It’s also an article that has an incredible James Madison quote I think I will be using and reusing in the future.

“Is it not the glory of the people of America,” Madison asked, “that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?”

Yes. If America still has some glory, it is that.

This is a great quote because it shoots the difference between two other quotes I know which seem to tell half of the story.

On the one hand, there’s this Edmund Burke quote, from Reflections on the Revolution in France: “Society is indeed a contract. But it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Madison’s quote pays this idea proper homage – Americans are sensible to this partnership, and do pay it a “due regard”, without succumbing to the danger of a “blind veneration” of what it has produced.

On the other hand, there’s this later Karl Marx quote, from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Madison’s quote acknowledges the “good sense”, “knowledge of their own situation” and personal “experience” that might lead people to think this, without unreasonably casting aside the knowledge and experiences of the past as if it were so much soiled laundry.

Many Americans today do not seem, however, to embody the wisdom of James Madison as it is demonstrated in this quote, unfortunately. Some on the Left gleefully heave that baby out with the bathwater; some on the Right sing rhapsodic praises of the bathwater.

I’ve referred before to Arthur Schlesinger’s concept of a “vital centre” – this quote provides a good example of what that looks like. It isn’t a “dead centre” political philosophy that merely positions itself between two sides. It’s a “centred Left” philosophy, that identifies itself firmly with social change while paying a reasonable respect to the traditions of the society we want to change.

A toast to Mr. Madison this morning, and to his distinctly American philosophy: would that it would make a comeback in his own country.

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