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Taking a Look at President's Day

February 15, 2018

 

There is a three-day weekend on the horizon, and some of us even know that Monday, February 19th is President’s Day.

 

I vaguely remember that back in the days of yore when I was a wee child President's Day was really a Washington's Birthday celebration. And then somehow it morphed, for a while, into Washington-Lincoln Day (which seemed like an odd pairing). But, in 1971 as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (yes that is actually a title), the third Monday in February was anointed the day to recognize all President's, although still today officially called Washington's Birthday by the federal government. No wonder it feels like a made-up holiday.

 

I also find it just slightly suspicious that Richard Nixon was the advocate for the day to honor all U.S. Presidents past and present. 

 

So is this really a day for reflecting on my favorite president, James Madison, and his contributions? George Will wrote, “if we really believed the pen is mightier than the sword, the nation’s capital would be named not for the soldier who wielded the revolutionary sword, but for the thinker who was ablest with a pen. It would be Madison, D.C.” I like that quote and the more I read about Madison, the more impressed I am by many of his attributes and achievements. He is called the Father of the Constitution although some have suggested he be considered more the Mother given the years of effort that went into its creation and nurturing. Also labeled the Architect of the Bill of Rights, which frankly for most of us is how we define our rights and responsibilities in this on-going experiment we call the United States.  

 

When I think about it, without Madison, we might need a passport to cross the Mississippi River into a different nation there. If we had continued as a loose confederation of thirteen independent states, it is certain we would have been gobbled up by other nations -- a course Madison tirelessly fought against. And, except for Madison, part of your Virginia taxes might be going to support a State-established church down the street from your home, home that could be searched without a warrant. Yes, absent the Nobel package of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights we might today be subject to unreasonable and often brutal treatments we see in authoritarian regimes of many other countries. It is worth contemplating. 

 

Noah Feldman in his new book, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President writes: "If Washington inspired by his presence and example, and Jefferson by his words, Madison inspired through his creation the Constitution. He left a legacy composed of enduring ideas and institutions, not battles and aphorisms or personal drama.  His historical importance lies in having designed our most fundamental political structures and our most lasting categories of political thought. Although Washington and Jefferson are more famous, the United States is Madisonian more than it is Washingtonian or Jeffersonian."

 

Madison would likely have responded to Mr. Feldman that the work is the product of "many hands and many heads."  

 

The Constitution also was created by humans and from the outset it was flawed.

 

Slavery, an abhorrent part of our constitutional legacy, was embedded from the beginning and it took not only the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to move change but even today we are trying to make effectual the ideals of a "more perfect union." As a woman and the CEO of James Madison's Montpelier, I want to gently help the Founders off their pedestals and invite all of us to stand with them eye to eye. That means holding them accountable for their failures, but it also means measuring ourselves against their achievements. More importantly, it means engaging them in conversation. James Madison was a life-long slaveholder who never freed a slave AND James Madison created the blueprint for democratic societies that have thrived over the past 230 years. 

 

So while I will reflect this President's Day on the achievements of all our presidents, past and present, (and the not so admirable aspects), it is also a day to embrace the reality that creating American history is a reflexive project. The more honest we are about our past, the more hope our future holds.  

 

That is our call to action this President's Day - to look ourselves in the eye. 

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