James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and widely considered to be the Father of the U.S. Constitution, was represented at The Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday.
The 264-year-old was portrayed by Dr. John Vile, professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at MTSU. He offered his insights into the making of American independence and sovereignty, and writing the Constitution that created and shaped our self-governance for well over 200 years.
“It’s a pleasure to be here today as you approach the 239th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” said Vile as he portrayed Madison. “What you may not know is that, originally, there were some people who thought today would be the day that we celebrate it.”
Vile says a letter written by John Adams on July 3 to his wife stated July 2, 1776 would be the day people celebrate with parades, shows, games, bonfires and illuminations “from one end of the continent to the other.”
“You might wonder how Adams messed the dates up. Well, he didn’t. July 2 is actually the day Congress voted on independence. Two days later, which is when we celebrate, is the day Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.”
Madison was born in 1751 and was president from March 1809 to March 1817.
“My greatest life work came, probably, at the Constitutional Convention and later during my presidency, but I thought this morning I would focus a little bit more on some of the events that led up to American Independence," said Vile.
The first Continental Congress, which included delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies, began meeting in 1774 in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia as a conflict with England developed.
“It was our view, and continues to be, that in fighting the American Revolution we were basically fighting for rights we thought we were entitled to," said Vile. "We were fighting for rights we thought we had long exercised. To explain this, I want to tell you how the argument emerged. After the French and Indian War, from 1754 to 1763, the English got the idea they would make up for the treasure they had spent trying to defend their empire by taxing us.”
Continental Congress members, says Vile, believed that as Englishmen they were still entitled to the rights given under the English Constitution – although not a written document – and they could not be taxed without consent.
“The English do have a Constitution. They have an appropriate legal way of doing things. You can go back to all different types of origins for this, but most commonly it’s traced back to the Magna Carta. Among the principles that were laid out in that document was the principle that no person should be taxed without their consent. Consent in the English system was expressed through the English Parliament, which is a predecessor to our own Congress. We were consistent in our belief that we had our rights as Englishmen. We didn’t believe we had forfeited our rights when we came to the United States.”
In attempts to collect taxes, the English would violate Common Law rights of the Englishmen living in American.
“Similarly, among the rights we believed were Common Law Rights, which are today embodied in your Fourth Amendment, were the rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. As the English got more and more greedy in trying to collect taxes, they increasingly ignored these rights. They would operate under what is known as general warrants which would last throughout the entire reign of the king and basically give customs agents the right to break into anyone’s house they wanted.”
Members of Continental Congress appealed to the British Constitution to end intolerable acts without much success, says Vile.
“Ultimately, when Mr. Jefferson was asked to write the Declaration of Independence, we had already renounced Parliamentary sovereignty. We never believed Parliament had the right to do whatever it wanted. We believed it was restrained by law. Therefore, when it came time to declare our Declaration of Independence, we had renounced Parliamentary sovereignty and now we had decided the king wasn’t listening either. We sent numerous petitions to the king. The last one we sent he refused to even read it.”
Rather than phrasing the Declaration of Independence in the terms of Englishmen, Jefferson framed them in terms of Natural Rights – the rights of men and the notion God created all men equal and that all are entitled to the equal rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“Mr. Jefferson once said in one of my favorite quotations that ‘America was founded in the notion that some people were not born with saddles on their back to be ridden by others but that in America everyone was to have an equal right,’” said Vile. “That was the basis when we wrote the Declaration of Independence. We were trying to appeal to countries elsewhere in the world. The Declaration of Independence sort of got things going.”
The Constitution was adopted and signed in September 1787, but signing was not enough. It had to be ratified by nine of the 13 states before it became binding. That happened when New Hampshire ratified it on June 21, 1788.
Vile says it’s a misconception Madison is the Father of the U.S. Constitution and he gives the credit to everyone who had a hand in its creation.
“I do want to erase one misconception. People sometimes call me the Father of the Constitution and that would be a flattering thing, but we need to understand it was written by 55 men who attended and lots of others that later read and ratified the document. We believed that document to be an improvement.”
Vile is one of the nation’s foremost scholars on United States history.