“Set your hand to the plow”
Some observations by James Madison on our current state.
April 10, 2017
Remarks of “Mr. James Madison” at the Lincoln-Reagan Republican Dinner, Newport News, Virginia, 18 March 2017
Thank you, Mr. [Andrew] Langer* for those kind words of introduction. I pray they not be taken as reflecting any exemplary exertion on my part; rather, the events of my life should be more properly viewed as the result of serendipitous happenstance.
Good evening my fellow Virginians, fellow Republicans.
I consider it a singular honor to provide you with these briefest of remarks this evening. As King Henry the 8th said to each of his wives: “I shall not keep you long.”
Two days ago, on the 16th instant, I celebrated the assumption of my 76th year of life. My dearest wife Dolley surprised me with ice cream, oyster in flavor, her favorite, prepared for the occasion, to be shared with a few of our closest friends and neighbors. The oysters used to prepare this dish appear to have been tainted, for I awoke the following morning to discover, much to my astonishment, that I had inexplicably been transported forward to your time, as well to the vicinity of our great battlefield of Yorktown. I seem to have been the only one of our party so afflicted.
Since my arrival, not knowing how long I shall be kept here, and not wishing to waste the unique opportunity this mystery affords, I have attempted to gain an understanding of the extent to which the original features of the Constitution, which we set in motion nearly 229 years ago, remain in force today.
While it is encouraging to discover that the republic has indeed been perpetuated, that you have added to the 24 states of my day, that you have rid yourselves of the pernicious blight of slavery, and that your commerce among nations has flourished to allow the creation of multitudinous labor-saving devices, which provide you with the greatest of creature comforts, my discoveries elsewise have not been as inspiriting.
In place of a government of limited and enumerated powers, you seem to have created, and even embraced, a national government of near-plenary power. For proof of this, I was shown a small painting, which moved and spoke through a means I could not comprehend, in which a Congressman from a state whose name I did not recognize, California, I believe it was, stated, and I shall quote him directly: “Yes, the federal government can do most anything in this country.” Upon hearing this, I came near to suffering one of my occasional fits of seizure.
How could this be, I asked? How could this have been allowed to happen? Such a usurpation of power should have excited general alarm among the states as well as the people.
I next encountered the amendment numbered seventeen, in which you exchanged the direct appointment of Senators for their popular election. I must inquire: was it explained to the people how this would disrupt the balance of power we intended in the Senate?
Then we must speak of your debt.
As I remarked on the floor of Congress in the year 17 and 90: “I consider national debt as an evil which ought to be removed as fast as honor and justice will permit." My friend Mr. Jefferson observed that "If the debt should … be swelled to a formidable size, its entire discharge will be despaired of, and we shall be committed to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution.”
Whilst Mr. Hamilton urged that some debt would advantage our young nation, I believe even he foresaw this precipitous occasion. He wrote: “Nothing is more common than for a free people, in times of heat and violence, to gratify momentary passions, by letting into the government, principles and precedents which afterwards prove fatal to themselves.”
I fear you may have done this, and I would entreat you to reflect upon this unhappy circumstance.
We rested all our political experiments on the capacity of Americans for self-government, so the remedy to your precarious condition rests with you and you alone.
As says the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” Republican principles, I might add.
Mr. Wilson of Pennsylvania similarly observed that "There is not in the whole science of politics a more solid or a more important maxim than this -- that of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles."
The whole science of politics, indeed. You understand politics, I am sure; the word: “politics” itself being derived from the Latin: “poly” meaning “many”, and “tics,” denoting “blood-sucking parasites.”
That aside, what of these fundamental or first principles? They seem to have passed from your view.
I was shown the results of a poll of Americans of this age. Thirty-nine percent of them were apparently unable to name a single right secured by the First Amendment; sixty-four percent were unable to name the three branches of their government. Astonishing! Such ignorance simply cannot be allowed to persist. If you, as a nation, expect to remain both ignorant and yet free, you expect what never was and never will be (and I thank Mr. Jefferson for that insightful observation).
Without wishing to completely dampen the ardor of this happy evening, I feel compelled nevertheless to offer to you this reflection: there is work to do; great work; work which cannot be delayed longer without exposing our glorious republic to even greater peril.
I am informed that we Republicans presently enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress and that even the President is counted among our number. Such an opportunity cannot be missed. I implore you to set your hand to the plow, the field awaits.
On his deathbed on the 4th day of July, in the year 18 and 26, my dearest friend and mentor, Mr. Jefferson is said to have suddenly announced that he was switching his allegiance to the Federalists. “I cannot believe you are doing this, Sir,” said his valet. “For your entire life you have been a staunch Republican. Why would you want to become a Federalist now?”
“Because,” Mr. Jefferson replied, “I would rather it was one of them that dies than one of us.”
While the final door awaits us all, it would be my fervent hope that each of us leaves this life as republicans.
Thank you for your kind attention. I remain your humble and obedient servant.
Mr. Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty
The preceding remarks were delivered by Gary Porter, Executive Director of the Constitutional Leadership Initiative, reenacting America's fourth President, James Madison.