11/08/2010 06:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Search of James Madison

We hear a lot these days about the need to return to the Constitution. With a new group of legislators, many elected on this theme, we may soon hear a lot more. Some of this call to founding principles is driven by the desire to limit government, to constrain its reach into our lives. Some of it seems driven by a nostalgic desire to recapture the past.

In this spirit, it might help to take a return look at James Madison, rightly called the "Father of the Constitution." Madison maneuvered a failed convention of the States in Annapolis in 1786 into the Federal Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. He was a key part of the campaign to get Washington out of retirement to chair (and lend prestige) to the convention. In his Montpelier library, Madison produced two documents summarizing the faults of the current national government under the Articles of Confederation and the lessons learned from the failures "Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies." These papers established him as an intellectual tour de force in the convention and helped him craft the Virginia Plan, which opened the proceedings with a dramatic departure from purely amending the Articles. Madison then volunteered to take notes of the proceedings and spoke in debate more than 200 times from May to September. When the convention adopted the Constitution, he led the fight for ratification by being a prime author of the Federalist Papers and then a successful opponent of the far more impassioned anti-federalist orator, Patrick Henry, in the Virginia ratification convention. Elected to the first Congress of the United States in 1789, it was Madison who proposed the language of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.

So what does James Madison, a product of the eighteenth century, have to teach us about the practice of politics in the twenty-first? Simply and profoundly this: he knew how to lose, and he knew how to win.

Popular history forgets that Madison lost much of what he proposed in Philadelphia. He called for representation in both houses of Congress based on population as the only justifiable basis for representative government. He wrenchingly gave that up in the Connecticut Compromise which gave each state two senators. He called for the Congress legislature to have a veto power over State laws as the only way to ensure national supremacy. He gave that up too. The Virginia Plan proposed a Council of Revision enabling the president and select members of the judiciary to veto laws passed by Congress, another provision Madison abandoned. Yet despite losing key elements he thought essential, losses that plagued and disheartened him, Madison led the fight for ratification.

The popular recollection of the Constitution forgets as well that, after ratification, Madison knew how to be a winner. Opposition to the Constitution in many state ratifying conventions was based on its failure to protect basic rights. Some states ratified only on the expectation that a "Bill of Rights" would be added. Madison steadfastly maintained that there was no need for it because the Constitution consisted only of enumerated powers. If it did allow the government to constrain a right, there was no need to protect that right. Further, he argued, listing some rights might imply that others not listed were not protected. Nevertheless, in the very first Congress, on June 8, 1789, it was Madison who took the floor to propose exactly what he had long opposed. Acknowledging that two states (North Carolina and Rhode Island) still had not ratified and that many still had serious reservations, Madison said that "It will be a desirable thing to extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community, any apprehensions that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled." He then proposed the wording that led to the first ten amendments.

National elections always produce losers and winners, but they don't seem often enough to produce people who know how to lose and how to win. Both need to recall Madison's example. When you lose, gracious incorporation and active support of the majority view into the framework of governing offers the best way to build the "union" so essential to any lasting progress as a nation. Both need to recall that when you win, the greatest hope for cementing fidelity to country and our system of government comes with finding a way to honor and incorporate some of the heartfelt core values of those who lost. Principled disdain for, and the lack of compromise with, the principles of those who lost (or those who won) violates the most fundamental principle of all.

The members of the House and Senate could do well, in the days ahead, to go in search of the James Madison in themselves and each other.