Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Madison Memorial - Or Not?

Excavation and restoration of slave quarters at
James Madison's estate, Montpelier
Recently, a student at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin (how's that for a lot of Madison references?!) started a petition to remove Madison's name from the school because Madison was a slave owner, and slave owners should not be honored in such a way.  You can read and see the original story here.

As a big fan of James Madison, you can imagine I'm less than supportive of this effort, to say the least (I wish the students would learn more about Madison instead of trying to banish him), but in keeping with the intent of this blog, let's look carefully and fairly (as fairly as I can when someone is trying to get rid of James Madison!) at both sides of the issue.

First of all, let's stipulate something right up front.  Slavery is bad.  So bad that "bad" doesn't even begin to cover it.  I'd classify slavery along with rape and murder as the Unholy Trinity of bad things one human can do to another.  So, there will be no defending slavery as such in any arguments here.  There are those who argue that Madison was a "good master", and as far as that goes, he was - he was remembered by some of his former slaves as never striking a slave and reprimanding those who did.  Madison was remembered with great respect by his former slave and valet Paul Jennings in Jennings' book "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison" - the first White House "memoir" ever published.  But the "good master" and "happy slave" arguments are little more than excuse-making for the very institution of slavery, so we won't go down that road in Madison's defense.

Let's begin with the affirmative side, seeking to change the name of Madison Memorial to something else (whatever the something else is hasn't been discussed yet, so we'll not worry about what other name may be proposed for the school).  The student and supporters of the petition say that anyone who owned slaves should not be honored with a building in their name.  I'd say that, on the surface, makes some sense - why honor those who have owned another human being?  The student also relates that she's been called racial epithets and even been threatened with lynching at the school, and changing the name would help discourage that behavior.  To be honest, I can't see how the mere name of the school leads to those things, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt on that, as well.  The mere fact that their school is named after a slaveholder adds to the sense of racial injustice in her eyes and the eyes of others.

Clearly, most people have never been the target of racial bigotry or threats (I say "most of us" because America is still majority white), so we (white people) would have a more difficult time understanding the ramifications of such behavior than those who've been subject to it.  With all that in mind, let us acknowledge that racial issues are by no means a thing of the past, and something we have to deal with continuously (sadly).  And given that, let us also give the students in question the benefit of the doubt that the name of their school might in some small way be a factor in it.

Shifting to the negative side of the argument, let's point out a few flaws in the Affirmative's reasoning.  One flaw is the common mistake of "presentism" - that is, applying our modern (and presumably, more enlightened) thinking to an older issue.  We understand that slavery is wrong, and frankly, so did they, way back then, though they did little to stop it.  On the other hand, slavery has been a part of human history since Biblical times, at least, so it doesn't exactly make the Founders like Madison (and Jefferson and Washington, as well) especially unique.  For all their high-minded rhetoric (Jefferson's especially), they themselves didn't free any slaves, but they did do something in order to allow it to happen over time.  And that leads us to the next flaw in the Affirmative argument, which is a lack of context.

In 1787, there was a convention called in Philadelphia in order to amend the Articles of Confederation, the contract that loosely bound the colonies together.  The Articles were not working, and the country was not really a country, but a confederation of thirteen sovereign states with little central authority binding them together.  Madison arrived early, and to make a long story short, changed the direction of the convention from amending the Articles to drawing up an entirely new Constitution, effectively creating the United States of America, with a stronger central government, but with much power still reserved to the states.  The Constitution was a series of compromises (too many to list here and stay on topic), and one compromise was that they effectively punted on the question of slavery in order to get all the states to accept the new Constitution.  So why, with this in mind, am I still defending Madison as regards the slavery issue?

If the Articles of Confederation had stayed in effect, it's likely a nationwide ban on slavery would never have come about.  Each state may have, in turn, banned slavery, but it would not have been a national policy - a supreme law of the land.  By authoring the Constitution, and in particular, the amendment process of Article V, it cleared the way for the eventual passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the nationwide banning of slavery, something unlikely to happen without a national document of fundamental and supreme law.

So, while Madison did not personally free any slaves, he set up a system by which it could be done on a national scale.  He was the original and ultimate political operator in the United States - he knew how to lobby people and convince them and compromise with them and get things done.  The Three-Fifths Compromise (speaking of slavery) was one such effort.  In the debate over representation in Congress, southern slave-holding states wanted to count slaves as part of the population in order to get more Congressional seats, while the northern free states opposed the idea.  Madison brokered a compromise, which allowed the southern states to count three-fifths of their slave population toward their representation total.  In contrast to what many people believe, it was not a compromise that had the southern states looking to further marginalize slaves as less than a full person - they wanted all the slaves counted (though of course the extra representation in Congress was not going to be filled by slaves - or free blacks, for that matter).  In the long run, the Three-Fifths Compromise was actually better for the slaves by keeping the southern states from being disproportionately powerful compared to the free states.  As I said earlier - context.

Madison and the other Founders also, while owning slaves themselves, did not argue strenuously that slavery was a "positive good", as did former US Representative, Senator and VP John Calhoun (whose name was recently removed from Yale University, the school named after him being renamed for Admiral Grace Hopper).

To sum up, I understand the idea of not wanting to honor slave owners, but on the other hand, we need to look at the entirety of someone's life's work, not just focus on one (admittedly large) flaw.  In consulting my own rather extensive library of books by and about Madison, there's a lot more there than simply "he owned slaves".  But is that enough to take his name off the building?  Or off the name of Wisconsin's capitol city?  Where does it end?  Do we rename Washington, DC?  Jefferson City, Missouri?  Universities named after George Washington, George Mason, James Madison and Robert Morris?

Sadly, while the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, it did not end racial tensions in America.  Now discuss - is this (renaming a school) a way to lessen the tension or does it endanger our understanding of history?

Monday, January 23, 2017

The People Have Spoken?

“The people have spoken…the bastards.” – Dick Tuck, failed political candidate.

The presidential election of 2016 has, as is normally the case, it seems, resurrected the quadrennial debate over the American Electoral system (I have decided not use the term “Electoral College” because it is not historically accurate – nothing in the Constitution refers to such a body.  It’s merely a term of convenience – probably first used to draw an analogy to the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals,  which elects popes.).  For the second time in sixteen years, the winner of the popular vote for president did not earn the requisite number of electoral votes in order to be victorious.

People often wonder why our system of choosing a president is so cumbersome and seemingly undemocratic.  For a brief history on this unique institution, see my previous entry here.  People wonder if there is a better way of electing the president, and suggestions ranging from a direct election consisting of the nationwide popular vote to various modifications of the current electoral system (perhaps most notably encouraging states to split their electoral votes in a proportional manner similar to Nebraska or Maine, eliminating the winner-take-all sweepstakes as in all the other states) are regularly floated around election time.

I recently listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Your Weekly Constitutional, and the topic was this very thing - specifically, the National Popular Vote Initiative.  You can listen to this episode here.
In a nutshell, this movement is trying to establish a voluntary compact between states in which the states involved agree to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, not necessarily who wins the most votes in their own state.  This compact would go into effect only when a sufficient number of states join so that their electoral vote totals would add up to at least 270, thereby ensuring that the national popular vote winner would also win the electoral vote.
As you can imagine, there are several pros and cons to a proposal like this.  Let me list a few on each side and encourage you, the reader, to weigh them and draw your own conclusions.


It would be more “democratic”.  The person who wins the most votes nationwide wins the election in all cases.

It eliminates the idea of “swing states”.  In the last election, both candidates concentrated their efforts in about a dozen states that were considered “in play”, while basically ignoring states they either knew they had locked up or had no chance of winning.  For example, Trump could basically skip campaigning in New York or California, knowing he had no chance there, and Clinton could all but ignore Texas or Tennessee for the same reason (and conversely, there was no practical reason for Trump to go to TX or TN or for Clinton to campaign in NY or CA).  So, most of the efforts of both candidates were focused on a relatively small number of states they knew they had to win in order to get to the magic number of 270 electoral votes.

It would not require a Constitutional amendment.  Each state is free to establish its own criteria for casting its electoral votes.  There is no Constitutionally-mandated method.  As mentioned above, Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system, not winner-take-all, and it’s perfectly legitimate of them to do so.

It would be voluntary.  Each state in the compact would have to agree to it.  No other entity, state or federal, can coerce a state to join (and presumably, each state would turn to its own citizens in some type of referendum in order to approve the plan).


It seems to be a solution in search of a problem.  We’ve had 58 presidential elections in our history and only five times has the popular winner not won the electoral vote.  That’s less than ten percent of the time – an outlying rarity in the big picture of things.

It would diminish the influence of less-populated states.  The Founders were very concerned about states and their place in the nation as a whole.  That’s why we have a bicameral Congress in which one chamber represents the people and one represents the states (remember, Senators were originally elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote).  States like Alaska and Wyoming, which wield a somewhat outsized electoral influence relative to their populations would see their “importance” in presidential elections diminish if all that mattered was the national popular vote.

Voters in certain states might feel disenfranchised if their electoral votes went opposite their state vote.  For example, in my home state of Wisconsin, the statewide vote went for Trump, but if Wisconsin were part of this compact, our electoral votes would have gone for Clinton, opposite the apparent will of the Wisconsin voters at large.

The states with the largest populations would have too much influence.  Again, going back to the recent election, Clinton’s popular vote margin was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 million nationwide.  That also happens nearly identical to the margin of victory she enjoyed in California alone.  Do the rest of the states want one state to be the deciding factor?

Certainly, you readers can come up with other arguments for and against this idea, which, I should note, enjoys a fairly remarkable level of bipartisan support in certain areas, so it’s not just a “Democrats lost and so they want to change things” kind of scenario unique to this year.

Will this change happen?  Time will tell, of course.  Perhaps it will.  Perhaps another type of “reform” movement will gain momentum.  And perhaps the system we have will stay intact.  What say you?