Rambunctious American Democracy

James Madison
James Madison; drawing by David Levine


These three books under review do not have much in common, but what does bind them together is James Madison, the influential framer of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the fourth president of the United States. Today, Madison’s reputation as a Founder has never been higher. Robert A. Dahl calls him “our greatest political scientist” and the person most responsible for our constitutional system. Michael Novak rightly sees him as the crucial figure in America’s development of religious freedom. Garry Wills considers him to be the third- most-important Founder after Washington and Franklin. Indeed, because he was such an important Founder, Madison and his ideas have come to bear an extraordinary responsibility for the character of American politics and society.

But, of course, by achieving this kind of influence in the founding of the country, Madison has become the object of serious criticism as well. This is the case with all three books under review. Although all of them take for granted Madison’s great significance in the galaxy of Founders, at the same time all are critical of him in one way or another—as a constitution maker, as a political thinker, as a man of faith, and as a president.

Of the three, Robert A. Dahl’s short book is clearly the hardest on Madison and on the constitutional system he more than anyone helped to create. Since Dahl, who is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University, doesn’t like our Constitution, his book is very critical of the man considered most responsible for it. His criticism is well directed, for, as Garry Wills points out, Madison, more than any other Founder, was radically opposed to the very sort of direct democracy that Dahl most admires. Madison wanted to refine the voice of the people in government, not replicate it, as Dahl would like to do. In his new book, which originated as the Castle Lectures at Yale, Dahl has brought together his long-existing criticism of Madison’s attempts to restrain majority rule into a devastating attack on the undemocratic character of the American Constitution. Perhaps not since Progressive scholars such as J. Allen Smith wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century has anyone condemned the Constitution so harshly.

Dahl wants us to change the way we think about the Constitution. We should stop assuming it to be a national icon that is superior to the constitutional structures of other democratic countries and begin to consider ways of reforming it in order to make it more compatible with democratic standards and values. Although Dahl has no hope whatever that we will make any substantial democratic changes in our constitutional system in the immediate future, he nonetheless wants to open up discussion of the Constitution and its shortcomings, a discussion that he hopes may, in time, lead to something.

These shortcomings are serious, and many of them can…

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