Fanfare for the Uncommon Man
07.04.14 9:45 AM ET
James Madison’s Lesson in Delayed Great-ification
Ooooh! Aaahhh! It’s fireworks day! Tonight, millions of Americans from sea to shining sea will gasp at a night sky filled with brilliant colors and loud explosions. Millions of other Americans will lament they live in cities with strapped budgets that throw piddling BBQs and hand out sparklers. Whatever works.
To those of you fortunate enough to look up at a sky filled with fireworks, I have one request I routinely make this time of year: take a moment to look back down and pity poor James Madison, the “Father of our Constitution.” (Actually, look a little further down. He was rather short. There you go.)
Why pity Jimmy? Well, for tiny Jimmy Madison, there was no BBQ. There were no fireworks.
Oh, there were fireworks in 1787. And the USA had BBQs. And the Framers in Philadelphia took a break from the Constitutional Convention to celebrate Independence Day—a day, as prescribed by John Adams, “to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Ooooh. Aaahhh.
But Madison didn’t go. He didn’t attend a single Bonfire, or nab a ticket to a single Shew. Not because he wasn’t a fun-loving guy (although he wasn’t). And not because he was antisocial (although he was). No, Jimmy didn’t indulge in illuminations for one reason only: He didn’t feel he had earned them yet. So while George and Luther and Abraham and Charles and the rest of the delegates cast their eyes at the skies, Jimmy kept his nose to the grindstone. (Little Jimmy believed in much-delayed gratification. He was the kind of guy who would have aced the Marshmallow Test.)
Instead, “the Father of the Constitution” stayed home to try to make sense of his notes of the chaotic Convention thus far. “Drudgery,” he called it.
Why did he feel so non-firework-worthy? Because the real bombs were bursting not in the air outside, but in the thick fog inside the Pennsylvania State House. The delegates had sequestered themselves in the unventilated Assembly Room for almost two months, trying to fashion a new Constitution to salvage our teetering country, yet as July 4 approached they had little to celebrate, and—with quill scarcely put to paper—nothing much to show for their efforts. Well, nothing except hard feelings from impertinent comments made by bewigged egocentrics with fiery tempers.
For most of the delegates, the summer had been torture; for Madison, it was an embarrassment. He and the other Framers were supposed to be putting out fires, not starting them, yet the smoke in that smoke-filled room came as much out of their ears as it did any pipes or cigars. I’ve said it before: the “Miracle at Philadelphia” was that they didn’t strangle each other by August. (Did I mention they were drinking beer for breakfast?)
Madison felt he didn’t have a choice: He had to put in the overtime.
Come the fall, what exactly did the Framers think of the “miracle” Constitution they signed? George Washington himself wished it “had been made more perfect.” Benjamin Franklin could stomach it only “with all its faults,” adding, “I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure it is not the best”—sounds like a Republican endorsing Mitt Romney. (Boom! Was that an M-80?)
And yet, we still have it. And while we may not know exactly what’s in it—more Americans can name the Three Stooges than the Three Branches of Government—it stands as the longest surviving national constitution in the world. Belgium’s constitution dates back only to 1831. (That one’s for you, Tim Howard.)
So on this Fourth of July, it’s easy to think of mattress sales and hot dog relish and Main Street parades. It’s not even hard to notice John Hancock and his famously large john hancock—today, after all, is the day marked for the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. But spare a thought, won’t you, for James Madison? For we wouldn’t have had a Constitution we regularly rely on or a country we’re routinely proud of had the Framer we often overlook not kept his eyes on the parchment.
On this weekend, when we’re busy celebrating the country’s past with oooohs and aaahhhs, remember that little Jimmy Madison had the good sense to look at the country ahead of him and think: uh-oh.