James Madison as applied to Donald Trump

History is written to understand the past but it is composed in the present and cannot escape that context. Sometimes, the relevance is startling. In research for a new book about the Revolutionary Era, I came across a James Madison essay that struck me as a trenchant critique of the Trumpian attitude toward governing the American people. It is a dialogue between a “republican,” by which Madison meant a person who championed the spirit of the American Revolution and democracy, and an “anti-republican,” who did not.

Here, only slightly edited, is the dialogue from The National Gazette of Dec. 20, 1792.


Who Are the Best Keepers

Republican: The people themselves. The sacred trust can be no where so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.

Anti-republican: The people are stupid, suspicious, licentious. They cannot safely trust themselves. When they have established government they should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers.

Republican: Although all men are born free … yet too true it is, that slavery has been the general lot of the human race. Ignorant — they have been cheated; asleep — they have been surprized; divided — the yoke has been forced upon them. But what is the lesson? That because the people may betray themselves, they ought to give themselves up, blindfold, to those who have an interest in betraying them? Rather conclude that the people ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it.

Anti-republican: You look at the surface only, where errors float, instead of fathoming the depths where truth lies hid. It is not the government that is disposed to fly off from the people; but the people that are ever ready to fly off from the government. Rather say then, enlighten the government, warn it to be vigilant, enrich it with influence, arm it with force, and to the people never pronounce but two words — Submission and Confidence.

Republican: …. What a perversion of the natural order of things! to make power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.

Anti-republican: The science of the stars can never instruct you in the mysteries of government. Wonderful as it may seem, the  … more you make government independent and hostile towards the people, the better security you provide for their rights and interests.

Republican: … Mysterious indeed! But mysteries belong to religion, not to government; to the ways of the Almighty, not to the works of man. And in religion itself there is nothing mysterious to its author; the mystery lies in the dimness of the human sight. So in the institutions of man let there be no mystery …

Anti-republican: You are destitute, I perceive, of every quality of a good citizen, or rather of a good subject. You have neither the light of faith nor the spirit of obedience. I denounce you to the government as an accomplice of atheism and anarchy.

Republican: And I forebear to denounce you to the people though [you are] a blasphemer of their rights and an idolater of tyranny. Liberty disdains to persecute.

Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury, Conn.