All the prayers in the world are no substitute for unstarry-eyed thinking about power.
In preparation for his political miracle at Philadelphia in 1787, James Madison sought guidance from experience and the nature of man, not from star-gazing. His prodigious intellect alone dwarfed the collective knowledge of every current member of Congress and the Executive Branch. (But is that damning by faint praise?).
Delegates to the constitutional convention, except for three or four persons, viewed Benjamin Franklin’s proposal to open each day’s proceedings with a prayer as “unnecessary.” Delegates needed more of Plutarch, Aristotle and Thucydides, not hopes and prayers.
In the spring and summer of 1786, Madison retired to his Montpelier home, which overflowed with books he had collected (many sent from Paris by his friend Tom Jefferson) concerning confederacies or other government models. Madison sought the wisdom necessary to architect a diffusion of power that would secure justice by thwarting majority factions. Among other things, Madison examined the strengths and weaknesses of the Amphyctionic Confederacy of early 16th century Greece, the Helvetic Confederacy of 14th century Switzerland and the Belgic and Germanic confederacies of the mid-1600s.
Madison’s tireless scholarship begot his “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies.” It lists the good and bad features of various governments, for example, “disparity of size in Cantons,” “intolerance of religion” or “weakness of the Union.”
Madison was earthbound, not visionary. He understood the sordidness of our unchangeable DNA. He designed a constitutional system to secure liberty and justice by pitting ambition against ambition through an intricate array of checks and balances. He knew from history and a wealth of personal experience that all men and women all of the time act with small-minded ulterior motives. The exceptions are too tiny to matter, like extras in a Cecile B. DeMille extravaganza. Madison elaborated in Federalist 51: “[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Madison recognized that constant warfare would be the death knell of liberty by giving birth to limitless and secret executive power. He thus fastened on Congress the exclusive responsibility for authorizing the offensive use of the military in Article I, section 8, clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution — its crown jewel. Madison elaborated in a letter to Jefferson: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
Before members of Congress became craven invertebrates in foreign affairs after World War II, the Madisonian system worked but for the three hiccups of the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War and World War I. In 1851, for instance, Louis Kossuth traveled to the United States to seek intervention in support of Hungary’s war of independence against the Austrian Empire. Congress balked. Sen. Henry Clay explained: “Far better for ourselves, for Hungary, and for the cause of liberty … we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this western shore as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen or fallen republics of Europe.”
Secretary of State Daniel Webster, in contrast, was predictably eager for intervention, and boasted like a teenager to the House of Hapsburg: “The power of this republic at the present moment is spread over a region one of the richest and most fertile on the globe, and of an extent in comparison with which the possessions of the house of Hapsburg are but a patch on the earth’s surface.”
It took the U.S. Senate led by Henry Cabot Lodge to block messianic President Woodrow Wilson’s campaign for the League of Nations Treaty to require the United States to defend every international boundary on the planet with war.
Our post-World War II warfare state fueled by the military-industrial-terrorism complex has created an unprecedented constitutional crisis that is crushing liberty, arresting prosperity, and risking self-ruination.
The president and members of Congress command a First Amendment right to pray to God, (although Article VI of the Constitution forbids making prayer a qualification for any public office). What is imperative, however, is that they read and be informed by Madison.