This reflection on James Madison was written several years ago in observance of Freedom of Information Day. Because the influence of Madison seems to have faded from the limelight in recent Freedom of Information observances, it seems right and just to dust off the tribute so we remain vigilant to preserve our principles of open government in this digital age. MT
We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley. On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the nation take part.
The reason why is expressed in the following quote: Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.” We cherish a free press. We condemn book burning and censorship. We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.
Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.
We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Madison, an inveterate learner, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson. Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,” an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.
One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.
With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so. On Madison’s birthday, Saturday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information. Though the devil may be in the detail of how that works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.