Tag Archives: James Madison

Information Format – A cautionary note from James Madison

Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1814 the President of the United States was James Madison. Technologically deprived as Madison was, he managed to leave an indelible mark on the new nation’s thinking about open government.    Reflect for a moment on these prescient snippets:

In an 1825 letter to his colleague George Thomas Madison wrote the words that every open government advocate can quote from memory:

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.

Not so well known are Madison’s thoughts on information format buried as Number 62 in the Federalist Papers:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood

Even as I embrace the former, in this digital era I am increasingly concerned about the latter.  There is a mighty chasm between that which is available and that which is accessible to “a people who mean to be their own Governors.”

My concern is that the wealth of information by and about the government is in danger of being walled off simply because it is produced in a format that is not readily accessible to the public.  Though the agencies will continue to do the research and post the results, those of us who need the information will not have ready access.  Though government information cannot be copyrighted the possibility remains that it can be withheld by the technology which, powerful as it may be, remains out of reach until the information is “translated” – at a cost – by commercial interests.

It’s a case of the law lagging behind the technology while the private sector is ever at the ready to seize the moment.  Essential information by and about the government, collected, organized, and interpreted by the government, belongs to the body politic.  If those resources “be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood,” we the people are no longer able to arm ourselves with ”the the power which knowledge gives.”

After two centuries, the words and wisdom of President James Madison, now available in the format du jour, raise a cautionary note for open government advocates for whom constant vigilance is a way of life.

James Madison – Constitutional Anchor for the Digital Age

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.

 

 

James Madison, Father of the First Amendment

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 national 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 face or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever government 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 learning, 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, Friday 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 is 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.