We honor James Madison as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights. We recognize him as Thomas Jefferson’s indispensable political lieutenant. We applaud him as the nation’s fourth president. But we will never do Madison full justice until we revere him as a great poet.
Not a literary poet like Wallace Stevens, or a prophet-poet like Abraham Lincoln, or even a peoples’ poet like Ronald Reagan. Madison’s poetic genius was structural – a mastery of the interplay between democracy and individual liberty. His poetic voice speaks to us in the harmony of the 462 words, 31 ideas, and 10 amendments – each in its perfectly chosen place and all interacting to form a coherent whole – that is the magnificent poem to democracy and individual freedom called the Bill of Rights.
Today, we hear only broken fragments of Madison’s music. Madison’s poetic vision of the interplay between democracy and individual freedom is hiding in plain sight in the brilliantly ordered text and structure of the Bill of Rights, but we have forgotten how to look for it. Instead of seeking harmony and coherence in the Bill of Rights, the current Supreme Court majority reads the Bill of Rights as a set of self-contained commands, as if each clause – and at times, each word of each clause – existed in splendid isolation from the body of the constitutional text. Consider the fate of the 45 words in Madison’s remarkable First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.