Misunderstood Madison


Modern academics and lawyers use James Madison to justify the rule of governing elites, such as the Supreme Court’s power to interpret the U.S. Constitution. Such power was actually an anathema to Madison, argued Stanford Law School dean Larry Kramer, JD’84, at a talk last Thursday in Harper Hall. “Madison was not as undemocratic as people want to make him out today,” but rather was “centrally concerned with securing popular government.”

Too many scholars, Kramer argued, emphasize particular passages by Madison in the Federalist Papers, written between 1787 and 1788 with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to advocate ratification of the Constitution. Scholars consider some of Madison’s passages the source of American separation of powers, which ultimately justified resting constitutional authority in the hands of the Supreme Court and limiting citizens’ role in government.

But interpreting the Constitution, Kramer said, was not part of Madison's vision for the Supreme Court. In fact, over the course of his lifetime Madison consistently fought against those who supported the idea of "judicial supremacy," that the court was the supreme arbiter of constitutional issues. Madison's positions, Kramer said, held that judging the Constitution was "between the people and their legislatures."

The talk was sponsored by the Center for Study of the Principles of the American Founding as part of its yearlong lecture series that brought David Armitage of Harvard University earlier this month. On April 10 Yale political scientist Steven Smith will discuss Lincoln and his writings.

Ethan Frenchman, '08

Photo: Last Thursday Larry Kramer, JD’84, dean of Stanford Law School, addressed students, colleagues, and former teachers.

Photo courtesy Stanford University

February 29, 2008