UZZELL: Madison’s 5 lessons for overcoming polarization (Part 3)

Portrait of James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, and the fourth President of the United States | The White House Historical Association

Lesson 4: Never allow political disagreements to get personal.

In Madison’s day, it was taken for granted that gentlemen did not cast personal aspersions against their adversaries. This rule was not universally observed, of course; contemporaneous newspapers were infamous for their personal invective. But the ruling elite tended to hold itself to a higher standard than the scandalmongers.

In his public speeches, Madison could be a forceful voice for his political party, but he never allowed his criticisms to get personal. Toward the end of his life, Madison grew even more scrupulous: he actively concealed the faults he discerned in others. Dolley explained his editorial practice when preparing his private papers for publication: “He desired me to read them over, and if any letter, line, or word struck me as being calculated to injure the feelings of any one, or wrong in themselves, that I would withdraw them or it.”

Madison’s surviving correspondence is often stamped with clues revealing this editorial license. In the most humorous instance, Madison had originally written in code to Jefferson that the Marquis de Lafayette was “as amiable a man as his vanity will admit.” Years later, when reviewing that letter, he evidently regretted the ungenerous sentiment. He blacked out the original code numbers and wrote over Jefferson’s decoded sentence — even imitating Jefferson’s handwriting as he did so — in order to render the sentence: “I take him to be as amiable a man as can be imagined.” Madison’s earlier correspondence probably contained many more cutting remarks that we will never discover, because he did a thorough job of scrubbing them before his papers were published.

Madison’s active avoidance of all personal affronts, even during political disagreements, is a standard of conduct sadly foreign to today’s political discourse. Yet ad hominem is listed among the logical fallacies for a reason: it never improves our political understanding but invariably poisons our political atmosphere.

But the fact that Madison needed to remove acerbic remarks from his earlier correspondence shows that he did not always abide by his highest standards. And that fact reminds us of the most important lesson of all.

Lesson 5: Repentance.

As Madison grew older, he eventually regretted some of his youthful excesses. Particularly when the younger Madison wrote privately or anonymously (his “Party Press” and “Helvidius” essays were the anonymous blog posts of their day), he sometimes stooped to accusing his political adversaries of malevolent intent. 

Madison later described feeling “consciousness & regret” over those earlier compositions. Although he did not repent the positions he had defended, he thought these essays breathed a party spirit “which was of no advantage either to the subject, or to the Author.” Struggling to give an account of one broadside in his 1790s oeuvre, he wrote: “The temper of the pamphlet is explained if not excused by the excitements of the period.”

One of the biggest problems with a hyper-partisan era is that it produces excitements that tempt even capable and well-meaning individuals into misbehavior that they might spurn in better moments. Madison was right: there is no excuse for such vitriolic behavior; ultimately, the only recourse is regret, remorse and a resolution to do better in the future. Unless our political and thought leaders adopt this lesson and reconsider their own contributions to today’s toxic political climate, there is no hope for improvement.

The stakes are high, since the surest and most final way to resolve polarization is through armed conflict. The most hyper-partisan era in our history, after all, was not the 1790s; it was the 1850s, which ended in the Civil War. Every civil war is simply partisanship that got out of hand.

Lynn Uzzell teaches American politics and rhetoric at the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University. For four years she was also the scholar in residence at the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier. She specializes in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the political thought of James Madison.

This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind. This is the final installment of a three-part series in the North State Journal. Republished with attribution.