Madison, Jefferson, and the Mission of Fruits and Votes

"Fortunately I am not threatened with any rigid pressure, and have the chance of better crops & prices..."

So wrote James Madison, in his retirement years, to his long-time colleague, friend, and correspondent, Thomas Jefferson. The letter was written from his home and estate, pictured here, Montpellier (as it is spelled in James Madison: Writings, 1999, The Library of America), or Montpelier (as it is more commonly spelled). (Montpel(l)ier is shown in the banner photo on this page, in what was the original banner for the blog itself.)

Having moved to my own finca, which we named Ladera Frutal (Fruited Slope), in 2002, I can appreciate Madison's difficulties with crops and prices. Fortunately, however, I am not in the predicament that Madison noted, a few sentences before the quoted passage: "And having no resources but in the earth I cultivate, I have been living very much throughout on borrowed means." I am gainfully employed as a political science professor, and thus cultivating my little bit of the earth is a sideline, albeit one that is immensely rewarding in a personal and spiritual, if not financial, way.

La Finca Ladera Frutal is a certified organic grower of citrus, avocados, and other fruits. In fact, we grow around 150 varieties of fruit, although the vast majority of those are for family and friends, and not for commercial sale. I regularly post (or plant) here at the blog (the virtual orchard) photos and notes about these varieties. In fact, while the plantings in this virtual orchard that reflect my neo-Madisonian perspectives on votes and political institutions are greater in number, some of my favorite blogging is that which I do on fruits. As I discuss below on this page, my perspectives on fruit-growing, like those on votes and government, owe a debt to Madison and Jefferson: Both men were among the pioneers in America of "scientific farming"--the exploration of fruit varieties and pushing the limits of what one's climate permits one to grow.

In addition to the core themes of fruits and votes, I also blog about baseball (especially the Los Angeles Angels), beer, travel, and Jewish perspectives on the impact of sun and moon cycles on agriculture. These themes and others are combined in the third major category (orchard block) of entries (after fruits and votes): wide open spaces. Some of these writings may be coherently connected to the major themes of this blog, and some may not. It is, after all, a personal Web-log. So, it reflects my personality, for whatever that might be worth.

Madison as a founding father of the science of political institutions

I have the good fortune of being employed in an academic career, in which I have the opportunity of attempting--in my own small way--to carry on the Madisonian tradition of being a student of political institutions, in search of ways to improve government for the greater good. This is a task left very much unfinished in Madison's and Jefferson's times. In much of my own academic research I self-consciously develop a "neo-Madisonian perspective." This perspective, as a political-science agenda, centers on two core concerns: (1) How different political systems balance hierarchical (or vertical) and transactional (or horizontal) authority patterns; (2) How electoral rules and party organization affect the balance of representation of national policy preferences, on the one hand, or what Madison referred to as the "local and particular," on the other hand. Both of these dimensions were very much preoccupations of Madison in his major contributions to the Federalist Papers, the documents that provided a theoretical underpinning by which Madison and his colleagues, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, advocated the ratification of their proposed US Constitution.

Madison is thus the first great political scientist in America as well as the preeminent political philosopher in US history, and every member of the community of scholars who today study comparative political institutions owes him a great debt. In that light, it is surprising that Madison was not widely recognized as a founding father of the political science of government until quite recently (as argued in several chapters of a book that I highly recommend as an introduction to Madison's scientific contributions: Samuel Kernell, ed., James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government, 2003, Stanford University Press).

Madison, Jefferson, and "scientific farming"

As is apparent from the content of this Web-log, I take as much a "scientific" or "engineering" perspective on the growing of fruits as I do on votes, and political institutions more generally. My interest in fruit-growing extends to pushing the limits of what my climate will support, by planting in ways that maximize the accumulation of heat or cold, or whatever conditions a given type of fruit needs--that is, taking advantage of microclimates.

Madison himself was quite interested in fruit-growing and experimenting to see what range of varieties his climate could support, as was Jefferson.

For instance, from the website of Montpelier:

The choicest fruits, especially pears, were raised in abundance, figs bore their two crops every summer, which Mr. Madison liked to gather himself, arbors of grapes, over which he exercised the same authority. It was a paradise of roses and other flowers, to say nothing of the strawberries, and vegetables; every rare plant and fruit was sent to him by his admiring friends. [from the memoirs of Mary Cutts, Dolley's niece]

On Madison's interest in scientific farming:

In the 1790s James Madison's letters to his father reveal his quest to develop new farming methods. He is focused on testing new seeds. He also experimented with inter-planting grain and fruit trees.

Somehow, he took time out during the 1790s to serve in Congress and help implement his and the other Framers' handicraft from the Constitutional Convention.

Madison also:

kept weather diaries, in which he conducted a ten-year experiment. His goals were to better understand temperature variations caused by altitude, latitude, and distance from the sea.

My own experiments at Ladera Frutal are ongoing, though I have the advantage of somewhat more advanced weather-monitoring equipment than Madison had. My weather instruments and software allow me to monitor temperatures at different elevations on our steeply sloping 8.5-acre finca. Having previously lived within a mile of the ocean, and now living about 16 miles from it, and having transplanted many trees from the old location to the finca, I can attest that distance from the sea makes a tremendous difference in the quality of the fruit--much better with more sun and warmth--as well as in the range of fruit that can be grown.

Unfortunately, today little survives of the records Madison kept on the fruit he grew and his micro-climate and other scientific farming experiments. Fortunately, however, we have an excellent record of the similar experiments undertaken by Jefferson, and they have been collected in an absolutely beautiful book that I recommend highly:

Peter J. Hatch, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello. University Press of Virginia, 1998.

My tenuous familial connection to Madison, Jefferson, and their political engineering

On a more personal note, I will say that I am honored, as a student of political institutions, an advocate of their improvement, and an experimenter with fruit varieties, to have even the most tenuous of connections to both of these great men. I am descended from George Read, who was, with Jefferson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and with Madison, a member of the Philadelphia Convention and signer of the Constitution. Read also served in the first US Senate. The passion for politics and political engineering is quite literally in my blood!

Nonetheless, I am disappointed to say that my ancestor, Read, was a champion of equal representation of the states in the national legislature. Madison fought throughout the Convention against this concept. As recounted by the Locke Institute, after the presentation by Edmund Randolph of Madison's Virginia Plan at the first quorum session of the Convention:

The very next intervention, by George Read of Delaware, however, identified what would become the most contentious issue that the convention would have to resolve: should the several states each have an equal vote in the national legislature or should representation be according to population? Read threatened to retire from the convention if the principle of equality were to be breached. Madison had already realized that the equality of the states indeed was incompatible with a centralized republican government but he moved shrewdly to head off discussion at this early stage in the convention. [My emphasis]

Thus were laid the seeds of the eventual political compromise--a logroll, really--that most Americans accept unthinkingly today:

On July 16, by a narrow majority, and over Madison's vigorous dissent, the convention accepted the 'Great Compromise,' whereby the lower house would be elected on the basis of population and the upper house would be determined on the basis of state equality.

Towards a political re-engineering agenda for the USA

Among the core missions of F&V is to push the limits of the possible in the area of political reform for the USA, every bit as much as I push the limits of my climate and seasons in fruit-growing. My exploration of a reform agenda is grounded in the teaching and writings of Madison, as well as by contemporary political-science analysis of comparative political institutions, and by another "founding father" of the science of good government from whom I draw inspiration, Henry Droop, a British barrister who was quite familiar with American politics in the decades after Madison's passing.

As a reformer, I advocate the eventual reversal (or at least attenuation) of the compromise over representation of the states that was foisted upon our republic by Read and other defenders of the small states. In its place, I call, with my feeble voice, for the establishment of a legislature more like Madison's original plan (the so-called Virginia Plan), which would have established a federal congress in which each state's delegation to both houses would have been based on the state's population and in which the executive would have been selected by the federal congress and would have had no veto over bills passed by congress. This plan was a radical-democratic plan in its day--apparently too radical--and would serve as an excellent and authentically American plan for restoring effective democratic accountability to the United States today. (If my academic work is neo-Madisonian--building on the theoretical and engineering insights of Madison, but adapted to contemporary conditions and infused with modern social science--I suppose one could say that my advocacy of a return to the Virginia Plan as a starting point for constitutional reform makes my reform agenda paleo-Madisonian!)

I also favor at least modest steps towards parliamentary-dependent cabinets; indeed, such a structure of executive accountability might well have been a logical evolution of Madison's Virginia plan had it been adopted. The concept of responsible government (as it is understood in Canada, for example) would not be known until several decades after Philadelphia, but a constitutional structure in which the legislative majority would have been empowered to choose the executive could have evolved into one in which that majority is capable of replacing the executive if it loses "confidence" in it.

Most of all, I advocate proportional representation (PR), as the logical (but unknown at the founding) mechanism for transferring Madison's logic of the balance of multiple factions in society (articulated in Madison's famous Federalist 10) into the process of transactions among legislators in a way that is more transparent and representative, and thus accountable, than is possible under our winner-take-all voting systems. I develop some of these themes more in my separate page devoted to the work of Henry Droop, a lesser known father of political engineering whose insights I also claim as part of the neo-Madisonian perspective.

Only with PR, which usually prevents a single majority party from monopolizing power over a legislative body, could the steps towards nationalization of legislative representation and "parliamentarization" of the executive that I favor be undertaken without generating the very sorts of hierarchy (or majority tyranny) that Madison correctly viewed with suspicion. That is, PR is central to the very Madisonian enterprise of checks and balances, just as population-weighted representation of the states is central to restoring the balance of national and federal principles, which Madison articulated in Federalist 39:

The proposed Constitution ... is ... neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both. In its foundation it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the government are drawn, it is partly federal and partly national; in the operation of these powers, it is national, not federal; in the extent of them, again, it is federal, not national; and, finally, in the authoritative mode of introducing amendments, it is neither wholly federal nor wholly national.

Nonetheless, the more the imbalance of state sizes grows--Virginia was 12 times the size of the smallest state in 1790, whereas my native California is more than 66 times the size of the smallest state today--the more the national is undercut by the federal and parochial.

My reformist principles, situated within an understanding of how institutions work that is rooted in Madison's insights, are the among the main themes of the Votes part of Fruits and Votes.

Conclusion

I will now return to Fruits and close with a quote from a letter by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, stressing the value of having one's own finca:

It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Last updated: 6 January 2008/ 28 Tevet 5768 (previously 15 June 2007/ 29 Sivan 5767)

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