James Madison's words on the roles of citizens in keeping a watchful eye on the executive in wartime have never been more relevant than today. Madison is widely quoted, but a somewhat lesser known essay of his on war and democracy, called "Political Reflections" was originally signed, "A Citizen of the United States" and published in the Aurora General Advertiser (Philadelphia), February 23, 1799.

The first words of the essay are:

There was never a time when it was more requisite for the public to be truly acquainted with foreign transactions than at the present.

He was referring to the events of the French Revolution, and to the difficulty of obtaining accurate news about those events. However, the words resonate very much today, in the post-September 11 United States.

A key passage comes from near the end of the essay, after a discussion of the accrual of "emergency" powers by the executive in post-revolutionary France, from which he sees lessons for the United States. That paragraph reads in full:

When a state of war becomes absolutely and clearly necessary, all good citizens will submit with alacrity to the calamaties inseparable from it. But wars are so often the result of causes which prudence and a love of peace might obviate, that it is equally the duty and the characteristic of good citizens to keep a watchful, tho' not censorious eye, over that branch of the government which derives the greatest accession of power and importance from the armies, offices, and expenses, which compose the equipage of war. In spite of all the claims and examples of patriotism, which ought by no means to be undervalued, the testimony of all ages forces us to admit, that war is among the most dangerous of all enemies to liberty; and that the executive is most favored by it, of all the branches of power. The charge brought against the French Directory adds a new fact to the evidence, which will be allowed by all to have very great weight and to meet the particular attention of the United States. [emphasis added]

A bit later in the essay he concludes (and the italics are Madison's):

That the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.

For some other thoughts on Madison and his relevance today, please see my essay on "Madison, Jefferson, and the mission of Fruits and Votes."

Return to main page