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Opinion: MSU should keep James Madison College's name

Charlie Jones

James Madison is one of the most important figures of our nation’s founding. In his lifetime, Madison drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, co-wrote the Federalist Papers, served as secretary of state, and was the fourth president of the United States. Michigan State University named its residential college for public policy and international relations after James Madison to recognize his role in our country’s founding. 

Recently, a proposal to remove Madison’s name from the college was put forward by the college’s administration. As a college with its primary emphasis on public policy, it is important to keep the name to honor Madison’s influence on the founding of our country. Judging Madison’s failures from present-day standards is not only anachronistic, it reduces the genius of the framing to the flaws of the framers.

Every single major at James Madison College benefits from studying the founding of our country and the implementation of Madison’s principles, Jones writes.

In writing the Constitution, James Madison took the philosophy of John Locke, an English philosopher, and Americanized them, making them his own. Madison’s principles are grounded on the concept that every person is equal, that there are certain rights the government cannot take away, and the government’s primary responsibility is to protect those rights.

Madison argued that the slave trade was “dishonorable to the National character” at the Constitutional Convention, believed it was wrong to view men as property and championed the three-fifths compromise that recognized slaves as people, not property. Hypocritically, Madison did not live up to his own principles (owning slaves himself). None of us can argue with his failures, but his vision of human equality that guided his writings and the framing is worth celebrating.

The genius of the Constitution was that it was concerned with structure. After all, any declaration of rights is little use if the structure of government permits tyranny. The Constitution was designed to secure the “blessings of liberty,” but also recognized its own imperfections by including an amendment process. The amendment process has allowed for improvements to better secure those blessings such as the Bill of Rights and abolition of slavery.

This amendment process allowed the Constitution to become more perfect and more aligned with Madison’s principles. It is because of Madison, the principal drafter of the Constitution, that the United States has been able to enact and enforce new amendments and laws that abolished slavery and advanced equality.

Every single major at James Madison College benefits from studying the founding of our country and the implementation of Madison’s principles. You cannot affect new public policy in this country without an understanding of the Constitution. Comparative cultures and politics majors compare our current culture to our past. International relations students analyze Madison’s service as secretary of state and a wartime president. Madison’s work drafting the Constitution puts him center stage in the constitutional democracy portion of political theory and constitutional democracy. 

If the Constitution were perfect, we would not need a mechanism for amendment. But as the success of the American way of life suggests, the foundational genius of our Constitution protects equality to this day. Instead of removing James Madison’s name from MSU's residential college, we should be inspired by the genius of his public policy and learn from his flaws.

Charlie Jones is a junior at the James Madison College at Michigan State University and is the chairman of Young Americans for Freedom at Michigan State University.