Author Noah Feldman thinks that James Madison deserves more attention — even more than Alexander Hamilton (now of Broadway fame) or even Madison’s ally Thomas Jefferson.
Madison is known of course as the Father of the Constitution. And his role in writing the blueprint for the American Republic, getting it ratified and then shortly afterwards getting it amended to include the Bill of Rights are huge contributions to American history. But Feldman argues that Madison did so much more.
Feldman argues that this short, shy thinker was a powerhouse who not only masterminded a blueprint that has served American government for two and a half centuries, a model that has also spread around the world. Feldman also claims that Madison saved the American experiment at a couple key points in our early history.
In short, Madison’s achievements are greater and his role in history is more complex than historians have thought.
Feldman uses the metaphor of three “lives” to stand for how different the three parts of Madison’s 40-year career in government were from each other. To sum up these roles, Feldman writes of Madison as a genius, a partisan and a president.
Madison the Genius
Madison’s Constitution was the first ever to imagine a modern federal system in which two different levels of government can both be sovereign at the same time. That gave us the arrangement where the federal government rules over states that also retain some areas of autonomy. Before Madison fleshed out this concept, thinkers on government couldn’t even imagine how you could have two sovereign governments ruling the same country at the same time.
Madison the Partisan
Madison’s Constitution assumed that there would be little or no bickering by political parties, which brings us to Madison’s next role. Madison joined Jefferson to create America’s first political party, with a name that sounds contradictory to today’s ears, the Democratic-Republican Party. Ironically, they created this party to oppose the whole idea of partisanship. Madison’s vanquishing the opposing Federalists led to the Era of Good Feelings, a dozen years when American government functioned without partisanship.
Madison the President
Madison had a big role in starting the War of 1812, and he and Dolley endured the humiliation of having to flee the White House just before the British burned Washington in 1814. Fortunately, losing America’s new capital didn’t prove fatal. Yet, Madison’s war effort did well enough against the British, especially by successfully defending the city of Baltimore (immortalized by Francis Scott Key in “The Star Spangled Banner”) to save America from defeat and possible re-colonization by Britain.
This is just a summary of Feldman’s talk, which I’m sure he elaborates on in his book, which I look forward to reading.
Madisonian Lessons for Solar Patriots
But Feldman’s take on Madison does suggest some key lessons for people who want to spread solar power around America today:
- Start with a Good Blueprint — Madison’s Constitution took big ideas from people like Locke and Montesquieu and put them into practical form for a government with shared power, distributed over three branches and two separate levels, state and federal. Today, solar patriots need a blueprint just as good for the energy system we want America to have in the future. It should also distribute power, both literally and figuratively. Utilities should not be 100% in charge. Instead, they should share control with rooftop solar owners and others to manage the electrical grid.
- Go Beyond Partisanship — Just as Madison was initially able to get more done by working with Federalists, especially Hamilton, and ultimately, by discouraging partisanship at all, so today we’ll spread solar more quickly around America if progressives and conservatives can work together. Solar is not just for tree huggers and Democrats anymore. Solar needs to be for Tea Partiers and Republicans too.
- If the Enemy Burns Your Capital It Doesn’t Mean You’ve Lost the War — During the War of 1812, it was more important for Madison to repel British forces from Baltimore, a big seaport and major center of trade, than to save Washington, which at the time, was a muddy town of only 4,000 residents. Likewise, for today’s solar patriots, losing a battle over net metering in one state or another will not be fatal and may not be final. You may be able to return and win it in the future, as with net metering in Nevada in 2015-2017. There, after an initial victory by utilities with state regulators that led to huge cuts in payments to rooftop solar producers, solar advocates came back to fight and win. Not only did they pass a bill to restore net metering at nearly its previous level of payments. They also added a Renewable Energy Bill of Rights that guarantees a Nevadan’s rights to make, use and export renewable energy to the grid.
Whatever happens in the states, the biggest fight for clean energy and climate policy should be on the federal level. As a wide spectrum of leaders from Al Gore on the left to former Bush Administration Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker III on the right have concluded, the best policy to encourage solar in all states will come in the form of a revenue-neutral tax on carbon pollution. Making polluters pay to release the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into the air would help solve the climate crisis. It would also price dirty energy higher and make solar much more affordable. And that would make more Americans choose solar over fossil fuels based on price alone.
How to Become the James Madison of Solar Power
In his talk at Montpelier, Feldman made a good case that Madison deserves more love in American history. And he inspired me to remember that everybody has something to contribute to the fight for solar, whatever talents they bring to the fight.
Madison was not a powerful public speaker like Patrick Henry. Nor was Madison a military leader like Washington or Hamilton. But Madison was a strong thinker, a persuasive writer and, probably most importantly, a leader of conscience who wanted the best for his country enough to fight for it in the political arena.
In the same way, today, even if you can’t put solar panels on your own roof, you still can help spread solar around America.
You can educate your family and friends on the benefits of solar power, from protecting the climate to creating jobs to helping America become energy independent. And if you’re up to a truly Madisonian challenge, you can step forward as a citizen-lobbyist to ask your elected representatives for better laws and rules on energy, such as making carbon polluters pay for the privilege to pollute.
— Erik Curren, The Solar Patriot