10 September 2008

Misrepresenting James Madison

In today's Times Union I saw a letter to the editor from Robert Wickham of Rotterdam, NY, criticizing a previous letter writer who defended the separation of church and state and the removal of Ten Commandments displays from courthouses. Wickham believes that the Founders intended no such separation, but rather affirmed the importance of the Commandments. He cites a statement by James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" to back up his argument.

We've staked the whole of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.

An alarm bell went off in my head immediately. This did not read like an author of The Federalist, nor much like any eighteenth century political theorists. I've read some of Madison's letters, and his sentence structure, even in informal communications, bears little resemblance to Wickham's quotation.

So it was off to Google. I searched for the exact phrase "staked the whole of our political institutions" and the word "Madison." I found numerous citations of Wickham's quote on right-wing websites and blogs. I also found this website that reported that the quote, not surprisingly to me, was a hoax. The main source for it is an author named David Barton, who wrote a book arguing against the "wall of separation" in the 1990s. He cited an author from the 1930s, Harold K. Lane, as his source, but it's unclear from the reporting whether the quote as Barton phrases it appears in Lane's text. In any event, the custodians of James Madison's papers have said that they know of no such quote from the Virginian. That shouldn't surprise us. Madison was probably a deist like his friend Jefferson and many other Founders. While they believed in "providence," celebrated Jesus as a great moral teacher, and regarded the Bible as a valid source of moral teaching, they rejected supernaturalism -- Jefferson going so far as to edit all accounts of miracles out of his personal copy of the gospels -- and rejected the notion of established "state" religion. Madison often expressed concern over the danger religious zealotry represented for republican liberty. He would certainly not have been happy with the likes of David Barton or Robert Wickham taking his name in vain or putting words in his mouth.

Since I work for another publication, it's not my place to inform Times Union readers of the hoax Wickham has (perhaps inadvertently) pulled on them, unless they happen to read this blog. I'm interested to see how soon someone writes to the Albany paper to let them know the truth, and how soon the paper prints an appropriate reply. It has a fairly fair editorial policy, so we should see results soon enough if anyone else had the same suspicion I did.

No comments: