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MadisonRighteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people.
Proverbs 14:34

On this eve of critical mid-term elections I am thinking of blessed James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.  He was thirty-six years old as he stepped down from the New York-Philadelphia Flyer stagecoach on May 3, 1787.   He had journeyed to Philadelphia to serve as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention.   Madison suffered chronic poor health, weighed barely 100 pounds soaking wet, stood but a few inches over five feet, and would soon be celebrated as the bright star of the Convention and champion of our cherished Bill of Rights.

Rain up and down the East Coast had turned dirt roads to rivers delaying the arrival of many Convention delegates.  So as Madison waited for a full quorum he wrote down on paper his ideas for an initial draft of a Constitution.  After two years locked in study poring over every book he could find on government, history, and political philosophy, Madison thought he had arrived at a framework for a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

Madison felt that he had spent his life in preparation for what might happen during those momentous days in Philadelphia.  A studious and conscientious man, he had devoted much of his energies to thinking about and writing on virtue and government.  He stayed on after graduation from Princeton to be tutored by John Witherspoon in the Hebrew Bible and ethics.  Madison valued the wisdom of this recent godly immigrant and signer of The Declaration of Independence.  Madison longed to learn more about the workings of a godly and good government.

Once the Convention filled out Madison’s framework for a constitution and adopted it, Madison knew that his work had just begun.  The Constitution still had to be sold to the American people and ratified by the various states.  So Madison set to work with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay writing the Federalist Papers to explain the workings of the Constitution.

At the ratifying convention in Virginia Madison pleaded with his fellow citizens.  He asked them not just for ratification of the Constitution, but asked them for virtue.  He questioned them solemnly:  “Is there no virtue among us?”  Then warned: “If there be not virtue, we are in a wretched situation.”  Like a frontier evangelist, Madison continued his impassioned plea:

No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men.   So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.

Madison knew his Bible in the original languages, and he knew history and people as well.   He had learned that without virtue “no form of government” or “rulers” could secure freedom and justice for the nation.  He placed no confidence in any elected rulers but only the “virtue….in the people who are to choose them.”

As we draw near the end of this long, heated political battle, I hear Madison’s warning sounding across the centuries: “If there be not virtue, we are in a wretched situation.”   What we read in tomorrow’s headlines is not so important as what we read in our hearts today.

The wisdom of Proverbs shows us the way forward:

Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people.

It might be too long to fit on a bumper sticker, but Proverbs shows us the way out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves.  Wisdom proves it! History proves it!   It’s not our leaders but the people who elect our leaders that is critical.  Madison warned us not to look for virtue from the White House, the State House or Congress, but to look for virtue from my house and yours!  “We do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”

Old Testament scholar W. McKane in his commentary on Proverbs makes this biting remark about righteousness exalting a nation: “A land gets the statesmen it deserves.”

We don’t know how tomorrow’s election will turn out, but let’s you and me pray, work, pursue virtue, and deserve better leaders!

Grace and peace,

photo by OZinOH

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