“Civic knowledge is an indispensable element of what it means to be a good American,” Princeton University professor Robert George maintains.
George’s paternal grandfather was an immigrant from Syria, and his maternal grandfather emigrated to America from southern Italy. His father fought in World War II, first in Normandy and Brittany and then in Germany and Austria. Despite their different life experiences, George says, they were bound together by their “allegiance to the principles of republican democracy as set forth in the Declaration and the Constitution.”
Citizens, however, can give their “allegiance to a set of principles as embodied in a constitutional order” only if they understand “those principles and that order.” George worries that too many younger Americans are “woefully ignorant not only of their national history but also of the principles and institutions of the American constitutional order,” a situation that suggests “a profound failing of civic education at every level.”
George founded the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton to address the problem for college students, “both by providing a superior civic education” and by “offering a model that can be emulated by other colleges and universities.”
Named after the Father of the Constitution, himself a Princeton alum – though the school was then known as the College of New Jersey – the Madison Program promotes the study of “free political institutions and the cultural conditions for their establishment and maintenance.”
The Program’s aims are fourfold: fortifying the undergraduate curriculum in constitutional studies; advancing an intellectually rich understanding of American ideals and institutions; sponsoring a rotating set of visiting fellows each academic year; and promoting scholarly collaborations between undergraduate, graduate, visiting, and postdoctoral fellows.
Undergraduate students from any academic discipline “committed to a spirit of open inquiry and serious intellectual engagement” can apply to the Undergraduate Fellows Forum. Undergraduate fellows study key philosophers and statesmen such as Aristotle, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and, of course, James Madison. They get the opportunity to engage with notable American statesmen, policy leaders, scholars, and visiting fellows, which this year include Adam Carrington of Hillsdale College and Daniel J. Mahoney of Assumption University.
Through reading and classroom discussion, undergraduate fellows will come to understand the citizen character necessary to participate in republican government; the key pillars of constitutionalism, such as federalism, checks and balances, and the separation of powers; the morality that underpins American democratic capitalism; and the importance of religion in American public life.
The Madison Program offers visiting fellowships and postdoctoral appointments annually to support scholars in constitutional law and political thought. Each academic year, up to 18 postdoctoral and visiting fellows are invited to conduct research, teach undergraduate courses and seminars, and participate in the life of the program, George says.
Scholars can also join the James Madison Society, an international community dedicated to the Madisonian idea that “only a well-instructed people can be permanently free.” The Society holds regular events such as conferences, lectures, panels, colloquia, and Constitution Day speeches.
Another engaging resource is The Madison’s Notes podcast, featuring conversations with leading scholars and statesmen. Recent episodes have included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussing the connection between natural rights and U.S. foreign policy and historian Allen C. Guelzo speaking about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
A big addition to the Madison Program, Guelzo was recently hired to serve as Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship. He has already hosted notable panel discussions and is currently preparing a new web portal on great American political speeches.
George understands that though America represents many different races, ethnicities, and faiths, Americans are bound together by an adherence to the shared principles of the nation’s founding. But he warns: “An America bereft of citizens who understand our nation’s ideals and institutions and the conditions of their vitality is an America on its way to oblivion.”
George and his team at the James Madison Program are working to ensure that citizens understand and cherish the principles of liberty and equality that the Founders sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to bequeath to future generations.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.