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Former President Visits Chautauqua

CHAUTAUQUA – Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just a museum, nor is it just an American-history museum.

In Colonial Williamsburg, history comes to life.

So if you enjoy seeing sites of American history and haven’t been to that corner of Virginia, please put it on your list and go if you can.

When you go, you may meet James Madison, a former state legislator, a former member of Congress, a former secretary of state, and the fourth president of the United States.

As president, he succeeded Thomas Jefferson and preceded James Monroe.

Bryan Austin is an actor, writer, director, and constitutional scholar.

He’s an energetic, enthusiastic, and engaging presence.

Especially when he brings Madison to life, which he regularly does in Colonial Williamsburg and which he did at Chautauqua Institution on Monday, Aug. 2, as a guest of Advocates for Balance at Chautauqua, or ABC.

ABC was formed in 2018. Its mission is “to achieve a balance of speakers in a mutually civil and respectful environment consistent with the historic mission of Chautauqua” Institution. ABC is its own Section 501(c)(3) organization, legally separate from the institution.

Austin dresses as Madison and speaks as the 18th and 19th century Virginian whose political career began in 1776, when he was 25, in the old colonial capital of Williamsburg.

Austin holds an audience’s attention.

Anyone who thought his presentation wouldn’t pack the parlor at the Athenaeum Hotel and keep the audience there for the duration was mistaken.

He plays the role of Madison so well that it’s easy for audience members to forget momentarily that he’s not really Madison.

He comes off like the real thing.

“Forty years ago, we the people of America,” Madison said, “embarked upon a singular experiment.”

America chose a republic as its form of government, one that uses the power of democracy, he said. Although other democracies have been short lived, “we have endeavored to prove history wrong.”

Madison took time away from the federal city to come to Chautauqua to rekindle the American spirit.

“No free government can long endure without virtue, without frugality, and without a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles,” he said. “Our constitution is the careful work of reflection.”

Madison called the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution, wholly deficient. Drafted in York, Pa., in 1777, they were a loose agreement between 13 nations to unite for security and goodwill.

With the conclusion of the War of Independence, the need for security seemed to abate, and goodwill wasn’t enough to hold the 13 together, he said.

“No government will be perfect,” he said, yet one can become more perfect.

The Articles of Confederation needed improving.

Nevertheless, Madison said the first constitutional convention failed because it was in Annapolis, Md., which wasn’t centrally located.

The successful constitutional convention met in Philadelphia in 1787.

After its conclusion, Madison said a crowd asked Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, the eldest delegate, what kind of government the Constitution had established.

Madison recalled Franklin’s saying the Constitution wasn’t perfect, yet he had never seen a constitution that was “so little imperfect.” And Franklin told the crowd, “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.”

Madison said the labor since then has been to keep the republic, and America has endured.

Speaking as himself, Austin said Madison is often overlooked, yet he’s everywhere.

“Madison’s invention of American federalism is still going strong despite every attempt to rend it apart,” Austin said. The miracle of its endurance is “because of Madison’s notion of balance.”

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Madison has the most common first name of American presidents. Six have had James as their first name: Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, and Carter. Second place goes to John, with five: Adams 2, Adams 6, Tyler, Coolidge, whose middle name is Calvin, and Kennedy. Third is William, with four: Harrison 9, McKinley, Taft, and Clinton. Fourth is George, with three: Washington, Bush 41, and Bush 43. Fifth is Andrew with two: Jackson and Johnson 17.

Dr. Randy Elf’s Aug. 20, 2020, ABC presentation is at https://works.bepress.com/elf/21

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