Reflecting on James Madison’s legacy today

Government Information, Information Access

By: Lisa Hoover

March 16 will be the 267th birthday of James Madison. A major figure in the foundation of American government, Madison was also a significant proponent of intellectual freedom and government transparency.

Madison’s contributions
James Madison
James Madison; engraving by Gilbert Stuart at the Library of Congress.

In 1776 at the age of 25, Madison represented Orange County in the Virginia Constitutional Convention to organize a new state government, launching his political career. In 1780 he served as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was also an integral part of the formation of our Constitution. (, 2018)

While Madison was a proponent for a strong federal government, he also believed strongly in checks and balances. His “Virginia Plan” for three branches of government formed the backbone of our system of government, earning him the nickname “Father of the Constitution.” Madison would go on to serve as Secretary of State and President of the United States. (, 2018) He also drafted the Bill of Rights, including the 1st Amendment. (Bill of Rights Institute, 2018)

While Madison is most well-known for these feats, he was also a proponent of open government.

He once said “a popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” (United States Department of Justice, 2008)

The Open Government Advocacy Network has named their project the James Madison Project, and the Department of Justice cites Madison as an inspiration for the Freedom of Information Act.

This desire for open government has spawned not only the Federal Freedom of Information Act, but also state acts often known as “sunshine laws,” requiring certain information to be publicly available. Such open government is necessary for a fully informed populace, and Madison believed a fully informed electorate was necessary for a well-functioning democracy. Similarly, as the drafter of the 1st Amendment, and opponent of the Sedition Act during Adams’ presidency, Madison knew the importance of free speech and a free press in preserving liberty. (University of Virginia, 2004)

Openness and Libraries

Libraries know the values of open government and free speech, too. As I sit writing this on the New York Library Association’s Advocacy Day, I am reminded of the key role libraries play in the accessibility of government information.

The American Library Association “actively engages in promoting the public’s right-to-know information created and collected by or for the federal government.” (American Library Association, 2018)

Federal Depository Library ProgramLibraries throughout the country serve as Federal Depository Libraries, preserving and offering free access to government publications and offering services to help create a well-informed citizenry. I think Madison would approve.

As I reflect on the legacy of James Madison and the efforts of today’s library associations, I can’t help but think about support for libraries. While today is Advocacy Day for libraries in New York, libraries throughout the country are facing budgetary problems and cuts to funding necessary to support access to information, library staff, and programming. And, although the Institute of Museum and Library Services has been funded for 2018, it’s on the chopping block again for 2019. (Matthew, 2018)

Libraries play a critical role in providing information, including providing high-speed internet to low income and rural areas. It is hard to imagine Madison’s well-informed citizenry remaining in a world without well-funded libraries and cultural institutions.

To help advocate for library funding and to see what legislation is pending in Congress, visit the ALA’s Legislative Action Center.

It is hard to imagine Madison’s well-informed citizenry

Open government

Meanwhile, over the last year some troubling issues with government transparency have arisen. The Sunlight Foundation describes itself as a “national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses civic technologies, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.” (Sunlight Foundation, 2017)

The foundation argues that President Trump was the “least transparent modern presidential candidate in modern history,” citing a lack of press conferences, failure to disclose his tax returns, and the failure of his transition team to engage in “proactive disclosures” during the transition and inauguration.” (Sunlight Foundation, 2017) They also cite his troubled relationship with the press, his lack of transparency about Russia, bans on recordings at White House press briefings, and major changes to the White House website following the inauguration, including removal of the Office of Management and Budget page (which has since been updated and re-posted).

Setting aside partisanship, transparency is an important part of creating an informed citizenry and keeping the government accountable. Regardless of what person or party is in office, we should all want transparency and accountability from our government, as Madison advocated.

Madison’s legacy today

I think the tension between President Trump and the press and the struggle for library funding would both trouble James Madison were he here to celebrate his birthday with us. Libraries and the press are fundamental to a well-informed citizenry. I think for Madison’s birthday we should all pause and consider what Madison might have to say about support for libraries and the press in the US today. Hopefully our elected officials do so as well.


American Library Association (2018). Open Government. Retrieved from, February 28, 2018

Bill of Rights Institute. (2018) Bill of Rights of the United States of America (1791). Retrieved from February 28, 2018. (2018) James. Madison. Retrieved from February 28, 2018.

Matthew, K. (2018) IMLS Director Dr. Kathryn K. Mathew’s Statement of the President’s Proposed FY 2019 Budget. Retrieved from, February 28, 2018.

Sunlight Foundation (2017). Tracking Trump’s Attacks on Transparency. Retrieved from, February 28, 2018.

United States Department of Justice (2008). FOIA Post Celebrating James Madison and the Freedom of Information Act. Retrieved from February 28, 2018.

University of Virginia School of Law (2004). First Amendment Author James Madison ‘Belated’ in Discovering Its Importance. Retrieved from, February 28, 2018.

For additional reading on Madison’s theories:

Federalist Papers by James Madison

Madison Papers from the National Archive


Lisa HooverLisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules and Pandora and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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