Exploring the Enduring Questions

I just finished the third month of a five-month fellowship at Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. After relating a bit of background about me and about the program, I’ll describe what the fellowship entails and how I’ve enjoyed it.  In the process, I hope to convince readers of the valuable and possibly unique role the James Madison Program plays in American academe.

As background, in “real life” I’m a socially and economically conservative professor of law at George Mason University. Our law school does not offer sabbaticals, but after twenty-three years at Mason I won a year’s leave at half-pay in a university-wide competition. Law school teaching requirements obliged me to shorten the leave to a half-year, and Princeton’s generous offer of a fellowship reduced GMU’s financial burden even further. James Madison fellowships are normally for one academic year, but the program graciously consented to host me for one semester in deference to GMU’s requirements. In addition to my salary subsidy, Princeton provides me with an office in Bobst hall (in the heart of this gorgeous ivy league campus), a research assistant, and a partial subsidy for lodging in this delightful city of 50,000. I’m a full-fledged member of the Princeton community; complete with library and gym cards and a University ID that gets me into all events.

So, what is this Madison Program? Part of Princeton’s Department of Politics, the program was founded with private grants in the summer of 2000. In its own words, it is “dedicated to exploring enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought. It is also devoted to examining the application of basic legal and ethical principles to contemporary problems.” The Madison Program is not a college, and it has no enrolled students; but it attracts both students and faculty members.  To realize its mission, the program implements three kinds of initiatives.

  1. It awards visiting fellowships and postdoctoral appointments each year to support scholars conducting research in the fields of constitutional law and political thought. I’m one of those scholars, and, as will soon be seen, “political thought” goes well beyond constitutional law. Indeed, many people think the Madison Program is concerned exclusively with the Founding, but as its interest in my work indicates, “the application of basic legal and ethical principles to contemporary problems” allows for fundamental research in private law issues as well.

  2. The program supports the James Madison Society, an international community of scholars, composed primarily of former Madison Program fellows. The society organizes one annual colloquium each spring in Princeton, irregular conferences throughout the year (for example, in collaboration with Kenyon College the Program organized a commemoration of the work of Professor Harry Clor), and multiple evening talks, described below.  The annual conference is both academically rigorous and a way to enhance the camaraderie of the Madison Program family.

  3. The program’s Undergraduate Fellows Forum provides opportunities for Princeton undergraduates to interact with Madison Program fellows. The Madison Program also awards a senior thesis prize for excellence in constitutional law and political thought each year. Robert P. (Robby) George, the Director of the Program and Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, co-teaches an oversubscribed course on political philosophy with Cornel West, a famed and controversial philosopher—an educational experience that recruits many students to program events.

What do I do as a James Madison Program Fellow? Essentially I partake of a six-course intellectual smorgasbord:

  1. I use much of my time to write. In my three months here so far, I have finished and published a law review article (on tort law and personal responsibility) that had long been in progress, started and finished a second law review article on punitive damages (and had it published, in record time!), and completed a second draft of a third law review article.  I also started, and have now completed, 95 percent of a book on products liability. Next, I will start research on a second book, on Judaism and abortion. I have never been so productive, and I entirely credit the intellectually supportive Madison Program atmosphere and my discharge from teaching.  I have heard similar testimonials from former fellows.

  2. I attend the renowned Tuesday morning coffee/brunch sessions. The six fellows, plus former fellows who drive in from Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere, foreign and domestic friends of the Program who are de passage in Princeton, and selected students affiliated with the program attend these conversations. The sessions have no agenda; rather, they consist of learned conversation about the week’s current political events, about our writing, about a recent speaker at Princeton, about recently published books or articles dealing with America’s political culture and history, and about whatever else we wish to discuss.  The conversation is respectful, disagreements are voiced politely, and minds (including my own) are more than occasionally changed. As everywhere in the Madison Program, there is no “party line.”

  3. I attend the late-afternoon talks and conferences sponsored by the James Madison Society.  The talks, scheduled about every two weeks, are publicized across the campus and open to the general public. They feature extraordinarily interesting speakers from many walks of life and from across the country, on topics that (this semester) have ranged from the plight of black inner city church leaders, with the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Dorchester, Mass., to the relationship between wealth and happiness, with Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. (In 2009, I was honored to give a talk on the jurisprudential implications of the “law and economics” movement.)  The talks and ensuing public discussions (students always get to ask questions before anyone else) are captured by video and placed on the Madison Program’s website. Each talk has unfailingly been extremely interesting and civil. The speaker and fellows typically continue the discussion at one of Princeton’s many superb restaurants. The intellectual stimulation provided by these events is remarkable (and the gourmet food promotes regular use of my gym card).

  4. I formally presented a paper to the other fellows, each of whom gives a paper during the fellowship period. In my case, I chose a law review article on the collateral source rule, a tort doctrine that directly impacts personal responsibility. Each fellow reads the assigned text, which the speaker introduces at a roundtable lunch at Prospect House (Woodrow Wilson’s former residence), attended by the fellows and other interested Princeton scholars. A productive discussion follows; in my case my article was substantially improved. I duly credit my non-lawyer comrades for putting up with my legalese!

  5. I taught a group of select undergraduates. This delightful rite of passage for Madison Program fellows required me to select one of my publications. I chose a Commentary magazine article about Israel’s borders as determined by international law. The Madison Program circulated my article to the Princeton undergraduate community; fifteen undergrads (first come, first served) then to signed up to discuss it with me over dinner in a private room at Lahiere’s, a famed Princeton restaurant.  The students were both interested in the subject and quite intelligent. I had a blast.  (I needed the teaching fix, too!) Very few Princeton professors are conservative in orientation, so this Madison Program tradition exposes undergrads to approaches they don’t often find on campus. Some students were themselves conservatives; others were not but were quite willing to “engage.”

  6. Last but not least, I attend an eclectic variety of conferences, shows, and spectacles taking place on Princeton’s campus. George Mason’s law school, in Arlington, Virginia, is virtually free-standing, with the main campus in Fairfax, Virginia, 17 miles away: so walking to a conference given by a renowned speaker from another discipline is something I’ve been unable to for the last 23 years.

I’d do this again in a heartbeat. The other fellows (historians, political scientists, and a musician, hailing from the U.S., New Zealand, and Italy) have become part of my extended family here. My own George Mason University workplace is secular and mostly libertarian; most other fellows come from socialist surroundings. So the generally conservative, religion-friendly camaraderie of the program has been enriching and comforting to us all. My scholarship has been improved and my base of useful contacts enhanced. Walking to work and avoiding Washington, D.C., traffic has been a salve. Even my impression of New Jersey (which I now know to be a beautiful and deeply historic state) has been changed for the better!

I know of nothing like the James Madison Program anywhere in America.  I’m blessed to have been selected as a fellow, and hope I’ve been able to contribute a small fraction of what I’ve taken from this program.