Montpelier Fuels Global Conversations
Movements of people toward greater self-governance sometimes struggle to gain lasting hold, but there is a determination in the human spirit that drives these movements toward freedom. And it often takes multiple attempts at revision to eventually get it right. Just think about our own U.S. experiment with the Continental Congress.
Some of these attempts are political; some are violent. Recently, the “Arab Spring” has shown the world that self-determination can be a sleeping giant that awakes at a moment’s notice and shows itself to be very much alive.
It is an amazing time to be alive as we witness new constitutional movements growing throughout the world. The key debates, though, are less about sustaining structures of government than they are about how to balance majority and minority voices and the promotion of liberty, justice, and the security of rights. Again, these debates are iterative, but each expression of liberty is on a path that ultimately must lead to balanced systems that spring from movements of people.
Sri Lanka has been experimenting and struggling to get its constitutional self-governance right for over a generation, thanks in part to relentless leaders who want to see the small south Asian country thrive. Marred by a deadly and demoralizing civil war between majority Sinhalese people and the minority Tamil population, the country formerly known as Ceylon (think tea) is struggling to affirm the voice of the majority while protecting the perspective and voice of minority groups.
The former President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, visited Montpelier this week to learn more about the political and social context that led to the development of the U.S. Constitution. President Kumaratunga is an awe-inspiring woman whose political pedigree is like no other. Her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was the first female prime minister the world has ever known. Her husband and father were both victims of political assassinations, and she has survived several attempts on her life.
She stood silently in the library overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, where some 4,000 volumes surrounded Madison as he toiled, conceptualizing such key tenants of our Constitution as self-governance, the balance of power, and amendment — a non-violent mechanism for adapting the document to our ever-changing country.
President Kumaratunga met with Montpelier’s Center for the Constitution staff and remarked again and again that one of the struggles Sri Lanka is having with its constitution is it was written only from the majority perspective and does not empower minority voices to be heard. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”
During the visit, a member of the President Kumaratunga’s delegation noted, “the U.S. Constitution is the most perfect document ever written.” Of course, I could not agree more, but it may not be for the reasons he assumed. For me, the U.S. Constitution is not about its history or the nationalistic emotions it stirs in each of us. The reason the Constitution is so significant is that it is ours — each of us owns it; it does not own us. Even generations after its adoption, the ingenuity and artistry of the document engages and inspires each of us to continue a public conversation about the values and strengths determining how “We the People” can ensure that social and political contracts differentiate government from governance, and pilot us from structure to expectation.
It is always inspiring to have a head of state come to Montpelier to learn more about James Madison, just like it was our pleasure to host eight Zimbabwean lawyers working on a model Zimbabwean constitution at Montpelier this summer. (Watch the Video) To us, the most dramatic gift that James Madison gave the world isn’t the U.S. Constitution — it is constitutional thought, a way of thinking about governance that ensures power is divided and balanced.
We hope President Kumaratunga left Montpelier with a better understanding of James Madison and constitutional theory. We do not think she left discerning how her country may someday be more like the U.S., but rather how to promote a conversation about constitutionalism in her country — and how to encourage the evolution of a Sri Lanka that is more representative, more peaceful, and more free.
Want to learn more about the U.S. Constitution? Check out our Online Course. It’s free and a great way to start your journey toward becoming a world-class scholar on constitutional self-government.
President Kumaratunga and Montpelier Chief Operating Officer in the Montpelier Constitution Room