Alan Keyes
Does Mya Berry's high school deserve its name?
By Alan Keyes
June 26, 2017

Someone recently asked me what I thought of the effort by a black American senior at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, who is circulating a petition to change the name of the school, "citing the past president's history as a slaveholder." I responded that, however ironically, her effort may provide evidence that she's doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason: "Any high school that produces seniors with so little understanding of their own and their nation's history doesn't deserve to be named after James Madison." The student professes to believe that "the school's name is not fair to her and other black students." But without the understanding of God-endowed right that James Madison and other framers of the Constitution successfully erected into the form of government our Constitution establishes, it's quite likely that legally enforced slavery and racial discrimination would still flourish in some parts of the continent of North America.

Moreover, since that understanding has now been abandoned, in principle, by a significant proportion of America's most influential elites, it's no longer unreasonable to expect that this high school senior, and most of the hundreds of her fellow students who signed her petition, will come to live under some form of socialist ideological tyranny, like that of North Korea. Such a government will have suppressed the very idea of individual liberty. It will forcibly impose subservience to the whims and passions of those whose exemplary service to THE STATE contributes to imposing the will of the collective as the prevailing instrument of history. They will toil essentially as government slaves in a society from which all intermediary institutions (family, church, individually initiated economic and social enterprise) have been eliminated, or else redefined to bring them under the bureaucratic dictatorship of whatever faction successfully monopolizes the levers of government power.

Mya Berry's petition focuses on Madison's participation in the institution of slavery, as if James Madison was responsible for its existence in the United States. He was born into a society that supported slavery by law, much as the United States of America is presently supporting abortion. Ironically, both these injustices are supported by arguments that discard the rights of human beings, on the excuse that their physical appearance and/or moral and intellectual incapacity conclusively impair their natural claim to be treated with the full respect other human beings may rightly demand.

However, James Madison had greater excuse for his participation in the injustice of slavery than the proponents of legalized abortion have for their support of that crime against humanity. For he and his compatriots successfully devised a Constitution framed to constrain government within the bounds of God-endowed right, equally entailed on all human offspring. Until they did so, it had been taken for granted that orderly government required the invidious distinction of persons that raised some people to lawful power over others, supposedly according to nature, with or without their consent.

As Jefferson succinctly put it, the founders believed that "The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others." What became of that hope depended on whether the seeds of human understanding Jefferson referred to would take root in the hearts of a people whose reverence for God's authority would nourish it, so that it grew into a result that extended hope to all humanity.

Founders like Jefferson and Madison foresaw the crisis in which the moral will of the people of the United States would be tested against the institution of slavery. Knowing that the moral hope might not be strong enough to prevail (which thought made Jefferson write "I tremble for my country when I think that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever"), these men surely had reason to know that our nation would have no lasting prospect at all unless they succeeded in implanting its seeds and premises in the first place. They rightly concluded that it made moral sense to give first priority to firmly implanting the standard of truth in America's heart, to grow deeply enough to win the Providential battle to come.

Mya Berry and her fellow petitioners should ponder the fact that this is exactly what happened. The understanding of God-endowed right was upheld by the American Declaration of Independence as first among the principles that informed America's understanding of the just powers of government. James Madison repeatedly alluded to those principles as the touchstone for the framework of a government duly dependent on the goodwill of the people, but constrained to respect the exercise of right and rights, according to God's will. In every successful advance of equal rights for all in the history of the United States, the words and logic of the Declaration played a critical role, informing and empowering the conscience of our nation.

Americans, especially those who are black like me, should thoughtfully question the motives of those who purport to erase traces of past injustice but then, knowingly or not, connive at results that will lead us to disremember how to think through and articulate the ideas that helped to defeat them. Mya Berry cites the fears of her generation of black Americans. What she and others need now to remember is the courage it took to think, write, and battle against injustice when the laws abetted and imposed it, and when death and wounds were the likely price to pay. In that context, it can seem a hopeless sacrifice. It proved otherwise because of people like James Madison.

He was born into a society that justified slavery as lawful, just as many now justify the atrocity of abortion. But he and others like him were determined that the nation they helped to found would begin from premises of justice that made conscience and the authority of God the allies of any of their posterity willing to act on them. As a result, these premises were there to be evoked by such brave souls as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Rosa Parks. Their courage contributed to extending the premises of justice ever more widely, to any and all who are willing to practice them. Better to keep Madison's name on the high schools, colleges, universities, libraries, cities, and towns, etc., that bear it, and so encourage new generations to learn how to live up to the heritage of reasoned liberty and justice, which the remembrance of Madison's life will always challenge Americans to preserve and to transmit.

To see more articles by Dr. Keyes, visit his blog at and his commentary at and

© Alan Keyes


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Alan Keyes

Dr. Keyes holds the distinction of being the only person ever to run against Barack Obama in a truly contested election – featuring authentic moral conservatism vs. progressive liberalism – when they challenged each other for the open U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004... (more)


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