Summer with the Constitution
Annelise Madison '14 Gains An Appreciation for James Madison's "Incredible Creation"
"Imagine you have three months, four thousand books, a blank piece of paper, and a quill pen, and you have just been assigned the task of drafting a new plan of governance. Where would you start? What would you include? How would you convince people scattered all over a vast expanse of territory in an infant nation to accept it?"
This was the daunting task posed to me by a tour guide at Montpelier as I stood in awe in the library of the only man who proved himself exceedingly capable of such an undertaking--the Great Little (James) Madison. It was my first day of work at the Center for the Constitution, a non-profit organization located on the grounds of Montpelier and dedicated to furthering the general public's knowledge of the Constitution. Because I love to be challenged, I knew I had come to the right place for a summer internship.
In the serene beauty of the Blue Ridge foothills, I had the privilege to work and live. I had 24-hour access to the 2600-acre Montpelier, which included my new favorite place--the steps of the mansion at sunset. I ran the trails of the Old Growth Forest, which Madison, leery of the effects of deforestation, took great pains to preserve. I read in his garden. And, most importantly, I researched and wrote in an office at the Center--just down the hill from where Madison researched and wrote in the comfort of his home.
Throughout the summer, I valued the substantive work that the Center assigned to me. I conducted research for and organized the modules of future online courses about the Founding period that will complement the two courses the Center already offers for free on their website (www.learn.montpelier.org). Occasionally the staff asked me to research thought-provoking questions, such as the relationship between the electrification of the South and the increase of civil rights. Throughout the summer, I had the opportunity to attend the week-long seminars that the Center hosts on various topics related to the Constitution. I could not have asked for a more multi-faceted, comprehensive summer experience.
I was surrounded by big thinkers who from day one renewed my energy for the study of the Constitution. They love learning for its own sake, and they seek to pass this passion on to others. Steering clear of political biases, they inform modern debates on the Constitution with factual evidence. They treated me like a colleague and invited me to participate in everything from a fieldtrip to Fort McHenry, where the "Star Spangled Banner" flew during the War of 1812, to daily lunchtime yoga sessions. I formed lasting relationships with the Center's staff, many of whom I consider mentors.
Even though I have received a superb education at W&L, I did not have the mental fortitude to create an ingenious and lasting system of governance in my three months at Montpelier. Fortunately, James Madison's incredible creation is still going strong, and I had the privilege to--in some small way--help increase the American understanding of his innovative system. On this year's Constitution Day (Sept. 17), which celebrates the creation and signing of the Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention, I am more appreciative than ever of the vision, insight and leadership encompassed in our unique and unparalleled scheme of governance.