James Madison and Disability

In “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” author Lynne Cheney demonstrates that Mr. Madison’s epilepsy fundamentally affected who he was as a politician. What specifically caught my attention was the connection between his condition and the first amendment to the Constitution.

The “people first” language of the disability rights movement asserts that we are not “handicapped, epileptics,or wheelchair-bound,” but rather a person with a handicap, a person with epilepsy, or a person in a wheelchair. The difference is that first they are people just like any other. Their condition doesn’t define them, but rather gets integrated into their personhood just like a person’s height, hair color, or temperament.

James Madison read widely on the subject of epilepsy, seeking a cause for and hoping to prevent his “sudden attacks.” Christian sources suggested that they a person who exhibited symptoms of seizures was a lunatic, possessed by the devil or a dumb spirit, or sinful. He struggled with this explanation, which didn’t ring true. He found in other books suggestions that regular exercise and sufficient sleep could prevent seizures.

It is likely that Madison used the same investigative logic with which he researched his physical condition to also examine his spiritual condition. Just as he cast aside the notion that Satan was the cause of his epilepsy, he also began to move away from other ideas of traditional religion.

He began to understand that religion, like science and medicine, needs to be tested. In order to test religion, society needs free and open discourse on religion. When government and religion are connected, it is not possible to openly question religious precepts. Thus, there is a direct line from Madison’s epilepsy to his questioning of religious texts to his belief in the separation of church and state as expressed in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Next up in the presidential biography series: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.”

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