Point of View: Events of Jan. 6 represent a failure of civic, constitutional education

Assault on Congress undermined constitutional order and respect for law

The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation was established by Congress in 1986 to honor the legacy of James Madison by funding graduate study focused on the U.S. Constitution. The Foundation’s goal is to improve teaching of the Constitution in secondary schools by annually selecting one fellow from each state to support in pursuit of a master’s degree related to American constitutionalism.

We are Alaska’s Madison Fellows. We come from different communities and backgrounds, but share a commitment to teaching the principles of the Constitution. We are writing because of the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Regardless of partisanship or feelings about the outcome of November’s election, all Americans must recognize that an assault on Congress as it carries out its constitutionally mandated responsibility to count electoral votes certified by the states undermines the constitutional order and respect for the rule of law. We also have to recognize that protests against governments throughout history have resulted from perceived failures to adequately address significant societal problems. If we do not acknowledge both points, we can only expect continued polarization and violence.

This problem is not new. In Federalist 10, James Madison argued that an advantage of a “well constructed Union” was “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” In the 1780s, as the states and Congress struggled with the Revolutionary War debt and attempted to establish functioning peacetime governments, the dangers of mob rule and popular leaders who would inflame public passions threatened to destroy the new Union. Madison believed that in a large country it would be more difficult for “the influence of factious leaders” to gain the widespread support necessary to “spread a general conflagration” throughout the states.

Madison’s vision has served us well, but faces an unprecedented challenge from social media and the ease with which we can segregate ourselves, banish opposing ideas, or be shut out of the platforms we use to express ourselves. Those who choose their social media and news sources based on a shared political perspective are as guilty as those who seek to silence opposing voices based on political correctness. In either case, we create and foster the factions that Madison correctly identified as the downfall of democratic government and liberty, while making it easier for those who would divide us to spread disinformation.

We share the responsibility of educating ourselves and holding our elected officials accountable for upholding their oaths to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. When they tell us that the federal government has powers that have never before been exercised we owe it to ourselves and future generations of Americans to go back to the Constitution and demand that they show us the source of those powers. This is especially true when their actions threaten to undermine the powers reserved to the states or our individual liberties.

Participating in the preservation of our constitutional order is a great responsibility. The Constitutional Sources Project (www.consource.org) and Constitution Annotated (constitution.congress.gov) can help. Both provide searchable versions of the Constitution. The Constitutional Sources Project includes a collection of other documents, including Federalist and Anti-Federalist writings and records of the state ratifying conventions. Constitution Annotated includes explanations of constitutional interpretation over time and references to relevant court decisions.

As Madison Fellows, we have faith in the wisdom and resilience of our constitutional principles. As constitutional educators, we also recognize that the preservation of any constitutional system depends on an educated populace that cannot be easily misled or manipulated. The events of January 6th represent the failure of constitutional and civic education at all levels. We can, and must, do better.

The Alaskan Madison Fellows are Donald Davis (1996), Jill Drushal (1998), Barbara Marshall (1999), Jennifer Klaameyer (2003), Mark Oppe (2006), Roxann Gagner (2009), Nathan Walters (2012), Ruth Sensenig (2013), Deborah Lawrence (2014), Leandra Wilden (2016), Stephen Rosser (2018) and Alyssa Logan (2020).