‘Madison’s Music: On Reading the First Amendment’

Review by Bill Doughty

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson recommends works that are the foundation of American Government in his “Canon” of professional reading. Chief among the recommendations is the United States Constitution, which military service members swear to defend.

The First Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights is a mere 45 words, focusing on key freedoms worth defending.

In “Madison’s Music” (The New Press, 2015) author Burt Neuborne argues that the words are meant to be read as a poem that creates its own music. Far from that being an abstract exercise, however, Neuborne gives practical reasons and logical ways to find the music. He uses examples from James Madison’s own writings and other founders’ insights. And he presents historical and legal examples.

But before he begins his exploration, the author does a most poignant and personal tribute dedication to his Navy veteran father, “Odysseus the Tailor.” This is just part of the tribute:

Odysseus the Tailor’s real name was Sam. A gentle, unassuming man who stood all of five five, my father was one of a dozen U.S. Navy frogmen dropped into the English Channel several hours before the Normandy invasion in 1944, with instructions to attach explosives to a wall of underwater steel spikes designed to tear the bottoms out of allied landing craft. Once the explosives were in place, Pop and his buddies swam to the beach and crouched in the surf until the invasion boats neared the French coast. Then they blew a hole in the steel wall, opening a bloody path to the liberation of Europe. After D-Day, Pop was assigned to “Patton’s Navy,” a small combat unit supporting amphibious crossings of French rivers during the Third Army’s push toward Paris. From our kitchen in the Green-point section of Brooklyn, my mother and I anxiously plotted Odysseus’s progress across Europe.

“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.”

In “Madison’s Music” Neuborne expresses his reverence for the Bill of Rights: “No documents in the history of self-government prefigures such a carefully drawn, chronologically organized blueprint of democracy in action.”

Looking at a blueprint for a house, we have to imagine not just the building but also the home to be brought to life. The “enduring text” of “Jefferson’s lieutenant” Madison needs to be read as “a great poem about freedom and democracy,” Neuborne said. “The unique beauty of great poetry is found in the text itself, in the imagery, emotions, and meaning produced by the order, cadence, structure and content of the words.”

With understanding and mutual respect (and the wisdom to see the poetry and hear the music) “the apparent paradox resolves into structural harmony,” Neuborne writes.

The CNO’s Canon features this quote from President Harry S. Truman: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers!” Perhaps Truman would want to amend the quote in 2017 and 2018 with an adjective in front of “leaders,” like “good” or “worthy” or “thoughtful.”

“(Madison) knew that the habits of thought that enable free people to govern themselves justly and well — respect for others, skepticism about absolutes, toleration of disagreement, and openness to change — cannot thrive without a steady flow of unfiltered information, ideas, and opinions about art, philosophy, literature, science, technology, history, ethics, economics, psychology, sociology, sex, leisure, and business.”

Professor Neuborne credits the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for inspiring and challenging him. He builds his argument on a “great literary poem” by Wallace Stevens called “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” about the joy of reading.

In 1984 Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “The Most Censored Writer of His Time Defends the First Amendment” the venerated author of “Slaughterhouse Five” captures and riffs on the music of the First Amendment. The essay, a nod to Thomas Jefferson and the other founders, as well as George Orwell and Mark Twain, is published in Vonnegut’s collection “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” (Seven Stories Press, 2016).

“Our founding fathers never promised us that this would be a painless form of Government, that adhering to the Bill of Rights would invariably be delightful. Nor are Americans proud of avoiding pain at all costs. On patriotic holidays, in fact, we boast of how much pain Americans have stood in order to protect their freedoms — draped over barbed wire, drowning in water-filled shell holes, and so on.” So it is not too much to ask of Americans that they not be censors, that they run the risk of being deeply wounded by ideas so that we may all be free. If we are wounded by an ugly idea, we must count it as part of the cost of freedom and, like American heroes in the days gone by, bravely carry on.”

Vonnegut was an Army veteran who, like Neu-borne’s Navy veteran father, Sam “Odysseus the Tailor,” fought in Europe against Nazi Germany in the Second World War. (An expanded version of this review is published at http://navyreads.blogspot.com. Navy Reads is an unofficial blog in support of the Navy Professional Reading Program, critical thinking, and books.)

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