Portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart
This past semester I took a course called “The Legal and Intellectual History of the Constitution.” This course was engaging and powerful, and I learned not only about the Constitution as a document of history, but also about its absolute relevance in today’s political climate. Conversations in this course about constitutional interpretations and how those interpretations should be implemented in modern America were often fierce, and more than once — as should happen in a great course — my confidence in my own ideas slipped away long enough for me to appreciate, learn from, and even adopt some of the clever points of view of my classmates.
I also gained a greater respect and admiration for the sacrifice and scholarship of America’s Founding Fathers (especially James Madison), who, in my mind, serve as history’s high points in political thought. Learning about these men and their lives inspired my own opinions and beliefs, and I often found myself, when deciding my position on an in-class conversation about the constitutionality of modern laws surrounding religious freedom, gay marriage, healthcare, or economic regulation, asking the question, “What would James Madison think about this?”
As fantastic as the course was, however, the class meetings and conversations themselves were only one part — and perhaps even a lesser part — of the influence this course had in my life and education. What really moved the course to the forefront of my academic experience here at Southern Virginia were the extracurricular opportunities I had the privilege of participating in.
One of those opportunities was to join an optional field trip to James Madison’s home at Montpelier (thanks to Professor Rachel Wilcox for organizing such an amazing event), only a short drive from Southern Virginia. While there, our class toured the very room in which Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, the document that served as the basis for the heated debates around congressional representation, among other things. In the classroom we often discussed the Virginia Plan at length, and even put on an imitative Constitutional Convention. We debated the same issues the Founding Fathers had, and argued over the achievements and shortcomings of Madison’s Virginia Plan. But I feel comfortable in saying that no one in the class truly understood the Virginia Plan’s importance or brilliance until we were able to put ourselves in the atmosphere of Madison’s home.
Another opportunity, after the semester was over, and this time just with my family, was to see the Constitution in the National Archives in Washington D.C. Because of my course with Professor Wilcox, I had analyzed the Constitution, debated over its place in modern society, written papers about my interpretations of certain sections of it — but I hardly realized its gravity and import until I took advantage of the opportunity to see it, a deceptively simple piece of parchment by looks, but by content one of the world’s most profound documents.
Both of these trips, only short distances away from Southern Virginia, allowed me to to turn abstract education into tangible life experience. The classroom knowledge I received from Professor Wilcox, as is usual at our university, was incredible — coupled with the ability to enrich my studies through access to some of the amazing opportunities located near our university, it was life-changing.
(Post by Braxton Boyer ’16. Photos courtesy of Philippa Hawker ’16 and Library of Congress.)