Wednesday, March 16, 2011

James Madison's Birthday - Freedom of Information Day

Madison portrait

Freedom of Information Day is observed on March 16 in honor of James Madison, who was born March 16, 1751 (March 5, Old Style -- there was a calendar change in the 1700s).

Why Madison? In addition to shaping the Constitution and pushing for the Bill of Rights, he left us some inspirational prose on the topic:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.

image of Madison's handwriting including a Farce or a Tragedy
Letter to W. T. Barry, Aug. 4, 1822, quoted in Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations 484 (2006). Image is from James Madison Papers collection at the Library of Congress.

To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.
Report on the Resolutions, in 6 Writings of James Madison 389 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1906), quoted in Respectfully Quoted 285 (Suzy Platt ed., 1989)

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.
The Federalist 411-12 (Benjamin F. Wright ed., 1961) (Federalist no. 62), quoted in Respectfully Quoted 192-93. (Respectfully Quoted attributes this Federalist to Madison with a question mark. Shapiro says it might have been by Hamilton. The Yale Book of Quotations 483.)

Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.
Letter to W. T. Barry, Aug. 4, 1822, 9 Writings of James Madison 105, quoted in Respectfully Quoted 98.

Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people, by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.
Speech at Virginia Convention, 5 June 1788, in 5 Writings of James Madison 123, 126 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1904), quoted in Fred R. Shapiro, The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations 153 (1993).

In addition to browsing quotation books -- as I did -- you can read Madison's papers on this site by the Library of Congress. For instance, his letter to W. T. Barry quoted above is here (image of original handwriting) and here (transcription).

The White House's website has a brief biographical sketch of Madison. (That's the source of the portrait at the top of this post.)

Freedom of Information Day

The 12th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference was held on Monday. This year’s conference title was “What Has Become of Freedom of Information?” The event was sponsored by the First Amendment Center, Sunshine Week, the American Library Association,, and the Sunshine in Government Initiative.

Reading List

The New York Public Library offers a list of 11 books to read in honor of Freedom of Information Day, ranging from 1984 to two 2011 books on Wikileaks. (The list links to WorldCat -- which means that you can find the books in local libraries, even though the list was written by a librarian in New York.)

1 comment:

National Freedom of Information Coalition said...


Thought your readers might enjoy knowing about my freedom of information
blog, The Art of Access

Any publicity greatly appreciated and will be reciprocated!

Charles N. Davis
Associate Professor
University of Missouri School of Journalism