Quote of the Day - September 2, 2011

by FSM: QUOTE OF THE DAY, THE EDITOR September 2, 2011
“What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty & learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?”

- James Madison (1751 – 1836), fourth president of the United States (1809 – 1817), in a letter from August 4, 1822.
The story behind the quote
This is the inscription that is engraved on the right side of the entrance to the James Madison Memorial Hall (completed in 1976) one of the three buildings which comprise the Library of Congress in the United States Capitol Complex.
The quote had been chosen by the Library of Congress to emphasize the importance of learning to a free society. James Madison had written these words on August 4, 1822, in a letter to W. T. Barry, in which he praised the measures taken by the Kentucky legislature to create a comprehensive system of education.
The letter begins:
“The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. 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: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The section in which the quote appears is here:
“Throughout the Civilized World, nations are courting the praise of fostering Science and the useful Arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and the blessings of Representative Government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political Institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter, and are respected as Models, by the new-born States in our own Hemisphere, are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?”
The entire letter can be read here.
The significance of this inscription on the James Madison Memorial Building derives from a suggestion made by Madison in 1783, when he was a member of the Continental Congress. He suggested a list of books that would be of use to legislators. This notion would later give rise to the initial Library of Congress, established in 1800. The Anglo-American war of 1812-1815 (concerning Britain’s battle for what is now Canada) had destroyed much of Washington, and the first Library of Congress had suffered. James Madison was president in 1815, when his friend Thomas Jefferson sold his collection of 6,487 books to re-establish the Library of Congress.

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