How James Madison Taught Me To Work A Committee And Win A Debate


Come early and come prepared.

That’s how James Madison managed to set the tone and agenda for the Constitutional Convention in late 18th century America. Not only was he the first convention-delegate to arrive in Philadelphia that summer, but he showed for every meeting , and he was more than ready to present his bank of agenda-setting proposals.  His example of how to work a committee has helped me in numerous social or political situations in which I found myself part of a group debating the course forward.

In any sort of brainstorming or group decision-making situation, the individuals who can DEFINE THE TERMS have already half-won the day. I’ve seen arguments won time and again via this powerful maneuver. Some bright, convincing person gets up and speaks early… By his speech he is able to put the day’s most important concepts inside the conceptual boxes he needs them to be in order to build the argument he wishes to build.  The shape of the boxes will only be stackable in certain ways.  Therefore, if the group accepts his definitions (often they never think to reject them), then his side already possesses a great advantage. Those attempting to build counter-arguments out of boxes made for the opposite use– will find their own constructions flimsy and unbalanced and easily demolished by their opponents. They have lost the debate not because their reasoning was off or their premises incorrect… but because they allowed someone else to define the terms.

By extension, the same holds true for ANALOGIES. Many a debate or discussion hinges on a central situation which at some point or another is framed by a participant in an analogy. The proper analogy in a debate will throw the perfect, slanted light on the situation so that your proposal’s winning points are highlighted, but its less-winning parts are downplayed.

As far as the idea of ARRIVING PREPARED, the benefits are obvious. If one practices and scrutinizes one’s own argument before the important meeting, he will find that, with each pass over his proposal, it will become smoother and more polished, like a stone at the bottom of a stream being continually swept-over by the current. The preparing debater should not turn a blind eye to any failing in his presentation, but on the contrary, should try to tear apart his own argument, as if it were an evil idea presented by his life’s archnemesis. However, because it is difficult to objectively judge one’s own work, it is vital– if the coming debate is important enough– that the preparer invites others to try to find holes in his argument before the day of the actual debate. These pre-critics would also provide an invaluable service if they will agree to be your audience for at least one rehearsal performance.

So much for the offense of steering a committee the way you want it to go, but there are also DEFENSIVE BENEFITS to prep-work.  If you prepare yourself for attacks, you can arrive at the meeting ready for criticisms, and impress the crowd with your witty and convincing retorts.  It will be important in the debate that you not only have the right and silencing answer at hand, but that you appear nonplussed at each objection. If the crowd senses you are unsure of your own argument, they will begin to feel unsure about it, too. Logical arguments are not always won purely by the best logic. Just as with a dish served at a fancy restaurant– presentation is fifty percent.

Another benefit to arriving early and being prepared is that you can start FORMING YOUR OWN FACTION.  This may sound like bad sportsmanship, but you must assume that other factions have already formed and that they have also been doing their homework.  Forming your own team is merely an act of self defense.  Otherwise, if the other side is serious and intelligent enough (and you must assume they are), you guys will just be lambs to the slaughter.

If you are wise or fortunate enough to be part of a team, make certain that each team member presents the facet of the argument most in-line with his own special set of aptitudes. Some people will be very knowledgable about the factual details relevant to the debate, and they can bury opponents in data. Others are smooth talkers who can think quickly on their feet and respond well to surprises. Every major debate has its rhythms. Try to orchestrate your team-members so that they sound the right notes at the right times. Someone who can define the terms well should go early, for once the terms are defined and established in a debate, they are almost impossible to re-define. Someone good at providing the perfect analogy should also go early, for much the same reason– I’ve seen many debates in which the same analogy ends up being used throughout the debate by all sides as each person tries to twist the analogy to support their own opinion.

In a complex debate, some points will need to be separated and teased out from the larger argument, and –in a particularly tricky debate– the right points must be presented in the right order. The wrong point made too early can lose your audience and harden their hearts against your argument.  Once the winds at a public event start blowing against you, every step of headway becomes that much harder for you to make.

Save your smoothest jive-talker for the summation at the end, the knock-out punch. This should be someone comfortable with presenting a largely unpracticed text, for no one can predict the twists and turns a good debate will take, and it will be his job to pull all the strings back together that may have come unravelled during the course of the debate.  Not only must he mend any tears in your side’s argument caused by the palpable hits made by your opponents, but he must tear down any counter-ideas the other side has successfully presented during the course of the preceding contest.

It is worth keeping in mind that, in most situations, group participants have already made-up their minds before the meeting even begins– as, in truth, you probably have also (if you’re going to all this trouble to win the day, it’s doubtful that you would “betray” your self and your faction by changing your vote). However, there may be some people sitting on the fence who you can sway, and if the audience is fairly evenly split, then just a few swayed opinions is all you will need. Also, it does sometimes happen that a stupendous argument can completely win-over the crowd, usually by enticing them to think of the situation in a new way (another good reason for coming up with a beautiful analogy).

As far as Richard Brookhiser’s book, James Madison, I had been hoping to learn something profoundly new about Madison.  But I came away from the book with the same ideas about Madison that I held before, that…  1) his work at the Constitutional Convention makes him one of the greatest benefactors of humankind,  2) his work on the Bill Of Rights may be his most under-rated achievement,  3) his essays in The Federalist Papers, alone, would make him a Titan of history, 4) he wasn’t the greatest war-time leader,  5) he was very, very fortunate in convincing Dolley (some spell it “Dolly”) to marry him.


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