James Madison – or Should I Say Publius – Understood the Value of Anonymous Speech

April 4, 2024 | Luke Wachob

A bipartisan group of Virginia legislators recently defeated a slew of bills that would have imposed new restrictions and reporting requirements on political advocacy in the state. This win for free speech harkens back to the early days of the Republic, when Americans zealously guarded their newfound civil liberties. Yet, a letter to the Alexandria Times argues that James Madison himself would be disappointed by the outcome.

The letter, which fails to disclose the author’s position as Coordinator for BigMoneyOutVA, a group that supported the failed bills, makes no historical argument to support its claim. I will make one to undermine it.

James Madison would be proud of his home state for standing up for associational privacy and free speech. Madison famously used a pen name for his most influential work advocating for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison signed his Federalist Papers essays under the name Publius. Other prominent political pamphlets in that era, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, were similarly authored and published anonymously.

Today, some would no doubt attack Madison and his fellow founders as a nefarious “dark money” group. After all, Americans who read The Federalist Papers had no idea whether they were the product of well-intentioned individuals or powerful business interests. They judged the arguments based on their merits, not their supporters.

The Founding Fathers understood that debate and rationality should carry the day, not fame or superstition. Efforts to force people to expose their personal information when speaking about the government violate privacy and chill free speech. They also fuel harassment and misinformation as extremists seek to weaponize the information to target their critics and opponents.

If there’s a former U.S. President who would be dismayed by Virginia’s embrace of personal privacy, it would likely be Richard Nixon. He surely would have liked to include supporters of groups that opposed his agenda on his infamous “enemies list.”

Madison, however, chose privacy in his day and likely would do the same now. The letter-writer invokes Sunshine Week in calling for more laws forcing donor disclosure, but we must not forget: Transparency is for the government. People have a right to privacy.