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A new biography of James Madison hopes to change the way we remember America's fourth President.
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If George Washington was “the father of his country,” then, according to one of his contemporaries, James Madison was the “father of the Constitution.” Madison drafted the Constitution, set forth its philosophical foundations, maneuvered it through to ratification, and then wrote the Bill of Rights as a series of amendments to the document. Later he helped to set the system into motion as a Congressman, party leader, Secretary of State, and, finally, as President of the United States. No other member of the founding generation could lay claim to such an impressive list of accomplishments.
Strangely enough, Madison’s achievements were little appreciated through much of our history. Through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, he was brushed off as a secondary member of the founding generation. He labored for much of his career in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson. He appeared inconsistent, working successfully to strengthen national power in the 1780s but then teaming up with Jefferson in the 1790s to weaken it. He was modest to a fault, a virtue that may have led historians to underestimate his contributions to the early Republic. He refused to take credit for writing the Constitution, insisting always that it was “the work of many heads and many hands.” Madison’s presidency, in addition, was generally judged a failure, and he emerged from it with a reputation as a weak and indecisive leader, “a wizened applejack of a man,” in the words of the arch-Federalist Washington Irving. After the Civil War, some northern historians looked back upon Madison (erroneously) as the architect of the discredited doctrines of nullification and states rights.
Lynne Cheney, the former Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, succeeds impressively in bringing Madison’s achievements into the open in her estimable biography of our fourth president, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.1 Her study is valuable on many counts, not least because it unfolds in a straightforward narrative fashion with its focus constantly on Madison the public man and statesman rather than on academic disputes of the kind that mar too many biographies of Madison and his contemporaries. Ms. Cheney’s biography cuts through the interpretive barnacles that have long encrusted her subject to give us a clearer view of Madison and his achievements. Yet her study develops important themes, challenging the received narrative according to which Madison was “a shy and sickly scholar” unsuited to the rough-and-tumble world of politics and a weak and inconsistent leader whose career went downhill after the ratification of the Constitution. She uncovers a strong thread of consistency in Madison’s public life and shows that, far from being a weak and indecisive leader, he was an unusually able and effective one.
Still, Madison was “sickly” throughout his life, as his friends, colleagues, and family members were all too well aware. At critical junctures in his career, Madison would disappear for days at a time with little explanation other than that he was not feeling well. It was natural for others to conclude that he had a “weak constitution,” but Ms. Cheney suggests that he suffered from epileptic seizures that first appeared when he was a child and which continued to incapacitate him for brief periods throughout his adult life. Madison suspected that he suffered from a form of epilepsy but also understood that, since there was no cure for it, he had little choice but to live with it as best he could. As Ms. Cheney argues, the important point is that Madison overcame an illness that would have sidelined lesser men to pursue a demanding career in the public eye. That he succeeded is a tribute to the strength and persistence of the man.
The Revolution produced a schism in America’s governing class between those who spent the war and post-war years in the Continental Army, the Continental Congress, or in ambassadorial posts, and those who devoted their careers to state legislatures and militias. The former travelled abroad and up and down the continent conferring with colleagues from other states while wrestling with national issues like taxation, foreign affairs, and overall military strategy, while the latter were concerned mainly with issues in their respective states. The “nationalists” were a small but highly influential group that included Madison (who served both in the Continental Congress and the Virginia legislature), Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and, of course, Washington. They disagreed on many things, but not about the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. They were the first to conceive of the United States as a nation in need of a government worthy of the name. Those who labored in the states came more slowly to this outlook—and, indeed, were generally suspicious of efforts to create a strong national government in a faraway capital.
In the mid-1780s, Madison, along with several others of this national outlook, began to press for revisions in the Articles out of fear that the national union was on the verge of falling apart. They pointed to irresponsible legislatures that allowed mobs to threaten courts of law, erected trade barriers against neighboring states, and issued worthless paper money in payment of debts. Madison had observed some of this conduct first-hand as a member of the Virginia legislature. By 1787 they persuaded the various legislatures to approve a national convention to meet in Philadelphia for the purpose of recommending revisions to the Articles. They also maneuvered in their respective states to win appointment as delegates to that convention.
Ms. Cheney tells the story of Madison’s role in the convention and in the ratification debates as a way of demonstrating his strengths as a politician and leader. Madison, working in league with other delegates, proposed to dispense entirely with the Articles of Confederation and to draft an entirely new constitution for a vastly strengthened national government. He arrived a week early in Philadelphia in May, 1787 to plot strategy and to prepare for the task ahead. Despite his physical ills, he did not miss a single day of the debates, occupying a visible seat at the front of Independence Hall from which he took copious notes of the proceedings. His Virginia Plan, submitted at the start of the convention, provided the template for discussion and debate. Madison spoke often, always with substantive and well-prepared remarks on issues ranging from taxation to representation in Congress to selection of the president. He disdained oratory, preferring to persuade through reasoned arguments based upon historical examples and well-known facts. He did not get everything he wanted: The convention rejected his proposal to give the national government a veto over state laws. Still, as he saw it, the Constitution that emerged from the convention was a vast improvement over the Articles of Confederation.
With the drafting of the Constitution complete, Madison threw himself into the ratification process, with a focus on two key states—his home state of Virginia and New York. He campaigned hard and against tough opposition to win election as a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention. That was a critical step in the ratification fight for, as Ms. Cheney shows, without Madison’s presence in the convention to defend its controversial features, the Constitution might easily have gone down to defeat in Virginia. As things turned out, Madison’s advocacy of the Constitution carried the day, albeit by a slender margin. As James Monroe wrote afterwards in a letter to Washington, “Madison took the principal share in the debate.”
In the meantime, Madison was shuttling to New York City as a delegate to the Confederation Congress, which provided him with the opportunity to assist Alexander Hamilton in the ratification struggle in New York. Hamilton conceived of a plan to issue a series of essays to be published in local newspapers answering critics of the Constitution and explicating its various controversial and unfamiliar features. The two men (with the initial help of John Jay) produced eighty-five essays between October of 1787 and June of 1788, with Madison producing a third of them—often, as he recalled, writing them as quickly as his publishers could set the type.
Though the essays were published anonymously, most knowledgeable readers suspected that Hamilton and Madison were the true authors. Still, for that reason, no one knew at the time or for decades afterwards which man wrote which essays. The essays proceeded according to Madison’s preferred style: They are closely reasoned and patiently answer objections raised by critics without resorting to hyperbole or overstatement. Madison contributed essays that explicated his novel theory of the “extended republic” and the system of checks and balances—and pointedly defended (in Federalist No. 44) the principle of implied powers in the Constitution. The Federalist was immediately judged a masterpiece of constitutional exposition; perhaps more importantly, the essays helped to win ratification in New York by the narrowest of margins.
Ms. Cheney disputes the claim made by some historians that, with the ratification of the Constitution and the publication of The Federalist, Madison reached the pinnacle of his career, and thereafter endured a sequence of political defeats and embarrassments. Soon after ratification was complete, Madison joined with Jefferson to oppose Hamilton’s financial scheme to create a national bank and offer subsidies to manufactures through grants and protective tariffs. In Ms. Cheney’s view, Madison changed his assessment as to the main source of danger to the republican experiment in the 1790s. During the 1780s, that danger came from out-of-control legislatures; in the 1790s it came from an overly ambitious national administration that sought to create a British-style government in America in contradiction to the goals of the Constitution. There was nothing inconsistent or unprincipled in Madison’s changed assessment of the rapidly changing political environment. Nor, as she argues, did Madison contradict himself in opposing Hamilton’s broad understanding of implied powers under which Congress could adopt any measure not specifically prohibited by the Constitution. The dispute between the two factions escalated through the 1790s as they squared off on new controversies—the revolution in France, the war between France and Great Britain, the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the prospect of war with France.
In the short run, Madison (and Jefferson) lost most of these battles. Washington sided with Hamilton on his commercial system and with Jay on his negotiated treaty with Great Britain. John Adams (narrowly) defeated Jefferson in the presidential contest of 1796. As members of a minority in Congress, they had little power to stop the Alien and Sedition Acts. In response to those statutes, Madison in 1798 drafted the Virginia Resolutions (approved by Virginia’s legislature) in which he wrote that the national union is a compact among the states and that, therefore, the states should “interpose” themselves to block the administration of an unconstitutional law. He did not specify how interposition would work, other than to encourage cooperation among the states to block enforcement of a law until political developments permitted an outright repeal. He never used the terms “nullification” or “secession,” as Ms. Cheney emphasizes, but seemed to view interposition as a mechanism to allow for delay, deliberation, and counter-organization.
In proposing such a remedy, Madison was undoubtedly looking ahead to the election of 1800 as a likely occasion for turning out the incumbent administration and reversing the Alien and Sedition Acts. In laying those plans, Jefferson and Madison resorted to still another extra-constitutional remedy for the challenges posed by Hamilton and his allies. Viewing Hamilton as the head of a faction inside the government, they took their case to the people by creating a political party whose purpose was to organize the voters to oppose the unwarranted expansion of national power. Their party—the Republican Party (now the Democratic Party)—was the first popular party of the modern age and, indeed, the original opposition party in the United States. In resorting to that remedy, Jefferson and Madison acknowledged that the Constitution alone could not settle every conflict. Though Jefferson was the titular head of the party, Madison (as Ms. Cheney emphasizes) supplied the theoretical and rhetorical rationale for it. Led by Jefferson, the party carried the election of 1800, allowing for a peaceful transition of power from one party to another. It then carried five consecutive presidential contests from 1804 to 1820, a sequence of elections that also carried Madison into the White House and in the process remade the early Republic. Madison, more than any other individual, was the inventor of the nation’s original political party.
Madison’s tenure as Secretary of State under Jefferson and later as President for two terms was dominated by a series of crises in foreign affairs. The ongoing war between France and Great Britain divided the two parties in the United States and created occasions for resentment against both of the warring nations. The British especially were guilty of seizing American ships on the high seas, impressing U.S. sailors into the British Navy, and arming Indian tribes to hold back expansion in the Northwest Territory. Jefferson and Madison held to the faith that the United States could change the conduct of established states by peaceful measures. Their trade embargo in 1807 succeeded mainly in inflaming opposition in New England and imposing economic hardships on Americans but failed to change the conduct of the belligerents in Europe. Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain when it was clear that these measures would never succeed. In that war the United States suffered disasters on land—the British invasion of Washington—but important successes at sea such that the United States came out of the conflict as a maritime rival to Great Britain. The end of the wars in Europe in 1814 also brought an end to the issues that brought the United States into those conflicts. If the United States did not win the war, then neither did it lose it. Madison left office in 1817 with the nation at peace, the Federalist Party in ruins, and his successor—Monroe—presiding over an “era of good feelings.”
Madison lived on for another two decades, passing away in 1836 at the age of eighty-five, the last of the signers of the United States Constitution. He lived long enough to see slavery and sectionalism emerge as dominating issues in national politics and the doctrines of nullification and interposition used by southerners as excuses to defy national laws. Ms. Cheney writes sensitively but clearly about the situation in which her subject found himself. Madison, as both an owner of slaves and an architect of American liberty, held painfully ambivalent views about an institution that was deeply entrenched in his state and region but also manifestly at odds with the founding principles of the nation. In his last years, Madison saw secession and disunion as possibilities on the horizon. In his Advice to My Country, written in 1830 but published after his death, he wrote: “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”
Ms. Cheney looks back on Madison’s long life as a window through which we can see again the great issues and personalities that shaped the life of the early Republic. James Madison: A Life Reconsidered is an engaging, enlightening, and highly readable study of the man and his era—and is the best single-volume biography we now have of that misunderstood and under-appreciated member of the founding generation.
1 James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, by Lynne Cheney; Viking, 564 pages, $36.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 June 2014, on page 18
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