Madison, James (1751–1836)

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MADISON, JAMES (1751–1836)

James Madison, "the father of the Constitution," matured with the american revolution. Educated at a boarding school and at patriotic Princeton, he returned to the family plantation in Virginia at age twenty-one, two years before the infamous Coercive Acts. As Orange County mobilized behind the recommendations of the continental congress, he joined his father on the committee of safety, practiced with a rifle, and drilled with the local militia company. As he wrote much later, in a sketch of an autobiography, "he was under very early and strong impressions in favor of liberty both civil and religious."

Civil and religious liberty were intimately linked in Madison's career and thinking. His early revolutionary ardor is the necessary starting point for understanding his distinctive role among the Founders. The young man first involved himself in local politics, in 1774, to raise his voice against the persecution of dissenters in neighboring Virginia counties. When feeble health compelled him to abandon thoughts of active military service, the gratitude of Baptist neighbors may have helped him win election to the state convention of 1776, which framed one of the earliest, most widely imitated revolutionary constitutions. (See virginia constitution and declaration of rights.) It seems appropriate that Madison's first major office should have been in this convention, his first important act to prepare amendatory language that significantly broadened the definition of freedom of conscience in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The American Revolution, as he understood it, was a grand experiment, of world-historical significance, in the creation and vindication of governments that would combine majority control with individual freedom, popular self-government with security for the private rights of all. Through more than forty years of active public service, he was at the center of the country's search for a structure and practice of government that would secure both sorts of freedom. His conviction that democracy and individual liberty are mutually dependent—and, increasingly, that neither would survive disintegration of the continental Union—guided his distinctive contributions to the writing and interpretation of the Constitution.

Defeated in his bid for reelection to the state assembly—he refused to offer the customary treats to voters—the promising young Madison was soon selected by the legislature as a member of the Council of State. Two years later, in December 1779, the legislature chose him as a delegate to Congress. Here he gradually acquired a national reputation. He was instrumental in the management of Virginia's western cession, which prepared the way for ratification of the articles of confederation and creation of a national domain. He introduced the compromise that resulted in the congressional recommendations of April 18, 1783, calling on the states to approve an amendment to the Articles granting Congress power to impose a five percent duty on foreign imports, to complete their western cessions, and to levy other taxes sufficient to provide for the continental debt. He learned that the confederation government's dependence on the states for revenues and for enforcement of its acts and treaties rendered it unable to perform its duties and endangered its very existence.

Reentering Virginia's legislature when his term in Congress ended, Madison became increasingly convinced that liberty in individual states depended on the Union that protected them from foreign intervention and from the wars and rivalries that had fractured Europe and condemned its peoples to oppressive taxes, swollen military forces, and the rule of executive tyrants. In 1786, as he prepared for the Annapolis Convention, Northerners and Southerners clashed bitterly in Congress over the negotiation of a commercial treaty with Spain. When Madison and other delegates decided to propose the meeting of a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, they acted in a context of profound, immediate concern for the survival of the Union.

By 1786, however, Madison no longer hoped that a revision of the Articles might reinvigorate the general government, nor was he worried solely by the peril of disunion. In all the states popular assemblies struggled to protect their citizens from economic troubles. Although Virginia managed to avoid the worst abuses, Madison thought continentally. Correspondents warned him of a growing disillusionment with popular misgovernment, particularly in New England, where shays ' rebellion erupted in the winter of 1786. Virginia's own immunity from popular commotions or majority misrule appeared to him in doubt. He had not been able to achieve revision of the revolutionary constitution and had often suffered agonizing losses when he urged support for federal measures or important state reforms. In 1785, in his opinion, only the presence of a multitude of disagreeing sects had blocked the passage of a bill providing tax support for teachers of the Christian religion, which would have been a major blow to freedom of conscience and an egregious violation of the constitution. Personally disgusted by the changeability, injustices, and lack of foresight of even Virginia's laws, Madison feared that the revulsion with democracy, confined thus far to only a tiny (though an influential) few, could spread in time through growing numbers of the people. The crisis of confederation government, as he conceived it, was compounded by a crisis of republican convictions. Either could reverse the Revolution. Neither could be overcome by minor alterations of the Articles of Confederation. To save the Revolution, he wrote to edmund pendleton, constitutional reform must both "perpetuate the union and redeem the honor of the republican name."

No one played a more important part than Madison in bringing on the constitutional convention of 1787, turning its attention to a sweeping transformation of the federal system, or achieving national approval of its work. Returning from Annapolis, he won Virginia's quick consent to a general convention, wrote the resolutions signaling the Old Dominion's serious commitment to the project, and helped persuade george washington to lead a delegation whose distinguished quality encouraged other states to call upon their best. Reeligible at last, he rushed from Richmond to New York, reentered the Confederation Congress, and worked successfully for measures that significantly improved the prospects for a full, successful meeting. He researched the histories and structures of other ancient and modern confederations and somehow found the time to write a formal memorandum on the "Vices of the Political System of the United States," in which he argued that the mortal ills of the confederation government and the concurrent crisis in the states alike demanded the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation and the creation of a carefully constructed national republic. In Madison's vision, the republic would rise directly from the people; would possess effective, full, and independent powers over matters of general concern; and would incorporate so many different economic interests and religious sects that majorities would seldom form "on any other principles than those of justice and the general good." Urging other members of Virginia's delegation to arrive in Philadelphia in time to frame some general propositions with which the meeting might begin, he reached the city himself the best prepared of all who gathered for the Constitutional Convention.

Madison made several distinctive contributions to the writing of the Constitution. He was primarily responsible for the virginia plan : the resolutions that initiated the Convention's thorough reconstruction of the federal system and served throughout the summer as the outline for reform. In the early weeks of the deliberations, he persuasively explained why no reform could prove effective if it left the general government dependent on the states. Together with james wilson, he led the delegates who insisted on proportional representation, popular ratification of the fundamental charter, and a careful balance of authority between a democratic House of Representatives and branches more resistant to ill-considered popular demands. He also urged his fellows not to limit their attention to the weaknesses of the confederation, but to come to terms as well with the vices of democratic government in the states. Constitutional reform, he argued, must also overcome the crisis of republican convictions, both by placing limitations on the states and by creating a greater republic free from the structural errors of the local constitutions. With the latter plea particularly, he opened members' minds to a complete rethinking of the problems of democracy and to the possibility that liberty and popular control might both be safest in a large republic. Although the finished Constitution differed in a number of significant respects from his original proposals, Madison was, by general agreement of historians and his colleagues, the most important of the Framers.

All of which was only part of his enormous contribution to the Constitution's great success. Before departing for Virginia, where he led the Federalists to victory in a close and capably contested state convention, Madison reassumed his seat in the Confederation Congress, helped provide some central guidance for the ratification struggle, and joined with alexander hamilton to write the most important explanation and defense of the completed Constitution. His numbers of the federalist, perhaps the greatest classic in the history of American political writing, rationalized the compromises made in the Convention, rendered the document intelligible in terms of democratic theory, and thus contributed as surely to the shaping of the Constitution as the work of the preceding summer. Since early in the nineteenth century, these essays have been recognized as an essential source for understanding the intentions of the Framers, and Madison's essential theme—that the Convention's work was perfectly consistent with the principles of the Revolution, a genuinely democratic remedy for the diseases most destructive to democracy—was still but the beginning of his effort to interpret and insure the triumph of the finished plan.

The reconstructed federal government initiated operations in April 1789. Madison immediately assumed the leading role in the first Congress, which was responsible for filling in the outline of the Constitution as well as for the national legislation it had been created to permit. He drafted parts of Washington's inaugural address, prepared the House of Representatives' reply, and helped defeat proposals to address the President as "highness"—important contributions to the early effort to define the protocol between the branches and to set a democratic tone for the infant regime. He initiated the deliberations that resulted in the first federal tariff and assured a steady source of independent federal revenues. He seized the lead again in the creation of executive departments, successfully insisting that the concept of responsibility required a presidential power to remove executive officials without the consent of Congress. Finally, he took upon himself the principal responsibility for preparing the constitutional amendments that became the bill of rights.

Early in the contest over ratification of the constitution, Madison had denied the need for such amendments. He argued that the federal government had not been granted any powers that might threaten the liberties protected in the declarations of the states, and he warned that any effort to prepare a federal bill might actually endanger rights it was intended to preserve: an inadvertent error or omission could become the basis for a claim of positive authority to act. This very train of reasoning, however, suggests why he was open to a change of mind and offers some important clues to understanding his political and constitutional position in the years after 1789.

Throughout the course of constitutional reform, Madison had insisted no less strongly on the need for an effective central government than on a governmental structure that would guarantee the continuing responsibility of rulers to the ruled, along with a considerable residual autonomy for the people in their several states. Even as he worried over the excesses of majorities, he reminded correspondents of the perils posed by rulers who escaped a due dependence on the people; and even as he warned the Constitutional Convention not to leave the general government dependent on the states, he recognized the danger of excessive concentration of authority in federal hands. His contributions to The Federalist describe the new regime as neither wholly national nor purely federal in nature, but as a novel, complicated mixture under which concurrent state and central governments, each possessed of only limited authority, would each perform the duties for which they were best equipped and would both resist disturbance of a federal equilibrium that offered new protection for the people. During the ratification contest, Madison was forced to promise that amendments would be added once the Constitution was approved. He realized how useful this could be in reconciling skeptics to the system. But he was also predisposed to be receptive when thomas jefferson insisted that a bill of rights would be a valuable, additional security for the liberties and powers that the states and people had intended to reserve.

Among the most consistent themes of Madison's career was his profound respect for fundamental law. Written constitutions, in his view, were solemn compacts which created governments and granted them the only powers they legitimately possessed. Rulers guilty of transcending them, he had written in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance against religious assessments, were "Tyrants," those who submitted "slaves." And usurpations of this sort, he added, ought to be resisted on their first appearance, as they had been early in the Revolution, before they could be strengthened by repeated exercise and "entangle the question in precedents." This scrupulous regard for fundamental charters encouraged Madison to change his mind about a bill of rights and shaped his conduct throughout the rest of his career.

Early in Washington's administration, Madison became alarmed about the sectional inequities and other consequences of Hamilton's political economy. He broke with Hamilton entirely when the secretary of the treasury proposed the creation of a national bank, protesting that the Constitution granted Congress no explicit power to charter such a corporation and that a doctrine of implied powers, justifying federal measures by a broad construction of the general clauses, could completely change the character and spirit of a limited, federal system. During the 1790s, as Madison and Jefferson concluded that Hamilton and his supporters were deliberately attempting to subvert the Revolution—to concentrate all power in the general government and most of that in its executive departments—their insistence on a strict construction of the Constitution and a compact theory of its origins became an organizing theme of the Democratic-Republican opposition. Madison's Virginia Resolutions of 1798, part of a larger effort to arouse the states against the alien and sedition acts, which the Republicans regarded as a flagrant violation of the first amendment, identified a Hamiltonian construction of the Constitution as a central feature of a Federalist conspiracy to sweep away all limitations on the exercise of federal power. Madison's great Report of 1800, explaining and defending the resolutions of 1798 against objections from other states, still stands as a striking landmark in the evolution of a modern, literalist interpretation of the First Amendment. In opposition to prevailing understandings that freedom of the press afforded guarantees against prior restraint and censorship, but did not protect a publisher or author from criminal responsibility for statements tending to bring the government or its officers into disrepute, Madison insisted that the federal government was "destitute" of all authority whatever to interfere with the free development and circulation of opinion. In passages with major implications for the future, he denied that a federal common law of crimes had ever operated and suggested that the essence of elective governments was inconsistent with even state action to restrain "that right of freely examining public characters and measures and of free communication of the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right."

In its constitutional dimensions, the Jeffersonian "Revolution of 1800" was intended by its leaders to restore the threatened federal balance and return the general government to the role and limits originally intended by the people. As Jefferson's secretary of state, principal lieutenant, and eventual successor, Madison continued to believe that governmental actions should "conform to the constitution as understood by the Convention that produced and recommended it, and particularly by the state conventions that adopted it." He conceded that there were occasions that might justify or even command departures from the letter of the Constitution. He defended the louisiana purchase on these grounds, suggesting that a power to acquire new territories was inherent in the concept of a sovereign nation. As President, he acted on the basis of implied executive authority in ordering the occupation of West Florida. He even came to recommend rechartering a national bank, maintaining that repeated acts of every part of government, repeatedly approved of by the nation, had overruled his earlier opinion of the institution's unconstitutionality. In his final days in office, nevertheless, he vetoed a bill providing federal support for internal improvements. Although he favored federal action, he insisted on a constitutional amendment in advance. He still believed, as he had written in his "Letters of Helvidius" in 1793, that "a people who are so happy as to possess the inestimable blessing of a free and defined constitution cannot be too watchful against the introduction nor too critical in tracing the consequences of new principles and new constructions that may remove the landmarks of power."

Madison's regard for fundamental law is not to be confused with a minimalist conception of the constitutional scope of federal powers. He recommended the creation of a national university, although the Constitution delegated no explicit power to erect one. He believed that the Constitution granted Congress plenary authority over commerce, not merely ample power to impose a protective tariff but power even to require a temporary end to foreign trade as in the complete embargo or the various non-intercourse experiments preceding the War of 1812. He was as willing to defend the powers plainly granted to the federal government—over state militias, for example—as he was to guard the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, his leadership as President was characterized by deep respect for both the letter and the spirit of the federal compact. If he was diffident in leading Congress into proper preparations for a war, his serious regard for legislative independence was as much at fault as personality or circumstances. If he forbore perhaps too much in the face of flagrantly seditious opposition to the war, this forbearance was not for want of an imaginable alternative. abraham lincoln claimed the powers needed for a greater crisis. Madison deliberately attempted to conduct the War of 1812 at minimal expense to the republican and federal nature of the country. It was at once his weakness and his glory.

The father of the Constitution outlived all the other signers, becoming in his final years a rather troubled, though revered, authority on the creation and construction of the federal charter. The source of his discomfort was his own insistence that the Constitution was a compact among the sovereign peoples of the several states, who remained the only power competent to alter it or to deliver a definitive decision on its meaning. The great Virginian repeatedly denied that this interpretation justified the developing southern doctrine of state interposition and nullification. He had, in fact, warned Jefferson in 1798 against confusing the constituent authority of the peoples of the states with the powers of an individual state government. Yet neither was he willing to permit the federal courts a power of interpretation that would make the general government the final or exclusive judge in its own cause (or even to concede the courts the power to override the constitutional opinions of the executive and legislative branches). Trapped between his love of Union and his fear of grasping power, he was never able, never willing, to identify an agency or a procedure that, in case of a collision of conflicting understandings of the Constitution, could prevent a revolutionary recourse to the sovereign people. But, then, James Madison was Revolution's child. Admitting that the best constructed government could not secure a nation's liberty if it were not supported by a proper public spirit, he trusted to the end that mutual conciliation and restraint would prove sufficient to preserve the Union he had done so much to shape.

Lance Banning


Banning, Lance 1984 "The Hamiltonian Madison: A Reconsideration." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 92: 3–28.

Brant, Irving 1941–1961 James Madison. 6 Vols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Ketcham, Ralph 1971 James Madison: A Biography. New York: Macmillan.

Mc Coy, Drew R. 1980 The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Wood, Gordon S. 1969 The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Madison, James (1751–1836)

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