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James Madison is perhaps the most enigmatic of the Founders. Patrick Henry called him a “theoretic statesman,” a slap at Madison’s character and reclusive nature. One Spanish ambassador said Madison was “full of subterfuges, evasion, and subtleties. . . . ” Another contemporary described him as “studious” and “the master of every public question that can arise.” He could defend either side of an issue and at times appeared inconsistent. His stubbornness and petulance often alienated him from others. He was slightly built, short, and preferred to wage political wars through surrogates, but could be a master with the pen. Madison was a Virginian, a Southerner, and a planter, but did not always mesh with men from his state. He has been called the “Father of the Constitution,” but he almost led to its demise. He was almost forgotten by the time of his death in 1836, and his reputation was not revived until the 1920s. In many ways, Madison can be viewed as the champion of seemingly contradictory causes, but most important, he was a republican, a term that defined him throughout his life.

James Madison was born on 16 March 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia in the American colonies, at his grandfather’s plantation. He was, at minimum, a third generation American, and his father, James Madison Sr., owned a prosperous tobacco plantation called Montpelier. The family patriarch, John Madison, received a grant of more than 13,000 acres at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1653 and established the clan as a leading family in the region. James Madison spent much of his childhood studying the classics with the sons of other plantation families and enjoying the vigorous yet leisurely pace of plantation life. He was sent to Princeton in 1769, studied history and government, and was graduated in 1771. He considered a career in the ministry and continued at Princeton for another year while studying Hebrew, theology, and ethics. After leaving Princeton, Madison fell into a state of deep depression.

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He was in poor physical condition and did not “expect a long or healthy life.” His spirits were revived, however, by the coming conflict with Britain. He was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety in 1775 and the following year served in the Virginia convention that drafted a state constitution. He assisted George Mason with the Virginia Declaration of Rights and actively pushed for religious toleration. Though he was from a proud Anglican family, Madison found religious persecution “diabolical.” His new political career almost ended prematurely when Madison refused to participate in the jovial, liquor-filled social gatherings of the Virginia elite, and his community refused to return him to the Virginia legislature. He was in modern terms an antisocial “nerd” and the antithesis of Washington and other men of society.

James Madison’s father, a well respected man in Orange County, intervened and had him elected to the Virginia Council of State where he served under Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. He spent most of the Revolutionary War in this capacity, but was elected to the Continental Congress in 1780, a move that honed his political skills and for a time placed him in the “nationalist” camp in the United States. He worked to strengthen central control over taxation and commerce and believed if the government did not undergo some type of reform, the Congress would “blast the glory of the Revolution.” The fragility of central power under the Articles, a deep depression following the war, and political unrest led him to favor a stronger central government that was “not too democratic.”

“Father of the Constitution”
Madison has long been incorrectly labeled the “Father of the Constitution.” He was one of its greatest champions following its passage and helped establish the general framework of the document, but he was not the single most important character in Philadelphia. Without the work of other notable members, namely Roger Sherman and John Dickinson, the Constitution would not have been approved at the Convention. And Madison almost did more to undermine the document than help it pass. The phrase “Father of the Constitution” is misleading in another way— it ignores the importance of the men who served their constituents in the thirteen state ratification conventions; they were as much the “fathers of the constitution” as anyone else because without them the Constitution would have been but a scrap of paper. Madison himself said the Constitution owed all its validity to the ratifiers.

Under the Articles of Confederation, Madison believed the states, through “majority factions,” held too much power over the Congress. The states failed to comply with requisitions, neglected to adhere to or enforce treaties, did not respect the sovereignty of their sister states when it came to commerce, and ruined the financial system through excessive fiat (paper) currency. The United States was, in his opinion, the laughing stock of the world and as a whole lacked “faith and national honor.”

He, along with other nationalists, began planning a new central government. The first step was the Mount Vernon Conference in 1785. This meeting between delegates from Maryland and Virginia at Washington’s home helped build a commercial alliance between the two states and also led Madison to believe that commercial relationships could be forged regardless of the obstacles posed by the Articles of Confederation. Virginia invited delegates from all the states to attend a convention in Annapolis the following year to discuss further commercial cooperation. At the Annapolis Convention Madison and Alexander Hamilton began landing decisive blows against the Articles, which led the two men to push for another convention to be held a year later in Philadelphia. This gave them time to prepare their coup de grâce. Madison coached the Virginia delegation before their arrival and crafted a series of resolutions that became known as “the Virginia Plan.” If the other delegates had known that Madison planned to scrap the Articles and start over, they probably would not have attended. Madison set the agenda, but his agenda almost doomed the Union.

The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in both houses, a negative power over state laws, and the power “to legislate in all cases to which the separate states are incompetent or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual legislation.” The last power later became the “necessary and proper” clause of Article 1, Section 8, but neither Madison nor Edmund Randolph, the man who presented his plan at the Convention, believed this gave the federal government indefinite powers (as Hamilton and John Marshall would later claim).

The other states immediately chafed at all three suggestions. Madison failed to consider that the states were more than just political jurisdictions. They were sovereign political communities, and had to be treated as such. Reducing their power through strictly proportional representation violated the foundation of the Union. This was not merely a “small state” against “large state” problem. It was a state sovereignty against a political centralization problem. This would have led to the adjournment of the Convention had cooler and more moderate men not stepped in. Madison was defeated, his nationalist program crushed by conservatives who wanted to provide the best government the people, through their state representatives, would approve, not the best government they could create or Madison could dream up.

James Madison spoke almost every day during the Convention and as it drew to a close, became the irritating mosquito buzzing under the covers at night. He could not accept that his vision for a new constitution was being undermined by other members of the Convention. Madison remarked on practically every proposed correction or alteration to the document and often found himself at odds with the more conservative members of the Convention. In the end, the Constitution would have aristocratic checks on democracy as he intended, but his plan for Congress was dramatically altered; his vision of an executive chosen by the legislature was replaced with the state-dominated Electoral College system; there was implicit agreement on a bill of rights that would limit the powers of the Federal government more than Madison wanted; and his language was altered or eliminated throughout. In short, when the Convention ended, Madison returned to Virginia ready to defend a Constitution he originally argued against, one that explicitly maintained state control of the new central government.

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Virginia was one of three states dominated by Anti-Federalists. Madison knew that ratification would not be an easy process, and he almost immediately began offering concessions to the powerful voices against ratification, namely Patrick Henry and George Mason. Madison was undergoing a conversion. He began using Anti-Federalist logic and rhetoric to defend the Constitution. Gone were his grand pronouncements of the necessity of centralization. He replaced them with explicit recognition of states’ rights. “If the general government were wholly independent of the governments of the particular states, then, indeed, usurpation might be expected to the fullest extent. But, sir, on whom does this general government depend? It derives its authority from these governments, and from the same sources from which their authority is derived.” In other words, the people of the states had the power in the new central government, not the people at large or the federal government itself. The states were still sovereign.

His participation in the Federalist mirrored this transition. Whereas Hamilton marveled at the new powers of the central government, Madison’s contributions spoke of restraint. He wished to alleviate Anti-Federalist fears by enumerating what the government could not do. His most famous essay, Federalist No. 10, spoke of a need for a new central government to reduce the power of “factions.” By that he meant men like Patrick Henry in Virginia, George Clinton in New York, and John Hancock in Massachusetts, who, in his estimation, wielded too much influence and created state factions that made the union under the Articles of Confederation a dead letter. But while the danger of factions drove his desire for a new constitution, his later essays explained the limited nature of federal power. For example in Federalist No. 45, Madison wrote that, “The State governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former.” Without the state governments, the federal government would cease to operate. He continued with his most definite statement of state power:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

James Madison was a “nationalist,” but a “nationalist” who believed in states’ rights and a federal government limited to a few specific powers. It was one of the several ironies of Madison’s life that by 1791 he was the recognized political leader of the Democratic-Republicans, the intellectual heirs of the Anti-Federalists who had opposed the Constitution because they feared it would endanger the rights of the states.

The Federal career
Madison’s political fortunes took an unexpected turn after the Constitution was ratified. He had appeased Anti-Federalists with the promise of a bill of rights. So he earnestly went to work on the first amendments to the Constitution. But Patrick Henry despised the little man from Orange County and worked to thwart his ambitions. Madison wished to take a seat in the first United States Senate. Under the original language of the Constitution, United States Senators were elected by the state legislatures, and since Henry controlled the legislature, he denied him a seat. Henry then gerrymandered the legislative districts in order to prevent Madison from being elected to the House of Representatives. Madison quite literally had to beg his neighbors to elect him—but it worked. Madison was sent to the House of Representatives and served there from 1789 until 1797.

He became the leader of the Anti-Federalists in the House. Madison regarded Hamilton’s economic program as dangerous to individual liberty. He rallied against the “assumption scheme” (which had the Federal government assuming the debts of the states, rung up during the Revolutionary War) and considered the First Bank of the United States to be an unconstitutional act that benefited Northern capitalists at the expense of Southern agrarians. The apparent pro-British drift of George Washington’s administration also drew his condemnation. James Madison feared Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation would establish a dangerous precedent, namely the removal of congressional power over matters of war and peace. While he desired American non-intervention in European wars, he also considered British violations of American sovereignty grounds for military retaliation. Madison and Hamilton debated the issue under pseudonyms through the press in 1792 and 1793. This issue, along with Jay’s “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain in 1794, led to the final split between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The latter were led by Jefferson and Madison. In 1794, at the age of 43, Madison married the widow Dolly Payne Todd, and three years later he retired from Congress to enjoy the life of a Virginia country gentleman. The Federalists had uncontested control of the government, and Madison had grown tired of the political battles of the early federal period. But when the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison and Jefferson took up their pens and assailed the legislation through the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures.

James Madison secretly authored the Virginia Resolves, and though not as strongly worded as Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, he maintained the right of a state to declare federal legislation unconstitutional. Madison’s reasoning was simple. The Union was a compact among the states that limited federal power, “as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact; as no further valid than they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.” Though Madison would later deny that a state could nullify a federal law, he nevertheless in 1798 argued that states were the final arbiters of federal legislation. Unconstitutional legislation violated the compact and required state action.

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After the Federalists were crushed in the 1800 elections and Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as president, he nominated Madison as Secretary of State. Jefferson had, in fact, preferred Madison to himself as the presidential nominee, so Secretary of State was the logical choice for his loyal friend. In foreign policy Madison and Jefferson preferred the application of economic muscle to military might, and their collaborative foreign policy followed this course through eight years. They believed firmly, from their experiences in the Revolutionary War, that refusing to import a belligerent country’s goods was an effective weapon.

While it was Jefferson who took the lead in making the Louisiana Purchase and attempting to acquire Florida from Spain, it was Madison who denounced Britain’s maritime policy of trying to prevent American ships from trading with France. John Randolph of Roanoke called Madison’s protests “a shilling pamphlet hurled against eight hundred ships of war.” What followed was the most infamous measure of the Jefferson administration, the Embargo Act, which blocked all trade with Britain: an act that was arguably unconstitutional and a self-imposed sacrifice of American rights. When the embargo failed to cripple the British, Jefferson and Madison became hawks, advocating war against both the British and the French for their violations of American shipping rights, but they were blocked by Congress.

The fourth president
James Madison seemed the logical successor to Jefferson when the 1808 election rolled around, but there were those in Virginia, notably James Monroe, who mustered opposition to a potential Madison presidency. Still, Madison was elected, and to pacify his Virginia critics he selected Monroe to be his secretary of state. Madison’s presidency was hobbled by war with the British and an anti-war movement in New England that led to talk of secession. Most American historians count Madison a failure as a president. But was he?

The War of 1812 began in part because Madison had allied the United States with Napoleon Bonaparte, embargoing trade with Britain and not with France. Many historians consider this a strategic error, characterizing Madison as incompetent, as Napoleon’s dupe. It is true that Madison let his hatred of the British handicap his good judgment, but it is also true that he had plenty of reason to think he was justified in asking Congress
for a declaration of war against Britain: Britain had been instigating Indian raids against American settlements on the frontier, it had been impressing American seamen into British ships, it had been seizing American cargo bound for France, and there were many war hawks within Madison’s own party who believed the United States should kick Britain out of the continent by seizing Canada.

Without question, Madison made mistakes in his handling of the war, particularly in the early stages of the conflict. Factionalism and sectionalism created disaster on the battlefield. Incompetence reigned in the War and Navy departments, and the best American generals were not to be seen until the end of the war. Madison had to evacuate the District of Columbia and was humiliated when the battery he commanded was forced to retreat. The Founding generation believed it was their duty to be both the figurative and literal “commander-in-chief” of the armed forces. There were no Secret Servicemen to whisk the president to an underground bunker or awaiting getaway vehicle. He faced the enemy with the citizens of Washington, D.C.

Despite these early setbacks, the American navy performed well and won several impressive victories on the Great Lakes. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison were made household names by their impressive victories over the Creek Indians and the Shawnee respectively. Jackson became a national hero with his victory at New Orleans in 1815. The United States defeated the British at Baltimore. and Winfield Scott led a crushing victory at Pittsburg. By the end of the war, the American military was a capable fighting force due in part to Madison’s willingness to remove incompetent cabinet heads and help find men of talent in the army and navy. It must be remembered that this was the first major American war under the Constitution. The United States began the conflict with a small standing army and without the financial resources required to fight a large, European style conflict. The United States was overmatched from the beginning; and while the British did occupy American territory during the war, they gave it back after the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. Relations were stabilized, and Madison achieved a belated commercial victory when the British decided to cease attacks against American shipping. In fact, the United States and the British had a more cordial relationship after the War of 1812 than at any previous time in the founding period. The United States showed a willingness to defend its sovereignty, and the British noticed and respected it.

Nevertheless, it did cause domestic trouble for James Madison. At the Hartford Convention of 1815, New England Federalists proposed the idea of leading the New England states out of the union in protest at “Mr. Madison’s War.” Madison was annoyed by the Convention, though it came to nothing, and the Federalist Party dissolved from a sectional party into a nonexistent party soon thereafter. If it was odd for Madison the dove to become Madison the war hawk, it was equally odd that though he vetoed a bank bill early in his administration, he signed a bill incorporating a second Bank of the United States in 1816. His argument justifying this apparent inconsistency was dubious. He noted that “precedent” authorized the Bank. As if to underline that stretching the Constitution had its limits, he vetoed an internal improvements bill because he believed such legislation to be unconstitutional. He argued such legislation required a constitutional amendment.

Was Madison inconsistent? In his own mind, no, though he conceded that the Bank was the one issue where he accepted Hamilton’s economic program. Madison realized during the War that the lack of a central financial institution made waging war difficult. The Bank was the only option on the table. Madison believed that Congress’s charter for the Bank had sufficient safeguards to keep it free from corruption. He was wrong. The bank created the economic climate that resulted in the Panic of 1819 (a severe depression), and was widely hated by Jacksonian Democrats. The Bank’s charter expired in 1836, and it was not renewed.

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Death and legacy
James Madison retired to his plantation in 1817 and rarely took part in political matters thereafter. He played a role in drafting the Virginia Constitution of 1829 and offered advice when solicited, but Madison became in many ways a forgotten figure after he left the executive office. Perhaps he preferred it that way. Years of political battles had left him tired and unenthusiastic about political life. He was in debt and had to sell off parts of his estate. He spent his last years working with the University of Virginia and the American Colonization Society (an organization that helped colonize free American blacks in Africa), as well as entertaining visitors and revising his papers. Madison was aware that his diary of the Constitutional Convention would be valuable and therefore prohibited its publication until after his death, so that any profits from it could be used to help support his wife and save his plantation. But he might also have wanted to delay publishing the notes because they reveal his inconsistency— and indeed, while in the public mind he was regarded as a champion of states’ rights, in his last years he wrote privately against state sovereignty. He died in 1836, the last participant of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention to meet his fate.

James Madison penned a little note to his “Country” shortly before his death that read: “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is, that the Union of the states be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy of it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into paradise.” This statement captured his political career and legacy. Madison warned against the dangers of “factions” in Federalist No. 10, and continued to worry about the damaging effects of sectionalism and factionalism long after his retirement.

When South Carolina nullified a federal tariff in 1832, Madison was asked to defend nullification as the last living intellectual progenitor of the doctrine. He claimed that he never supported either nullification or secession, and while he had no sympathy for a “faction” of Northern states conspiring against the minority of the South, he could not agree with the remedy chosen by the people of South Carolina. He held “factions,” North and South, abolitionists and secessionists, in contempt. Neither one “cherished” the Union.

In this regard, Madison was typical of his generation. He placed the Union above sectionalism and factionalism and believed each state and section should honor the compact among the states and do its best to uphold the commercial and military security the Constitution provided.

To Madison, a “Unionist” was one who was willing to work for the good of the whole and resist attempts to favor one section or party over another. This also meant, as with the Virginia Resolves, that states should resist unconstitutional usurpations of power, because that too was part of the balance of power that made the union work. While Northerners viewed the War of 1812 as an affront to their prosperity, Madison believed he was asking for war to protect their interests and the interests of Southern and Western farmers. The end result of the war was actually a stronger commercial relationship with Great Britain, something that benefitted North and South.

James Madison is difficult to explain. He was the defender of a Constitution that was, in significant ways, opposed to his original designs. He was a nationalist who initially favored vigorous central authority but later argued against its abuse and explicitly supported states’ rights, only to begin tacking back to his original position towards the end of his life. He  warned against a powerful standing army and navy but, following the War of 1812, supported strengthening both. He declared a central banking system unconstitutional but signed the bill authorizing the Second Bank of the United States. No one so straddled the Federalist and Republican traditions of the Founders as James Madison. Madison was inconsistent, nothing more or less, and his inconsistency is a virtually ignored part of his life. He was a republican, but the Left loves to use Madison as a defender of their principles. This makes illustrating his inconsistency all the more important.

Cite This Article
"James Madison: The Enigmatic Founding Father" History on the Net
© 2000-2019, Salem Media.
December 5, 2019 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/founding-fathers-james-madison>
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