Constitutional Matters: The Father of the Constitution, James Madison
By Dean A. Dohrman, Ph.D., ALPF Senior Fellow & Executive Board Member
This is the fourth in a series of short essays focusing on our constitutional history and constitutional leaders, all of whom had a significant impact. This series will attempt to relate the unique features that defined their leadership with an eye toward elucidation of our constitutional system as well as a deeper understanding of our national history.Although he may have been short in stature (about 5’4”), James Madison cast a long shadow among the Founders. He constructed the concept of many of the features we now take for granted in our American constitutional system, among them checks and balances and the separation of powers. A good argument could be made that Madison constructed the constitutional framework that has kept our country functioning for over 200 years.
Born to a wealthy Virginia planter, Madison would join the struggle for American independence during its early stages. Madison became a member of the local Committee of Safety (which grew out of the early Committees of Correspondence serving as lines of communication, and the Committees of Inspection to enforce the boycott against British goods, the Committees of Safety acted as quasi-governments during the deterioration of British authority), and then joining the local militia under his father’s command. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates and worked with Thomas Jefferson, with whom he would develop a close relationship, to strengthen religious freedom in the state. He served as a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Confederation Congress. He played a vital role in convincing Virginia to give up its claims of western territory and giving title to the U.S. This breakthrough allowed large and small states to operate in a better atmosphere of cooperation. In the late 1780s he began to share George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s convictions that changes were necessary to preserve the union. It would be in Philadelphia that he would make his most permanent mark.
Originally hoping to amend the Articles of Confederation into an instrument to promote unity among the states, Madison began to favor extensive changes. After securing the support of Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Madison helped move the Philadelphia Convention toward the drafting of a new constitution. Madison wrote what is known as the Virginia Plan which proposed a bicameral legislature (originally both chambers would be based on population), and separate branches: the legislature, executive, and judicial. The primary rival plan (Hamilton’s plan was quickly dispensed by the delegates) proved to be the New Jersey Plan which truly amended the Articles by expanding the commerce powers and taxing authority of the Confederation Congress. These proposals set the stage for a summer-long debate about the nature of the new constitutional system. Madison and the group that would become the Federalists sought to greatly enhance and develop a truly national government. Patrick Henry and the group that we know as Anti-Federalists sought to preserve state sovereignty. In the end, the compromise between a confederation and a unitary government (such as the British system) became the federal system of shared powers we are familiar with today. The major breakthrough we know by the name of the Connecticut, or Great, Compromise. This gave us the proportional representation of the House of Representatives and the equal representation of the states, but it was much more than the number of members in each chamber, it established the principle that all states would have a stake in the new system while it also attempted to serve the interests of citizens (or the governed if you will). Madison debated tirelessly throughout the summer, and finally his efforts paid off with a new plan to send to the states for ratification.
Madison did not end his efforts at Philadelphia. Facing stiff resistance from the Anti-Federalists, Madison joined Hamilton and John Jay in penning the Federalist Papers in support of the Constitution. This collection of 85 newspaper essays would also be printed as a book and distributed throughout the U.S. Madison became a delegate to the Virginia ratification convention and played a persuasive role in its adoption by this critical member of the new union. Although he sought a place within the new U.S. Senate, the Virginia state legislature did not select him (the people did not vote on senators until the adoption of the 17th Amendment), so he ran for the House of Representatives and won. There he set about developing a bill of rights for the new constitution, a measure that responded to the criticisms of the Anti-Federalists. Ten of his 12 proposals would soon be adopted and are considered an integral part of our constitutional system.
Madison continued his close relationship with Jefferson, and the elder statesman would influence Madison as he served in the new government. He helped to develop the Democratic-Republican Party. He championed states rights with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, he did not support the use of state nullification of federal laws to protect Southern slavery and cause tension within the Union. As Secretary of State, he helped Jefferson consummate the Louisiana Purchase which was certainly not listed as a power of the federal government. As president during the War of 1812, he came to appreciate the national bank (because of the difficulty of funding the war), a standing army (blaming the lack of state militia support in the failure to capture Canada), tax reform, and Clay’s American System to develop infrastructure. (During the war, his wife, Dolley, is credited with saving the White House portrait of George Washington just before the British burned the executive residence.) In the end, war with the British began to lay the groundwork for a more unified America, at least until it became decisively split over the issue of slavery.
It is a bit difficult to place a political label on Madison. Somewhat like Jefferson, Madison seems to be a puzzle, even baffling to some people. However, we might satisfy ourselves viewing him as a defender of the modern republican experiment who spent his life seeking a workable solution, and one who found a lasting framework for self-government.