Editor’s note: A version of this essay won the George S. and Stella M. Knight Essay Contest of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution in 2015, and is awaiting publication in The SAR Magazine in Spring 2017.
The results of the 2016 presidential election were bittersweet for many conservatives, and a surprise for most Americans of all political persuasions. While much of the hysterics that have followed Election Day are just that,—hysterics—it is always wise for us to steep ourselves in history, especially that of the birth of our nation and her ideals. In doing so we find for ourselves the sure footing of hindsight and the compass of principle, against which we may test our current direction. Who better to study, then, than the author of the Constitution of the United States, in which so much of America’s identity is bound up?
In a time of political upheaval and revolution, the Framers of the new republic held unprecedented power to shape the character of the nation for centuries to come. Among these titans, Madison perhaps stands tallest. Even more so than his presidency, his greatest moment was in the drafting of the new national charter. Hailed as the Father of the Constitution, Madison took up the reigns of the Convention, leading the creation of the framework that would resist tyranny longer than any previous civilization. Appreciating the need for popular consent to legitimize the new government, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay on the explicative series The Federalist. As a Representative in the new Congress, he immediately introduced 16 amendments—of which 10 ultimately became our Bill of Rights—to relieve antifederalists’ fears of government overreach. Although the Constitution was not and even today is not perfect, its architect thoroughly deserves recognition as a giant of American history.
Little is more fundamental to the American character than our form and philosophy of government. Since the outset of English colonization in America, we have cherished the institutions of republican government. Having known the blessings of self-governance for the nearly 150 years of Salutary Neglect, it would be natural for the statesmen of the new nation to create a government rooted in the people to replace the imperious English monarchy. Enter Madison, former Continental Congressman, delegate in the Virginia legislature, and formidable debater. Early in the Convention, he submitted the Virginia Plan, which became the basic framework for the Constitution finally adopted. Though the Plan was merely “an outline of proposals and concepts” (Stewart 179), it had the decisive effect of changing the purpose of the Convention from amending the Articles of Confederation to writing a completely new charter.
His influence did not end with the Plan. As William Pierce, delegate from Georgia, wrote, “In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead” (529). Moreover, while in the Continental Congress, he had suggested a compromise that, while failing to pass as an amendment to the Articles, provided the basis for the vital Three-Fifths Compromise that became Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution (Davis 241). This section provided that state population, “including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, and three-fifths of all other persons,” would determine Congressional representation and taxation. Though this particular compromise became obsolete with the Civil War Amendments, it was crucial in mollifying the South throughout the Antebellum Period, primarily by guaranteeing a proportion of House representation comparatively high for their free populations. Without this compromise, the Convention likely would have foundered.
Once the Convention ended, the challenge of ratification remained. Although only nine states needed to ratify the Constitution, it would only take effect “between the States ratifying the same” (US Const. art. VII). New York, whose legislature was highly critical of the new Constitution, would be especially difficult to sway. Primarily in an attempt to persuade New York, Madison collaborated with Hamilton and Jay on The Federalist, defending the Constitution against antifederalist arguments. After prolonged and heated debate, it seems The Federalist worked; New York ratified in July 1788, renewing hope of success.
Besides helping sway New York, The Federalist has become the source in efforts to assess the Framers’ intent. Among Madison’s contributions to this series, two stand out. Federalist 62 discussed the “mischievous effects of a mutable government” with constantly changing, convoluted laws, and the way in which it “poisons the blessing of liberty itself” (381) to leave the size and scope of government unchecked. He argues convincingly that “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood” (381). To Madison, the remedy was obvious and “unnecessary to dilate” (377). The original method for selecting Senators—appointment by state legislatures—bore the “advantage of … giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former” (377). It was nothing short of a safeguard against the inevitable attempts of the federal government to dominate the states. Though removed in 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment dictated that the Senators of each state would be “elected by the people thereof,” this important provision helped maintain the states’ power in the interim.
Especially striking is Federalist 10. This discussion of factions contended that, in a republic, interest groups necessarily emerge, and that to eliminate factions either liberty or diversity of interests must themselves be eliminated. The first is impossible because “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire” and “is essential to political life” (78). The second is impractical, since “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed” (78). Resting on his proof that “the causes of faction cannot be removed,” Madison shifted his discussion to “controlling its effects” (80). He asserted that the size of the republic would prevent, “by regular vote,” minority factions from seizing power (80). Conversely, majority factions must be rendered unable to “concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression” by sufficient opposition (81). Unfortunately, the latter assumption proved mistaken as early as Washington’s second term, with the creation of the Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties, a system that persists even today.
Besides constructing and arguing for the Constitution, Madison’s influence has extended into the very philosophy of government, particularly regarding the separation of powers and checks and balances. Nearly 140 years after his involvement in the Midnight Appointments and Marbury v. Madison, a nearly identical situation developed around the Court-Packing Scheme. While the legal mechanisms and technical reasoning varied greatly between the two—the former ending with a Supreme Court decision, the latter with a Senate vote—the outcome was identical. Both saw the curbing of a president’s attempt to dominate the federal court system in an act the Supreme Court termed “repugnant to the Constitution” (Marshall 83), reaffirming and enforcing the separation of powers. The underlying philosophy reflects perfectly America’s refusal to allow “all the powers of government” to concentrate “in the same hands” (Federalist 48 313)—recalling that in 1937 Roosevelt already held strong Democratic control of Congress and, of course, the executive branch—which was “precisely” Madison’s “definition of a despotic government” (Federalist 47 310-311).
The impact James Madison had on American history is indeed unparalleled. Few others have had such a tremendous hand in shaping the form of our government or its political philosophy. None can claim to have had afterwards a more profound role in presenting them—while Hamilton penned a greater share of The Federalist, it is Madison’s contributions that are most oft-cited. Conceivably his greatest accomplishment is the direct impact his philosophies have played in politics, which by Americans’ political nature merge directly with daily life. The court-packing incidents serve as merely one illustration from a vast sea of events. America as we know her would not exist but for the genius that was James Madison.
Davis, David Brion, and Steven Mintz, eds. “The Three-fifths Compromise.” The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1998. 241. Print.
Madison, James, Jr. No. 10: The Same Subject Continued. Rossiter 77-84.
—. No. 47: The Meaning of the Maxim, Which Requires a Separation of the Departments of Power, Examined and Ascertained. Rossiter 300-308.
—. No. 48: The Same Subject Continued with a View to the Means of Giving Efficacy in Practice to That Maxim. Rossiter 308-313.
—. No. 62: Concerning the Constitution of the Senate with Regard to the Qualifications of the Members, the Manner of Appointing Them, the Equality of Representation, the Number of the Senators and the Duration of Their Appointments. Rossiter 376-382.
Marshall, John J. Marbury v. Madison: Chief Justice John Marshall for the Supreme Court, 1803. 1803. A Documentary History of the United States. Ed. Richard Heffner. Fifth ed. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1991. 76-85. Print.
Pierce, William. “Character Sketches of Delegates by William Pierce.” A Source Book in American History to 1787. Ed. Willis Mason West. Norwood, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1913. 522-532. Print.
Rossiter, Clinton, ed. The Federalist Papers. By Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Jr., and John Jay. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1961. Print.
Stewart, David O. The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution. Illustrated ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008. 179+. The Simon & Schuster America Collection. Print.
US Constitution. Art. II, Sec. 1; Art. VII; and Amend. XVII.