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 Montpelier Magazine

Painting by Howard Cristy, Courtesy of the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress

The Constitution Years

Madison Rescues the Young Republic

James Madison: The Key to Our Nation, Installment No. 3
By Devin Bent, founding director of the James Madison Center
With Randy Jones

With the ordeal of revolution over in 1783, the victorious new American republic soon discovered that peace was not quite so unifying a force as war.

The fledgling nation was sinking into a morass of unbridled self-interest, as 13 independent American states flexed and flaunted their autonomy not only from Britain but also from each other.

The new nation, which under the Articles of Confederation had no power to tax, slid toward insolvency, as the states refused to pay their allotted share of the costs of nationhood, practiced predatory trade practices and issued competing paper currencies.

"Such was the aspect of things," James Madison would later recall, "that in the eyes of the best friends of liberty, a crisis had arrived which was to decide whether the American experiment was to be a blessing to the world, or to blast for ever the hopes which the republican cause had inspired."

Europeans watched and waited, fully expecting that self-government would dissolve into chaos and revert to monarchy or despotism. That was, after all, Europe's experience. Most political philosophers believed that republics could function only in small geographic areas, certainly not on a scale that eastern North America represented. And even in America, Madison feared, some "lean toward a monarchical government" or "are swayed by very indigested ideas."

Madison, however, acutely aware of the historic opportunity to secure self-government, determined that American republicanism would avoid catastrophe and follow through on the promise of the older generation of American revolutionaries.

The 36-year-old Madison took the initiative, encouraged by George Washington, the most admired of those veterans, who wrote to him, "Thirteen Sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the foederal head will soon bring ruin on the whole. …" Teaming with a remarkable group of his peers - the next generation of revolutionaries - Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson among them, Madison began to shape a new and sustainable republic.

He had seen for himself the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation while serving in its Congress. He had made repeated futile attempts to strengthen the articles. Sensing the impending crisis, while serving in Virginia's legislature, Madison read deeply in political philosophy, economics and history. He wrote a treatise on ancient and contemporary confederations and penned a preparatory memorandum on "Vices of the Political system of the U. States."

Working with Hamilton at the 1786 Annapolis Convention, Madison engineered the call for a Constitutional Convention. And he left nothing to chance, hurrying back to Virginia to secure its support and the selection of the revered Washington to head its delegation. Then, elected to the Confederation Congress, he traveled to New York to gain its acquiescence.

Madison's purpose was to create a national government with authority to levy taxes, regulate trade, negotiate treaties and make the awesome decisions of peace or war. The solution Madison brought with him to the Convention was his 15-point Virginia Plan, which proposed scrapping the Articles of Confederation and creating a national executive and a two-house legislature proportionally reflecting each state's population. His plan set the agenda for discussion at Philadelphia.

The brilliant Alexander Hamilton, who like Madison foresaw the role of America as a world power through a strong national government, proved to be a nightmare. In a six-hour speech, he espoused the very ideas Madison's opponents most feared: a powerful chief executive chosen for life with an absolute veto - in other words, an elected monarch. His proposal sank like a stone, and he went home to New York

Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania was a more effective spokesman of a strong national government. He argued that the alternative was "a despot twenty years hence, for come he must."

The battled raged for more than a month, the smaller states fighting for the New Jersey plan, which was simply a modification of the Articles of Confederation. They feared a strong national government would leave them overrun by the large states, whose delegates countered that the small had no reason to worry. Gunning Bedford of Delaware raged at them: "I do not, gentlemen, trust you!"

The creative challenge, was, in Madison's words, "the due partition of power between the General and local Governments."

The "Connecticut Compromise" the convention delegates finally wrangled seems obvious to us today; that is, equal representation in the senate to placate the small states, and population-based representation in the house to satisfy the larger states. By mid-July, the compromise had gained majority support. Madison had adamantly opposed the compromise, but ironically it opened the door for the success of his plan because the small states now supported a new stronger national government.

In the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer, sequestered away from the press and public, the convention delegates hammered out a series of compromises, point by point, based on the Virginia Plan. They created two levels of government - state and federal - each with assigned powers of authority appropriate to its domain, each drawing its authority from the people, and each authorized to tax the people and carry out its mandates. They had invented an entirely new form of government, so new they had no word for it. Madison labeled the plan a "compound," a "mixture," a "composition, to be explained by itself, not by . . . analogies to any existing government." The core concept ultimately became known as federalism.

During the course of the four-month convention, Madison physically exhausted himself. Each night at his boarding house, he transcribed the copious notes he took in shorthand throughout each day's proceedings. He rose to speak more than 200 times during the convention, keeping the proceedings moving forward or from breaking up in irreconcilable discord. Throughout, Madison proved he was an adroit political philosopher and debater, a shrewd political operative and a diligent worker. But his work was not over. The proposed constitution required the approval of nine states, and that approval would not come easily.

Again, Madison joined forces with Hamilton, who swallowed his objections to popular government, to write a series of articles marshalling arguments in favor of the Constitution. Madison would later recall production "at the rate . . . of four numbers a week." These hastily-written articles, widely reprinted then and today as the Federalist Papers, are still our most cogent exposition of the foundations of the American republic and a testament to the extraordinary ability of these two men. It's doubly ironic that one of the authors was a monarchist.

In Virginia, the lynchpin of ratification, Madison feared the impassioned eloquence of Patrick Henry, the greatest speaker of the era. George Mason, a great Virginian of the Revolutionary Era, had attended the Convention, but went home angry. Patrick Henry had "smelt a rat" and refused to attend. The two great men would team to oppose ratification by Virginia. But Henry and Mason erred when they voted to debate the Constitution provision by provision. Neither was a match for Madison in carefully reasoned debate. Madison carried the day in Virginia. New York, not wishing to stand alone, fell in line. Two states had not yet ratified, but the other 11 would go ahead without them.

Madison's major concession to the anti-Federalists was a promise to advocate a Bill of Rights for the new Constitution. He went further. When serving as President Washington's righthand man and floor leader in the House of Representatives, Madison drafted a Bill of Rights from the amendments submitted by the states. The surviving 10 amendments are our Bill of Rights, protecting individuals' rights such as freedom of expression and religion and the right to trial. Its 10th amendment was meant to guarantee federalism. It made explicit what many thought implicit in the Constitution - that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution . . . are reserved to the States . . . or to the people."

Federalism was soon a preoccupation of the new government, and Madison urged Washington to appoint Hamilton the first secretary of the treasury. But when Hamilton espoused broad economic powers for the national government, he had gone too far, upsetting his one-time partner, who thought Hamilton's proposed national bank was beyond the powers delegated to the federal government. But Madison was more disturbed by Hamilton's constitutional argument, which allowed an indefinite expansion of national power. Madison countered, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one . . ."

Washington supported Hamilton. Reluctant to oppose Washington, but unable to acquiesce in Hamilton's program, Madison and Jefferson went into opposition. They formed the Democratic-Republican Party to wrest control of the national government and save the powers of the states. Had Madison forgotten Hamilton's vision for the country? Had he counted too much on Washington to hold Hamilton in line? In any event, Madison's miscalculation led to our first two-party system, the Democratic-Republicans vs. the Federalists of Hamilton, John Adams and others. The final shape of the federal system had not been decided at the convention, but later in practice.

The vitality of federalism continues to affect Americans. Whether the issue is civil rights, abortion, welfare, highway funding, taxes, or food and drug regulations, the shifting balance of power between the states and the national government shapes our lives. The competing interests of various economic, societal and political factions impedes any one faction from attaining despotic rule. Today federalism binds together - to varying degrees of success - diverse peoples in large countries throughout the world, including Canada, India, Brazil, and South Africa, and of course, the United States.

As such, federalism is the lasting contribution Madison and the other founders made to history. Through federalism, self-government was possible for a large, diverse society - a point Madison expounded in the Federalist Papers. In Paper Number 10, he writes, "In a large Society, the people are broken into so many interests and parties, that a common sentiment is less likely to be felt, and the requisite concert less likely to be formed, by a majority of the whole..."

In Madison's hands, ironically, the very self-interest that that had threatened to tear apart the original American confederation became the foundational strength of the new United States of America.