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 Montpelier Magazine

Detail: James Madison Statue, Library of Congress

James Madison - The Wisest Founder

Irving Brant once remarked, as he neared the end of his six-volume life of James Madison, that Jefferson's comparatively larger place in American history rested on two qualities: Jefferson's greater personal magnetism in dealing with individuals or small groups, and his eloquence and gift for the memorable phrase; the force of his person and the force of his words. Brant said that, repeatedly in studying the 50 years of the close friendship and colleagueship between the two men, those were the factors that made Jefferson loom larger in the affection and effectiveness that characterized his career and in the appeal and influence of his writings even two centuries after his election as president of the United States. In what Adrienne Koch half a century ago termed "The Great Collaboration," Jefferson has always properly stood as the pre-eminent personality and voice.

In discussing the two founders a few days after the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1829, though, Henry Clay made a different and perhaps more subtle evaluation. Madison, Clay said, may have had less "genius" than Jefferson, but he had better "judgment" and more "common sense;" Jefferson was "a visionary and theorist." Clay declared that Madison's superior "prudence and caution" had often achieved equal if not superior results in the nation's public life. The fourth president was "cool, dispassionate, practical, safe." He was, Clay said, "after Washington, our greatest statesman and first political writer." An Italian traveler, Carlo Vidua, made the same point about Jefferson and Madison after visits to each of them in 1825: "Jefferson's intellect seemed the most brilliant, Madison's the most profound, … his reflections seemed the most weighty, denoting a great mind and a good heart."

Indeed, one might argue that James Madison was, altogether, the wisest of the founders. Leaving Washington in a class by himself as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," Madison was the wisest, finest political intelligence among even a mentally gifted group of founders. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were perhaps more brilliantly effective political publicists than Madison, but even among his learned, scholarly predecessors as president, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Madison had the most profound and far-reaching understanding of the nature of the new American polity and of the intellectual foundations of "the more perfect Union" that might produce good government for "ourselves and our posterity."

Madison's profound and subtle intellect received just the right kind of nourishment at Princeton, absorbing classical studies, Enlightenment learning and the Reformed Christianity of its Presbyterian President John Witherspoon. Madison learned from Witherspoon's lectures to seniors on "Moral Philosophy," which included politics, a thoroughly Aristotelian understanding of government: The state was an entity for sustaining not merely life, but "the good life;" and whether one, few, or many ruled, tyranny or good government was possible. Tyranny would result if greed, partisanship or dynastic ambition characterized the ruling circles (whatever the number), while good government would flourish if the rule was public-spirited and attentive to justice and the common good, again, whatever the number. The key measure was qualitative, dependent on the nature of the rule provided, the objective result, not on the number ruling, or on any particular hereditary or elective succession or process. Madison's political thinking, then, always assumed the importance of the political in human society (Aristotle's "man is a political animal") and the need for government to seek the public good. In that sense, he (like Jefferson) was a conditional democrat, completely open to systems of rule by the people, but also insistent that they be so qualified and organized as to yield good government; in the Constitution's phrases, one that would "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty."

Madison accepted from John Locke, English radical Whigs, the Scottish Enlightenment figures who were President Witherspoon's mentors, and others, though, that humankind also had a right to personal liberty from oppression and to the political freedom to take part in government. Humans were not born, as Jefferson put it in his last letter in 1826, with "saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them." But rather all were born equal before the law and in the eyes of their creator. These principles laid the foundation for Madison's consistent republicanism throughout his life; what Jefferson termed "the harmony of political principles and pursuits" in seeking "the blessings of self-government" and Madison called "pure devotion to the public good." He always believed that the Lockean principles of natural law and natural rights secured basic freedoms for all the people, but he also believed that these same liberties - of religion, of expression, and of petition and assembly - were essential for carrying out the political freedom of taking part in self-government.

  Madison revealed his profound understanding of these principles in his first public act. He persuaded the Virginia Convention of 1776 to change the Lockean language in the proposed bill of rights that "all men should enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the dictates of Conscience." This phraseology, Madison argued, was insidious, implying that free exercise was something an established religion granted as a privilege to those not of the "established" faith. This denied the full and equal right to liberty of conscience, so, at Madison's urging, the Convention adopted the clearer, less condescending clause that "religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator . . . can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force and violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." Human rights were to be as clearly and categorically stated as possible, and were to embody full equality of reason and conscience, the foundation of any free and democratic society. The historian George Bancroft declared this "the first achievement of the wisest civilian in Virginia."

Madison showed his deeper understanding of the right of conscience in a self-governing society again when he drafted proposals that became the First Amendment to the Constitution. Madison proposed in 1789 that:

"The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.

"The people shall be not deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.

"The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the legislature by petitions, or remonstrances for redress of their grievances."

Throughout the emphasis is not so much on these rights as important to personal liberty as on their agency in assuring meaningful self-government. "National religions" would not be allowed to limit exercise of conscience projected to public affairs, nor would "civil rights," participation in government, be in any way restrained by religion - or lack of religion. The people were protected in the right of expression in order that they be able to offer their "sentiments" on public matters, while freedom of the press was recognized as the "bulwark" of any free society, essential to its political processes. Finally, presenting petitions and remonstrances and "peaceably assembling," were crucial parts of the consulting and deliberating that were essential if self-government was to result in the "common good." Protection of public expression and participation, in a way defining the attributes of citizenship, was to Madison at least as significant as the individual personal liberties. Though the final phrasing of the First Amendment was doubtless more concise and felicitous than Madison's proposal, those who adopted it, in Congress and in the states, did not suppose Madison's fuller exposition and meaning had been in any way repudiated or abridged. Despite the apparent restriction on government in the first five words of the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law," the intent, especially Madison's intent, was to assure the full process of expression, assembly and deliberation essential if self-government was to be good government; Aristotle undergirding Locke.

Madison's conduct in high executive office, 1801-1817, is similarly best understood as intending to make certain that the United States would have good government as well as free government. More readily than Jefferson, he realized that accepting the right and power of the United States to purchase Louisiana from France, despite strict construction qualms about its constitutionality, was justified by its obvious usefulness for the nation. The purchase treaty, conducted by the executive and approved by the legislature, at once strengthened the United States amid the dangers of Anglo-French warfare and opened a vast space for the expansion of yeoman farms congenial to republican government. While Madison continued to be cautious about broad construction (He believed that federally funded internal improvements generally required amendment to the Constitution, for example.), he also believed the Constitution made ample room for active government for the public good, as provided for in the legislative and executive departments. He agreed with Jefferson in an intent to provide for a government of design, not of chance. Self-government, at all levels, federal, state and local, could be positive and energetic on behalf of the people's welfare if this was their desire.

The same intent to be active in pursuing measures designed to benefit the country as a whole characterized Madison's lifelong belief in commercial regulation, as opposed to warfare, as the proper way to sustain the national interest. Wars, he wrote in 1799 opposing the buildup for the Quasi War with France, were "often the result of causes which prudence and a love of peace might obviate." Moreover, they upset "the equilibrium of the departments" by aggrandizing the executive with "the greatest accession of power [from] the importance of the armies, offices, and expenses, which compose the equipage of war." Much more prudent, humane and just, and perhaps even more effective, Madison thought, was commercial retaliation, using the regulation or withholding of trade to protect American national interests. He thought this had been effective in resisting British tyranny before the American Revolution and he had urged it throughout the 1790s as a way to thwart British aggression on the high seas. When both British and French warships preyed on American commerce after the Napoleonic Wars reached their climax in 1805, Madison and Jefferson sought both to take American ships out of harm's way and to exert pressure (especially on Great Britain) by withholding critically needed supplies: the Embargo of 1807-1808. The embargo was thus a far-reaching, even compulsive act of government that required, especially of shipping interests centered in New England, severe sacrifices in the interest of a national policy. The intent was noble and republican: Avoid war and its violence, de-struction and tyranny, by seeking a peaceful and commercial alternative consistent with a more enlightened international law that would still achieve national interests. When the realities of international trade amid world war, and the unwillingness of American officials and citizens to abide by the Embargo's restrictions, caused its failure, Madison and Jefferson determined to repeal it rather than use Draconian measures to enforce it. That was unacceptable except under the most perilous circumstances because it required violation of key principles of free and democratic government. Madison was both the bold champion of the embargo as a peculiarly republican alternative to war and, after unsuccessful trial, its wise curtailer.

Even "Mr.  Madison's War" itself (1812), though fought unevenly and under trying conditions, was not in the end without enormous use to the strengthening of good republican government in the United States. Madison lacked the habits of boldness, command and decisiveness that characterize war leaders like Andrew Jackson and Winston Churchill and which doubtless would have made the conduct of the war itself more successful, but he did accomplish his main goal: to bring the nation through a difficult and divisive war while sustaining its republican institutions. As French Minister Louis Sérurier, who observed Madison's conduct throughout the war, observed in 1815, "three years of warfare have been a trial of [American] institutions to sustain a state of war, a question . . . now resolved to their advantage." Without seriously restricting civil liberties, overriding Congress, enforcing harsh conscription or defaulting on other ideals of republican government, he had shown the nation able to hold its own against the world's most powerful military forces and sustain a world where canons of international law remained at least in some degree in force. Thus from 1801 to 1817, in the nation's highest executive offices, Madison exhibited a wise and prudent republicanism that accorded with his deeply held convictions about good government. This is what John Adams, not given to easy praise, meant when he wrote Jefferson that Madison's presidency, "notwithstanding a thousand Faults and blunders . . . acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all his three predecessors, Washington, Adams and Jefferson, put together."

In retirement, Madison had frequent opportunities to bring his understanding of good republican government to bear on public questions. Madison approved, for example, of John Marshall's insistence on the supremacy of federal courts over state courts. He explained that if state courts had final authority in interpreting the Constitution, it "might become different in every state," thus violating "the vital principle of equality which cements their Union" and sustains its "virtue." "It was the Judicial department [that] most familiarizes itself to the public as the expositer" of the Constitution, Madison noted, and thus "will most engage the respect and reliance of the public," thus making the courts themselves, though distanced from political processes, vital to achieving virtuous republican government. The phrases Madison used, "vital principle," "equality," "cement of the Union," "virtue" and "respect . . . of the public," all reflect his sense of government as active, just and morally constructive in the life of a truly republican society - exactly the points Alexis de Tocqueville was making about American democracy during Madison's last years.

The nullification controversy of 1828- 1833, occurring when Madison was the last survivor among the drafters of the Constitution, aroused his remaining energies on behalf of what Daniel Webster proclaimed famously in his "Reply to Hayne:" "Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever." The free institutions of the country, embodied in the Constitution, could serve the welfare and happiness of the people only if they were used and applied equally and authoritatively throughout the Union. Nullification and, even worse, secession were utterly foreign to Madison's firm belief in the uses of good and just government. Like Lincoln, Madison understood the Union, defined by the Constitution, as the indispensable instrument of the republican ideals of liberty and equality, in which the nation had been "conceived" and to which it was "dedicated" in 1776. His own final legacy to the nation, written in 1834 and published only after his death, was that "the advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated." The United States was to Madison no mere league of states confederated for safety and convenience but rather a substantial union seeking to achieve good republican government for "ourselves and our Posterity." If Madison's expansion of the idea of religious liberty in 1776 was "the first achievement of the wisest civilian in Virginia," his mature understanding of the Union as good republican government was the lasting contribution of the wisest of the founders.

By Ralph Ketcham, Ph.D., political science professor emeritus, Syracuse University