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 Montpelier Magazine

Courtesy of Muse De Blerancourt, France, and Montpelier   

Posterity and the Union

In retirement, Madison holds court as sole remaining founding father

James Madison: The Key to Our Nation
  A Five-Part Series by Devin Bent

In the spring of 1817, James Madison stepped down from the presidency and left Washington, D.C., to retire with Dolley to Montpelier, the estate he had inherited from his father. During a brief part of the trip home aboard a steamboat on the Potomac, Madison was "as playful as a child," like "a school Boy on a long vacation." One can understand his euphoria. He was bidding farewell to a career of astonishing achievement -- and something unprecedented in history -- the founding of a republic of disparate factions and vast geography. And during his second term as president, he had averted a near-disastrous end to his beloved republic, by steering America through its second war of independence against Britain. He rode a wave of popularity homeward.

Madison spent the remaining 19 years of his life at Montpelier, still focused on the Union and laboring for posterity. He compiled the diligent notes he had kept during the Constitutional Convention, the preparation of which, for posthumous publication, is his most significant accomplishment during these years. He helped Thomas Jefferson establish his university and served as rector after Jefferson's death. He expended efforts as president of the American Colonization Society, attempting to resettle freed slaves to Africa. Madison also publicly engaged one last national crisis that threatened to dissolve the Union -- namely, South Carolina's attempt at nullification, which culminated in 1832.

But, above all, throughout these years, Madison attended to the numerous visitors and letters that arrived at Montpelier, usually seeking his insight and recollections about the republic's seminal events, its founders' intentions and its Constitution. When he responded, he wrote carefully and at length as he knew he addressed posterity as much as the individual recipient of his thoughts. His responses took on greater significance as Madison's generation of companions, adversaries and allies in nation-building passed away, one by one, until he remained the sole founding father.

By the early 1820s, as Madison began organizing his cache of papers and letters, many people urged him to publish his notes on the convention to counter those of staunch anti-federalist Robert Yates, who had attended only seven of the 16 weeks of sessions. Published posthumously in 1821, Yates' was the first public record of what transpired inside Convention Hall in 1787 but contained, according to Madison, "egregious errors" and "erroneous" and "mutilated" transcriptions of delegates' speeches. Still, Madison remained firm -- his own notes could only be published after his death.

For one, he aimed to honor the Convention's sworn policy of secrecy about the constitutional debates, which had allowed all the delegates to speak freely, without embarrassment of public disclosure of positions taken or subsequently changed. Two, Madison determined that the new generation of leaders must grapple with the problems of self-government through their own interpretation and application of the Constitution. As Madison explained to a friend in a letter, he wanted to "delay [publication] till the Constitution should be well settled by practice, and till a knowledge of the controversial part of the proceedings of its framers could be turned to no improper account."

No other surviving delegate to the Convention in later years could match Madison's range of political experience -- a representative in Congress, Secretary of State and President -- under the Constitution. The `Notes on Convention' complete an incredible set of documents from events in which Madison played a critical role.

Time's passing, Madison believed, would also enable Americans to see his notes -- and events of the Convention -- with fresh eyes. "[A]fter a certain date," he wrote in 1827, "the older such things grow, the more they are relished as new; the distance of time like that of space from which they are received, giving them that attractive character." In his will, Madison bequeathed all his papers to Dolley, "having entire confidence in her discreet and proper use of them," and he also expressly entrusted to her complete authority to direct the publication of his notes. The sale of his notes to Congress would provide the major source of her financial support during the remaining years of her life.

As Madison envisioned, scholars find his notes are the best source of information on the Convention debates. Underlying the notes is Madison's basic premise that Americans (after some "practice" under the Constitution) can better understand the Constitution through knowledge of the process by which it was drafted and adopted. It was through that process, including ratification "by the people," that it derived its legitimacy, after all.

The notes' unique value also accrues from their compiler's personal experience and prestige. No other surviving delegate to the Constitutional Convention in later years could match Madison's range of political experience -- a representative in Congress, secretary of state and president -- under the Constitution. The "Notes on the Convention" complete an incredible set of documents from events in which Madison played a critical role.

Though Madison intended to remain aloof from politics when he left Washington, one last national emergency -- nullification -- drew him back into battle in 1828. The crisis was rooted in the diverging interests of the South's expanding cotton-and-slave economy and the North's burgeoning industrialization. As early as 10 years before nullification erupted, Madison worried that, "Should a state of parties arise founded on geographical boundaries, and other physical and permanent distinctions which happen to coincide with them, what is to control these great repulsive masses from awful shocks against each other?"

A federal tariff on imported goods -- particularly those purchased by southerners -- enacted by northern Congressmen precipitated the nullification crisis, which was led by South Carolina's John C. Calhoun. This longstanding nationalist was first and foremost devoted to his home state and, despite serving President Andrew Jackson as his vice-president, developed the doctrine that a state may choose to nullify a federal law. He and others argued that tariffs impoverished South Carolina and were unconstitutional because they were passed solely to protect northern industry. As precedent for his doctrine, Calhoun cited none other than Jefferson's Kentucky and Madison's Virginia resolutions of 1798, which had opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts of John Adams' administration.

Madison adamantly opposed Calhoun. The impoverishment of South Carolina and other southern states east of the Appalachians had less to do with the tariffs and more to do with the availability of new fertile land (necessary for growing cotton) available in the west. "How could it happen otherwise than that thousands would sell their less productive lands ... and transfer their labour to a region easily accessible, and hence its trebled fruits would be almost as cheaply transported to the common market as from the region abandoned?" Madison wrote.

On the matter of the constitutionality of tariffs, Madison countered that from the republic's beginning tariffs had been used without controversy to protect American industries. There had been past disagreements about specific policies and their merit, but no argument about the constitutionality of the practice.

For Madison, this test of time was the ultimate determinant. As he wrote concerning a national bank, "A construction of the Constitution practiced upon or acknowledged for a period of nearly forty years, has received a national sanction not to be reversed but by an evidence at least equivalent to the national will."

As to the precedence for nullification established by the Virginia Resolution, which he had drafted, Madison rebutted this argument by pointing out that he had called for the "states" --plural -- to act in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts and to proceed in ways compatible with the Constitution -- to either vote the offending party out of office or amend the Constitution itself. The notion that a single state could nullify a federal law was nonsensical to Madison: "For this preposterous and anarchical pretension there is not a shadow of countenance in the Constitution."

The issue of nullification was further complicated for Madison by Jefferson. Only months before his death, Jefferson penned a letter to a Madison critic that appeared to buttress the assertion that tariffs to protect native industries ran contrary to the Constitution. Nullifiers made the letter public and used it to suit their aims. Such use of Jefferson's name, especially as he was now dead, in support of positions that Madison believed would have been anathema to Jefferson, outraged him.

Early in 1829, he wrote to one correspondent: "The inconsistency is monstrous between the professed veneration for [Jefferson's] name and the anxiety to make him avow opinions in the most pointed opposition to those maintained by him in his more deliberate correspondence with others, and acted on through his whole official life."

Later that same year, Madison fumed that Jefferson's "authority is made to weigh nothing, or outweigh everything, according to the scale in which it is put." In 1832, frustrated, Madison came as close as he ever did to criticizing his best friend, when he wrote, "Allowance ... ought to be made for a habit in Mr. Jefferson, as in others of great genius, of expressing in strong and round terms impressions of the moment."

Though it would be misleading to suggest that James Madison's letters and public pronouncements played a major role in resolving the nullification crisis, his views effectively persuaded the state's politicians to oppose nationalist John C. Calhoun's doctrine. In the end, when South Carolina threatened secession in 1832, the ever-militant Andrew Jackson kept the Union together, while statesman and former Secretary of State Henry Clay engineered a successful compromise to reduce tariffs.

Madison sensed that if disunion undid the republic, it would be enmeshed in the institution of slavery. Though a man of inexhaustible faith and optimism in the common wisdom of a self-governing people to choose the right and just course, Madison, "With regard to slavery ... owned himself almost to be in despair," according to Harriet Martineau, a visitor to Montpelier in 1835. An English feminist and noted political economist fiercely opposed to slavery, Martineau recalled that Madison "without limitation or hesitation" confirmed to her all the evils of slavery. He told her that "the whole Bible is against Negro slavery; but that the clergy do not preach this, and the people do not see it."

The only hope he held out for abolishing slavery in America was through the American Colonization Society. "Much to Martineau's consternation," according to Madison biographer Drew McCoy, "Madison believed that colonization [of freed blacks to Africa] offered a gradual, longterm, but potentially feasible means to eradicating slavery in the American republic." Why blacks could not remain as freed men and women in America, Madison never explained to Martineau, though he could have mentioned what he well knew -- that, in nearly every quarter of the continent settled by Europeans, freed blacks faced open hostility.

Despite the impracticality of Madison's scheme and the prevalent unwillingness of blacks -- including his own slaves -- to go to Africa, Madison persisted in his delusion, even as the society had colonized fewer than 3,000 freed slaves during 18 years, while the annual slave population grew by 60,000. "How such a mind as his could derive any alleviation to its anxiety from that source" mystified Martineau.

In the end Madison was unable to resolve the scourge of slavery for himself or for the republic he had helped found. To the frustration of many who knew Madison and his disdain for slavery, he (unlike George Washington) made no provision for emancipating his slaves at his death, and left them to Dolley with his express "desire that none of them should be sold without his or her consent."

Historians and scholars speculate about Madison's reasons for doing what he did. Many think the dwindling revenues from his land provoked him to do so, at the cost of his humanitarian instincts. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Madison never undertook the practical steps that might have augmented his income and allowed him to free his slaves.

Within a year of Martineau's visit to Montpelier, as another Piedmont spring bloomed into summer, James Madison's faded, until his death on June 28, 1836. The next day he was buried in the family cemetery at Montpelier, in a graveside service attended by Dolley, his manservant Paul Jennings, his other slaves, and neighbors, including James Barbour. Some weeks later, Barbour described the scene by recalling there had been a "profound silence ... now and then broken by sobs."

Seventeen years after Madison's death private subscriptions were raised to erect an obelisk above his grave. Within only a few years of that occasion, Confederate and Union troops passed near and through Montpelier, as "the most important constitutional decision in our nation's history was made by bayonets, not black-robed Justices of the Supreme Court," in the words of biographer Robert Rutland.

Where would James Madison have stood in that conflict? Would this native Virginian and slaveholder have gone to war to preserve the union or perhaps engineered a compromise that preserved both the union and slavery? In Madison's final message for the nation, published after his death, only one issue is clear: "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the union of the states be cherished and perpetuated."