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Greatness of the Founders: An Objective Examination, Part 5


James Madison was the major architect of the Constitution and constructed the Bill of Rights, amendments to the Constitution, coauthor of The Federalist and who advocated religious liberty. He was the co-founder of the Democratic-Republican political party in the 1790s and the most important member of the first House of Representatives in 1789. He was Secretary of State to Jefferson's administration; and the fourth President of the United States. Yet compared to other Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson who was his close friend, he has not received as much accolade from historians.


A short man at five feet six inches, compared to Jefferson and Washington at over six feet tall, it was not until 1980 that they honored him by naming the new Library of Congress building after him.

Monticello, like Mount Vernon, has become a national shrine; but Madison's home, Montpelier, has only recently been open to visitors. Madison's eloquent wisdom has not been published as profusely as Thomas Jefferson.

James Madison was born in 1751 into a family of Virginia planters and aristocrat slave owners. He was the first of the family to attend college in New Jersey, which would later become Princeton University. Because of his poor health he had to return home to complete his studies.

At age 25, in 1776, he was elected to the Virginia Convention and became part of the revolution movement. His most significant passion was religious freedom, which led him to a great friendship with Jefferson, who was eight years older and already established in revolutionary politics. It would be a friendship that lasted a lifetime, despite having different temperaments. Jefferson was skeptical and Madison often was a radical utopian who dreamed of what the future would be. However, both were suspicious of the power of government. Jefferson worried about the rights of the majority, while Madison worried about the rights of the minority. [The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & the Republican Legacy, Drew R. McCoy, Cambridge University, 1989; pp. 44-64]

At the age of 28, in 1779, Madison was elected to the Continental Congress, which had not created a workable government. By the 1780s, Congress could not tax and pay its bills and had difficulties supporting the army. It had no power to facilitate trade or stand up against the mercantile of Europe. The requirement of unanimous consent of all thirteen states had prevented imposing a 5% levy on imported European goods. In foreign affairs, the American ships and were being seized by Barbary pirates and their sailors sold into slavery. Domestically they had not control over the new nation territories where Great Britain continued to hold posts in the northwest despite the peace treaty of 1783 and Spain claimed the southwest territory that included Alabama and Mississippi and tried encouraging American dissidents to break from the Union. The new government was weak, to say the least. [The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, Gordon S. Wood; University of North Carolina, 1969; p. 473]

Madison worked to change that when his term limits forced him to retire from Congress and enter the Virginia legislature from 1784 to 1787. The quagmire caused by unenlightened men in the Virginia legislature frustrated both Madison and Jefferson, and Madison was frustrated with “political horse-trading” - which would eventually end up in the practice of pork barreling so common today. By 1787, Madison had become fearful of the government that had been created and he fed ideas fist into the Virginia Plan and later for the Constitutional Convention. [Vices of the Political System of the United States(1787); Papers of James Madison; 9: 354-356]

Madison was against the Hamilton financial plans declaring it was an imitation of England's monarchy system and he also pleaded for a strict interpretation of the Constitution to be specific in not providing the authority to charter a bank. During the course of those events, Madison changed from being a nationalist leader in the Federalist movement (1780s) to the leader of states' rights and Anti-Federalists in the 1790s. This turn around has confused historians and biographers and disagreed amongst themselves. It was not so much as to changing his way of thinking, but finding the best solution for issues that involved a central, national government versus the aspects of a republic. True he had advocated nationalism, but certainly not at the level Hamilton wanted.

Political scientists have treated Madison as a political philosopher using the analyzed works of The Federalist. Yet during the convention he focused upon a centralized national control over state laws which focused upon a congressional veto over all improper state laws, and as Gouverneur Morris stated, it would disgust all the States.

Madison wrote 29 of the 85 papers of The Federalist, and his Federalist No. 10 has become a hallmark in the history of American political science. He wrote, in part:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

He also hailed the republican form of government:

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union. The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. … The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

Maybe Madison was not as popular as other Founders because he was not realistic as to how the government would transcend. He was, however, aware of the inconsistencies of governments at the time with their bloated bureaucracies, standing armies, perpetual debts, and heavy taxes; so in effect, it was a warning about a government that was not limited in its powers.

Therefore, the ideal government was to have a republic, composed of states whose governments were identical with the will of the people nationally; which makes the rule of law (Constitution) the law of the land and not democratic mob rule or a fiscal-military state. [Federalist No. 10;Madison Writings, p. 79]

It was Madison who first proposed the idea that economic sanctions be used instead of acts of war – the latter being the last resort. Historians criticized Madison and other Republicans in the way they prepared for war, using the evidence of the War of 1812. Yet, it was that war that promoted the limited republican government. [The Age of Federalism, Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, Oxford University, 1993; p.234 & pp. 136-145]

Among the accomplishments of James Madison was when he served as Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809 in Jefferson's administration and supervised the Louisiana Purchase that doubled the size of the nation. The other accomplishment was his involvement in the Bill of Rights and his original proposal of 20 amendments was reduced to ten; which excluded Madison's amendment that guaranteed national sovereignty over the states. The amendment proposed by Madison, intended to accommodate future increase in the members of the House of Representatives was not ratified until 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

As president, his greatest hallmark is that the national debt continued to be reduced and taxes had been cut. When he assumed office in 1809, the federal government had a surplus of $9,500,000 – a record that should make present-day politicians ashamed. [James Madison: The Founding Father, Robert Allen Rutland, University of Missouri, 1997; p.14 & pp. 51 & 55]

Throughout his presidency, Madison was at odds with Andrew Jackson, the general that sent the British packing in the Battle of New Orleans after they had set fire to the nation's capitol. James Madison worked at treaties that protected native lands from intrusion by settlers, against the wishes of his military commander Andrew Jackson; who even went so far as to resist carrying out the orders of President Madison. Madison order the US Army to protect the lands of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw native territories. Thanks to Jackson, after the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 in the Northwest Territory, native Americans were removed from their tribal lands and replaced with white settlers. By 1815, natives in Ohio had no rights to land.

In 1817, Madison left public office and retired to Montpelier, his tobacco plantation in Virginia at the age of 65.

Madison was admonished for his ownership of slaves, but a memoir was written by Paul Jennings who served Madison from the age of 10 as a footman and later as a valet for the rest of Madison's life, and who, thanks to Dolly Madison, arranged for his to obtain his freedom. In A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison (1865), Jennings wrote that he had the highest respect for Madison and said he never struck a slave, nor permitted an overseer to do so. He wrote that if a slave misbehaved, Madison would meet with the person privately and talk about his behavior.

Madison's portrait is on the $5,000 bill and two US Navy ships have been named USS James Madison and three ships named USS Madison. What is called Madison Square in New York City is named after 4th President of the United States. The city of Madison, Wisconsin is named after him and his plantation, Montpelier, is a national historic landmark.












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