America’s fourth president, James Madison (1751-1836), could be said to have been the real father of his country. He more or less wrote the Constitution. His “Virginia Plan,” submitted to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, envisioned the three branches of government that we know today, as well as a bicameral, proportionally based legislature that was a novelty for a country that eschewed a hereditary nobility and a national judiciary headed by a “Supreme Court.” With some modifications, the Virginia Plan became the United States’s founding charter.
Later that year, and throughout much of 1788, Madison co-authored the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, a series of pseudonymous newspaper essays designed to persuade the states, many of them balking at the idea of a strong and centralized federal government with taxing authority, to ratify the newly drafted Constitution. Madison’s Federalist No. 10, published in November 1787, was perhaps the most influential document in all the Papers, themselves the single most influential expression of American political philosophy ever to emerge. In No. 10, he argued that a large, unified republic composed of diverse interests and governed representatively — that is, indirectly by elected delegates — and with a strong executive branch to carry out the laws was the surest way to ensure against political dominance by any single “faction” or warring interest group. The bigger the republic, the more factions would exist and be obliged to compromise with one another for the common good, and the less likely would be a tyranny of a single self-interested faction comprising a majority.
Madison had served, on behalf of his home state of Virginia, in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, and he had found that the loose federation of states lacking executive leadership to be a recipe for unresolvable interstate conflicts. The Federalist Papers’ arguments were effective. By June 1788, nine, the necessary majority, of the original 13 states had ratified the Constitution Madison had pushed into birth, replacing that which had been set up by the 1777 Articles of Confederation.
After that, Madison began to act politically in seemingly contradictory ways that have baffled historians. Although at first a key adviser to President George Washington and fellow supporter of a strong centralized government, Madison ultimately broke with Washington and, even more significantly, with his erstwhile Federalist Papers co-author Hamilton, who was Washington’s treasury secretary and seemed exclusively to promote the burgeoning commercial and industrial interests of the Northeast to the perceived detriment of other regions, especially Madison’s agrarian (and slave-holding) Virginia.
Son of a prosperous tobacco planter in the Virginia Piedmont, Madison allied himself with his fellow Virginian and close friend Thomas Jefferson, a staunch anti-Federalist. Apparently quixotically, he introduced Jefferson’s Bill of Rights, a determinedly anti-Federalist measure, while serving in Congress for Virginia in 1789. Although an opponent of formal political parties as too factional during his Federalist Papers days, he helped Jefferson found the anti-Federalist Republican Party (dubbed by historians the “Democratic-Republican Party” to distinguish it from today’s GOP) during the early 1790s. He served as Jefferson’s secretary of state from 1801 to 1809, helping to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. As a Jeffersonian, Madison staunchly opposed Congress’s creation of the First Bank of the United States in 1791, supported by Hamilton as a mechanism for supplying credit to emerging Northern industries but believed by Madison to exceed Congress’s constitutional mandate.
Yet as president from 1809 to 1817, Madison proposed and successfully guided through Congress the creation of a Second Bank of the United States. He went back and forth on Jefferson’s theory of “nullification” — the idea, ultimately leading to the Civil War, that states, in the name of their sovereignty, had the power to veto federal laws. His policies on whether the federal government was constitutionally empowered to spend on canals, roads, and other commerce-promoting infrastructure were similarly incoherent. His handling of the War of 1812, the only historical event of his presidency that most Americans remember, was close to disastrous, marked by an invasion of Canada that failed ignominiously and the British burning of Washington, D.C., to the ground, including the White House. Fortunately, Britain tired of fighting America while simultaneously fighting Napoleon, and the U.S. was able to claim the victory of morale that “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates.
And then there was slavery: Madison argued that holding other human beings as property rendered republican ideals of citizenry “fallacious,” yet he did nothing about the 100-odd black slaves on his family’s tobacco plantation, Montpelier, whose labors made his life of political theorizing possible, much less about the institution of slavery itself.
It hasn’t helped that Madison was “America’s least fun Founding Father,” as New Yorker writer Alexis Coe called him: a bookish workaholic who excelled at the Greek and Latin classics and scorned frivolity. He was chronically sickly and short of stature at 5 feet, 4 inches (his wife, the glamorous widow Dolley Payne Todd, whom he married at age 43, towered over him at 5 feet 7). Not knowing quite how to deal with the seeming contradictions in Madison’s politics and political record over the years, his biographers have tended to break his life into periods or compartments; one such, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, titled his 2017 biography The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.
In James Madison: America’s First Politician, Jay Cost, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent contributor to the Washington Examiner, rejects such a disjunctive approach and aims to demonstrate that Madison’s many changes of stance and instances of sails-trimming during his long political career were perfectly consistent with his political theorizing. Politics is the art of the possible, after all, and compromises between self-interested factions and selfish human beings were the entire point of the republicanism that Madison envisioned in Federalist No. 10. Except for a brief period during the 1790s, Madison, unlike the other Founding Fathers, was continuously in public life starting at age 23 when he joined a pre-Revolution shadow government in Virginia and ending long after his presidential retirement with his service as adviser to Andrew Jackson and chancellor of the University of Virginia until nearly his death. Hence he was, as Cost argues, “America’s first politician.” “To create a full portrait of Madison,” Cost writes, “we must connect his constitutional theory to his career in government, looking carefully at his life in the public realm to find the continuities between the theory and practice of politics.”
This is a worthy aim, and Cost, who has a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, manages to navigate fairly successfully with his subject through a complex and conflicted period when the fledgling U.S. government was still defining its own constitutional parameters while vastly expanding territorially and dealing with competing pressures from France, which wanted America to help fight its wars with Britain, and Britain, which was claiming swathes of western land that Americans considered theirs. His book, drawing on a trove of primary sources, is erudite but clearly written, marred only by Cost’s tendency, apparently in an appeal to generalist readers, to indulge in jarring and anachronistic colloquialisms — “chalked up,” “get behind,” “move the needle” — instead of their straightforward and more dignified standard-English equivalents.
Readers may not be entirely persuaded by Cost’s argument that Madison’s shifting positions that seemed a maze of “contradictions” — he maintained that creating the Federalist-supported First Bank of the United States had no constitutional warrant but “waved away the problems his strict constructionism obviously created” for the Republican-supported Louisiana Purchase — can be reconciled “through the prism not of the law but of politics.” But it is impossible on reading Cost’s book not to admire James Madison’s seriousness of purpose and to wonder what he might think of our own republic, in which “factions” signify not competing economic interests as they did to Madison but an all-out cultural war.
Charlotte Allen is a Washington writer. Her articles have appeared in Quillette, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times.
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