by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Known respectively as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison possess distinct identities within the pantheon of American Founders.
But a recent book from a pair of Louisiana State University historians — Madison and Jefferson — focuses on the third and fourth presidents as political partners. As the title suggests, professors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg consider Madison the key member of the partnership. Using today’s political terminology, they designate Madison as Jefferson’s “campaign manager” and explain how the younger man played a critical role in shaping the “Republican” approach to public policy.
History has imagined that Madison looked up to Jefferson, read his mind, and found ways to pursue policies in partnership without any concern that he was subordinating himself. Reading backward, students of history want to see Jefferson as the executive, the primary instigator, because he was in Washington’s cabinet and he was president for eight years before it was Madison’s turn. Madison, with the less pronounced ego, did not serve as an executive until a decade after Jefferson, when Jefferson appointed him secretary of state, a position Jefferson had occupied and therefore knew how to instruct his friend in.
As the reader now knows, nothing in the historical record supports the convenient narrative in which Madison yields to Jefferson’s stronger position or stronger views. Indeed, from 1793, when Jefferson lost his influence with Washington and the executive branch lost Jefferson as a counterweight to Hamilton’s aggrandizing interpretation of governmental authority, Madison became the clearest voice of a spirited resistance. Unquestionably, Jefferson remained instrumental behind the scenes, but Madison led.