by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Two hundred years after he occupied the White House, James Madison is attracting quite a bit of attention from biographers who write for more than just an academic audience.
Having read Richard Brookhiser‘s take on the fourth president’s life last Christmas, I’ve just completed Kevin Gutzman‘s take on the same subject. (I’ll soon start a third Madison biography from Barton College history professor Jeff Broadwater, who will discuss themes from his book during a June 4 presentation to the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society.)
In James Madison and the Making of America, Gutzman downplays his subject’s presidency to some extent, lumping his eight years as president in with his previous eight years as secretary of state in a single chapter that takes up less than one-sixth of the book.
Gutzman devotes much more attention — more than half of his book — to two years: 1787 and 1788. These were, of course, the years in which the fate of the American constitutional republic was decided. Madison and a relatively small number of other American notables met behind closed doors in Philadelphia to craft a new U.S. Constitution, then worked tirelessly to sell the document to a wary public.
The author spends much of his time challenging popular notions, including the myth that Madison either wrote the Constitution himself or at least played the lead role in developing the document in its final form.
Far from being the “father of the Constitution,” … Madison was an unhappy witness at is C-section birth. Perhaps he might be more appropriately called an attending nurse. He certainly did not think of it as his own offspring.
Read the book, and you’ll find example after example in which delegates to the Constitutional Convention rejected Madison’s ideas. Still, he saw the final product as preferable to the existing Articles of Confederation, and he worked with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to craft the essays that became The Federalist. Gutzman’s chapter on that famous document includes an extended analysis of Federalist No. 10.
Madison’s great essay in political science and first foray as Publius arrives at a highly flattering evaluation of the potential benefits of the U.S. Constitution. It does not do what many have said it does, however; it does not promise that ratification will solve the problem of majority faction, or even that of minority faction. Throughout the essay, Madison suggests that various factor that have caused problems for other republics, including the American states, will be less threatening to the new Union. He says factious majorities will be less likely to arise under the new Constitution, that they will be less likely to recognize their majority status, and that they will be less likely to succeed in organizing themselves to take control of the federal than of a state government.
As we shall see, this is not the sole place in The Federalist in which Madison accepted that bad things that have befallen other societies might befall the American Union under the U.S. Constitution. There is in this life no perfect organization, no perfect moment, no philosopher’s stone. His consistent message as Publius is that ratification will make it easier for an engaged citizenry to suffer the problems that societies suffer less often than in the absence of ratification; it will still suffer those problems, even under the Constitution, sometimes.