John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

Five Things You Need To Know About James Madison

posted on in Founding Era

The North Carolina History Project has hosted various
programs, including living history events, constitutional workshops, and
academic symposia, to foster national and state constitutional literacy. 

Previous lecturers have included Kevin R. C. Gutzman,
history professor at Western Connecticut State University and best-selling
author of The Politically Incorrect Guide
to the Constitution
and the recent James
Madison and The Making of America

Another NCHP speaker has been Jeff Broadwater, professor of history at
Barton College and author of George
Mason: Forgotten Founder
and the recent James
Madison: A Son of Virginia & Founder of the Nation
.

Considering the number of recent publications and renewed interest
this year with the fourth President of the United States, I recently asked the
two to tell Founding Era News readers "Five
Things You Need to Know About James Madison."  They graciously obliged.

This newsletter edition features Professor Gutzman’s
remarks. 

Five Things You Need To Know
About James Madison

Even if you are an expert, chances are that your idea of
James Madison is highly skewed.  He gets
almost no credit for his most important accomplishment; two of his supposed
chief achievements were less important than many think; he opposed another
before he was for it; and he tried to reel one in after he cast it out.

  1. Take the most common title for Madison:  "Father
    of the Constitution."  The standard version of Madison’s
    life has him working hard to bring about the Philadelphia Convention that wrote
    the Constitution, presenting the Constitution’s
    rough draft to the Convention, persuading fellow delegates to adopt it, and
    co-authoring The Federalist Papers to
    get it ratified.

    But virtually all of that is wrong.  Yes, Madison did help persuade the states to
    assemble a convention, and yes, he did take the lead in drafting the
    nationalist Virginia Plan, but beyond a three-branch central government — which
    other delegates proposed as well — most of Madison’s
    plan was rejected.  In fact, he was on
    the losing side on the majority of votes cast in the Philadelphia
    Convention.  So unhappy was Madison with
    the Convention’s
    omission of his favorite ideas that he predicted the new government would fail
    within a few years.  He always refused "credit"
    for writing the Constitution.

  2. After the Philadelphia Convention ended, yes, Madison
    did work energetically for ratification, notably in his home state of Virginia
    and in New York.  He wrote just over one-third
    of The Federalist Papers (which in
    his day were known simply as The
    Federalist
    ).

    But those essays had little effect on the ratification
    campaign.  Most were first published in
    New York newspapers, where they did not persuade the vast majority of New
    Yorkers to vote Federalist.   (Over
    two-thirds of the delegates to New York’s
    ratification convention were elected as Antifederalists.)  They weren’t
    all republished in any other state.  And
    in Virginia, where Madison and his friends did circulate several dozen copies
    of the book version of the series, it’s
    not clear that they persuaded anybody.  The Federalist Papers’
    fame rests on their authors’ later
    political eminence.

  3. Having helped win a narrow victory for the Federalist
    (pro-ratification) side in his state’s
    convention, Madison stood for legislative election to the U.S. Senate.  He lost. 
    Next, he unhappily submitted himself to an authentically popular
    campaign for the House, which he resented. 
    Here, despite previously having argued that a bill of rights was both
    unnecessary and potentially dangerous, Madison accepted his constituents’
    demands for one.  Only by that means did
    he win a seat in the House of Representatives.

    Madison really does deserve his title of Author of the
    Bill of Rights — but only if we understand it as he did.  He argued that a bill of rights was
    unnecessary since Congress would have only the powers that were
    listed in the Constitution, and since the Constitution did not say, for
    example, that Congress could regulate the press, it would be superfluous to add
    provisions such as that Congress could not regulate the press.

    In the House, Madison repeated this argument.  He also added that adoption of a bill of
    rights would allay the fears of some people who would otherwise support the
    Constitution.  Besides, since Congress
    had not been granted power to do any of the things the Bill of Rights would say
    it could not do, Madison added, this would not restrict the new government’s
    powers in any significant way.  In short,
    Madison intended the Bill of Rights as a placebo, and he sold it to his
    colleagues on that basis.  With one
    notable (negative) exception, it would be over a century before the Bill of
    Rights came to play a significant role in American life — and even then in an
    un-Madisonian way.

  4. In 1791, two years from the Federal Government’s
    birth, Madison propagated one of the classic approaches to constitutional
    interpretation:  strict
    construction.  In opposition to Alexander
    Hamilton’s Bank
    Bill, Representative Madison developed the states’
    rights-centered approach to constitutional interpretation that would come to be
    associated with Thomas Jefferson.  By
    1798, Madison joined Jefferson and other opponents of Federalist over-reaching
    in warning that the states would resist unconstitutional and dangerous federal
    usurpation.  In the last decade of his
    life, the 1830s, Madison decided this argument could be carried too far.  Instead of distinguishing the 1790s from the
    1830s, he denied that he had said a state could resist federal policy.  But he had.

  5. Most important among Madison’s
    achievements, by far, is one for which he gets very little credit.  In his very first elected office, aged 25,
    Madison coined the phrase "free
    exercise of religion"
    for the Virginia Declaration of Rights. 
    This marked a great leap for religious freedom from the traditional
    English "toleration"
    of dissident opinion.  In time, Madison
    would include the same phrase in the Bill of Rights as well.  What almost everyone overlooks, however, is
    that although Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious
    Freedom, Jefferson failed to win its adoption. 
    Only Madison was able, through expert parliamentary and political
    maneuver, to convert Jefferson’s
    rejected Bill into the mighty Statute that made Virginia’s
    the first officially secular government in the world.  Jefferson claimed the credit, even putting
    his authorship on his gravestone, but Madison deserves it.  Without Madison, it would have been simply a
    good idea.

— Kevin
R. C. Gutzman (2012)

To continue this series, next week’s
newsletter will feature Professor Broadwater’s
"Five
Things You Need to Know About James Madison."

 

Upcoming Events

  • On October 29, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University,
    Scott Gerber, will present a constitutional and history lecture titled "Justice
    Thomas’s
    Legacy After Twenty Years."  Please click here for more information
    regarding the event and to register.

  • If you would like to know more about our constitutional
    programs and are interested in scheduling one of our Citizen’s
    Constitutional Workshops
    or a constitutional or history lecture for your
    educational or civic group, please contact North Carolina History Project’s
    Founding Director, Dr. Troy Kickler.

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