Was Madison the "Father of the Constitution"? Not if by "father" we mean the sole male progenitor, for as Madison himself had shown years earlier in Federalist 38, while most governments were the work of "some individual citizen of preeminent wisdom and approved integrity," the Philadelphia experiment was the result "of a select body of citizens, from whose common deliberations more wisdom as well as more safety" might be assumed. Clearly, as both his words and tone convey, Madison preferred the latter course.
Which is not to say that he was always thrilled at the results of those "deliberations." On the contrary, Madison was thwarted on a wide range of minor and not-so-minor points, including two issues — a federal "negative" (veto) over the states and proportional representation in both houses of Congress — that he considered crucial to his dream of a government that would safeguard private rights and still promote the public good.
These setbacks have convinced some historians that Madison's reputation with respect to the Constitution is overblown. Among them is Forrest McDonald who, in his book Novus Ordo Seclorum, tallies up the failures Madison suffered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. "Overall, of seventy-one specific proposals that Madison moved, seconded, or spoke unequivocally in regard to," McDonald writes, "he was on the losing side forty times." McDonald concludes, "The myth that Madison was the father of the Constitution dies hard."
However, if Madison was not literally the Constitution's "father," he was in my opinion its Godfather (Washington was its father figure). He may have lost many debates, and it is true that his failure to get his "negative" caused him to despair that the Constitution was critically flawed. But as I shall attempt to show in this paper, he was first-among-equals in his aggregate contribution to its creation. On the big issues — the ones that served as the foundation on which everything else was built — Madison's handiwork clearly has been preserved in the government we live under today.
A Bookworm's Bookworm
For there to be a Constitution there first had to be a convention to propose, debate and adopt one. I will only briefly cover the reasons why the Founding Fathers felt the need to hold this convention (that is an entirely different paper) and I will skip over quickly Madison's contribution to the decision to hold the Annapolis Convention and the ensuing Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. In the organization of both events he played a major role, and to both conventions he was Virginia's leading delegate.
More important is what resulted from Madison's prodigious preparation for these conventions. In the spring and summer of 1786, in what may have been the greatest one-man "skull session" in history, Madison retired to his study in his beloved home Montpelier armed with a number of books he had collected (many sent from Paris by his friend Tom Jefferson) dealing with governments of the past. From these books on ancient republics Madison hoped to learn what made governments work, or prevented them working. The result was a document titled "Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies."
There are bookworms and then there are bookworms, and it isn't every student who can plow through the strengths and weaknesses of the Amphyctionic Confederacy of early 16th century Greece, the Helvitic Confederacy of 14th century Switzerland or the Belgic and Germanic confederacies of the mid-1600s. Madison did, and in his "Notes..." he made lists of all the features of those governments, good and bad, but in particular the bad, such as "disparity of size in Cantons," "intolerance of religion" and "weakness of the Union," to name a few.
Madison was convinced that in a large republic one faction would not stay in place long enough, or grow large enough, to pose a threat.....other factions would be created and they would all "check each other."
But Madison was quick to note that these vices were not abstractions; real people had exhibited them, just as real Americans had — since the end of the Revolutionary War — exhibited much less virtue and many more vices than Madison and others had hoped would be the case in a republican government. And so, in his later collection of notes titled "The Vices of the Political System of the United States," Madison began to work out his ideas of how human nature affected government. The crux of his conclusion, to paraphrase historian William Miller, is that governments must accept the many different courses of action that humans will pursue, based on what they perceive to be their self-interest.
All civilized societies are divided into different interests and factions, as they happen to be creditors or debtors — rich or poor — husbandmen, merchants or manufacturers...," Madison wrote in his "Vices..." memo. Therefore, he was to conclude, "The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the Sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to control one part of Society from invading the rights of another, and sufficiently controuled (sic) itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole Society."
From these musings, Madison began to shape his ideas of how to create a successful republic. The key for Madison, as Miller has written, is that these "different interests and factions" were not to be "ignored" (as the French revolutionaries did in 1789), but "to be taken for granted — and turned to the support of liberty and of republican government."
Here we come to the crux of Madison's emerging political theory and his subsequent contribution to the Constitution: How does one create or arrange the institutions of government so that they take advantage of human differences and the very human tendency toward self-interest? Or if not that, how does one at least minimize the negative effects of these traits? You do not do it by sticking with the weak powers given to Congress under the Articles of Confederation, Madison concluded, having watched how that government had been powerless to regulate commerce, or raise revenue through taxation, or even prevent the "tyranny of the majority" that had occurred in the 13 individual states since its establishment. In particular Madison and others had been dismayed by the threat to property rights that was posed when a majority of debtors would join forces and prevail upon their legislatures to pass laws protecting them from the debts they owed creditors.
But if that is what you don't do — and at Philadelphia abolishing, not merely amending the Articles was the intention of Madison and his allies — what do you do?
Searching for answers in 1787, Madison began reading (or re-reading; historians differ on this), David Hume's essay, "On the Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth." In it, Hume turns on its head "the orthodox notion that only small, homogeneous societies could sustain republican governments." On the contrary Hume insisted, and Madison echoed, in a larger republic it is harder for factions to join together into majorities that will oppress, or tyrannize the minorities.
Or as Madison was to put it in his "Vices..." memo, "Society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions which check each other, while those who may feel a common sentiment have less opportunity of communication and concert."
On the big issues....the ones that served as the foundation on which everything else was built, Madison's handiwork has clearly been preserved in our modern government.
Madison's point, which was later fleshed out in letters to Jefferson and George Washington, and finally in Federalist 10, was that in a larger republic there was much less likelihood of the tyranny of the majority that had wreaked such havoc under the old Articles. Why? First of all, in a large republic it would be harder for people of "common sentiment" to join together to impose their will. But equally important, in a large republic more people would — following the dictates of their pursuit of self-interest — constantly shift in and out of a larger number of different factions.
Madison might agree with his good friend Tom Jefferson's adage that we are all created equal, but Madison knew that as we go through life we become very different. We are raised differently (instilling in us different values), we acquire different amounts of property (wealth), and we form different opinions. What's more, we constantly look for ways to protect our property, or promulgate our values or defend our opinions. This is why we shift in and out of different attachments with like-minded people (there is safety, and power, in numbers) and this is why Madison was convinced that in a large republic one faction would not stay in place long enough, or grow large enough, to pose a threat. Further, in a large republic other factions would be created and they would all "check each other." "Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests," Madison wrote in Federalist 10.
Madison thought that an extensive republic had one other advantage as well. If you can arrange the institutions of government in the right manner, size will ensure large constituencies, from which will come elected representatives who aren't so closely tied to the local interests that had controlled state representatives.
The Virginia Plan
To review then, Madison went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 armed with several convictions. First, that the Articles needed replacing, not amending; second, that a strong central authority was needed to counterbalance the state governments; and third, that an extended republic was the key to arranging the institutions of government in a way that would ameliorate the majority tyranny so prevalent in the states, and therefore protect private rights and promote the public good.
All of these convictions, and many more, found their way into the Virginia Plan, which Madison, in consultation with Edmund Randolph, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and in his extended correspondence with Tom Jefferson in Paris, submitted to the convention as a basis for discussion. This Virginia Plan proposed a national government complete with executive, upper house and judiciary, and a popularly elected lower house of representatives. That Madison was its principal author there can be no doubt, and despite its numerous alterations, this plan would prove to be surprisingly resilient.
Indeed, despite being "on the losing side 40 times," the Constitution that Madison imagined and worked to achieve is remarkably similar to the one we are governed by today — not on all the little points, but on the big ones.
With two exceptions. While Madison believed that an extensive republic would, on a national level, prevent or at least minimize the mischiefs of the majority that he had perceived in the states, that still left him with one question: How does one cure these mischiefs within the states themselves?
Although Madison's remedies for the state's maladies underwent many changes, by the time of the convention he had formulated his plan. His strong central authority "would operate directly on individuals and have the power to negative (sic) state laws," as Charles Hobson put it. This "negative" would, as Madison wrote Jefferson in March of 1787, "restrain the states from thwarting each other, and even from oppressing the minority within themselves by paper money and other unrighteous measures which favor the interests of the majority." Or to put it another way, it would compel the state governments to behave themselves and thus give people a confidence in their government that was sorely lacking in the unbridled chaos of the states. Such a confidence, Madison and others had concluded, was critical to the economic health of the individual states, and to the nation as a whole.
Concerning Madison's work on the Constitution: "He was the first-among equals, he was the driving force, he was the number-one idea man, and every other superlative or cliche one can think of."
History records that Madison lost the battle over this "negative," and that the defeat sorely shook his confidence in the result. Indeed, some historians — Charles Hobson and John Roche among them — look at Madison's bulldog attempts to force this negative power into the Constitution (even to the point of trying to reinstate it later on in the convention) as evidence that Madison was much more of a nationalist in the Hamiltonian sense than he let on, and therefore the final federalist character of the Constitution was far from Madison's original intent.
"It is indeed astonishing how those who have glibly designated James Madison the 'father' of Federalism have overlooked the solid body of fact which indicates that he shared Hamilton's quest for a unitary central government," Roche writes.
Hobson goes further, claiming that the "image of Madison as 'Father'... is "not accurate," and for proof he points to Madison's "immoderate digression" in his now-famous letter to Jefferson of October 24, 1787. That "digression" was an attempt on Madison's part to explain the importance of his "negative power," and Hobson's analysis of this "digression" leads him to conclude that Madison was so dismayed by his failure to get his "negative" that he (Madison) was "highly dissatisfied with, not to say contemptuous of, the proposed government."
To this writer, however, it misses the point to say that Madison's disappointment in the final result shows he was not the "father" of the Constitution. (It is also historical hyperbole to imply that Madison was "contemptuous of" the final document. Nowhere have I found in Madison's writings regarding the Constitution anything that even approaches contempt.) For one thing — to borrow their parental metaphor — a man's dismay at a child's fate has no bearing one way or the other on whether he is the child's parent (then again, as the wise King Solomon intuitively understood, a manifest concern for the child's condition usually argues for a person's parentage!). Indeed, Hobson and Roche present an "apples and oranges" argument. That the Constitution did not end up being the document Madison originally proposed does not speak to the extent of his work on, or contribution to, the document the Founding Fathers did fashion in Philadelphia. So the final product was less "national" than he originally wanted; he was still instrumental in devising the more "federal" government that was enshrined in the Constitution, and he was just as instrumental in getting it ratified.
What's more, in the long run Madison's failure to get his negative didn't matter, both because — as historian Roger Brown has written — the convention delegates "instead proscribed the states from undesirable actions by specific prohibitions, including a ban on coinage and paper money...," and because, "the Framers approved the supremacy clause that made the Constitution, treaties and federal laws 'the supreme law of the land'..." This effectively made Madison's "negative" unnecessary, as did the delegates decision to make the judiciary the umpire in any dispute between the states and the central government. Hobson himself writes, "the decision to discard the negative was made easier because a judicial means of achieving the same ends had emerged during the deliberations."
In other words, although Madison lost his negative, he gained the larger victory; the convention accepted a strong, energized central government with sufficient power to regulate the behavior of the states. The convention also accepted those other parts of the Virginia Plan that conformed to Madison's two-part vision: 1. That the institutions of government be arranged in such a way that the "interests and factions" so prevalent in humans be "turned to the support of liberty and republican government," and 2. That this is best done in an extended republic (or in this case by extending the republic) that would have larger constituencies from which to draw representatives. This happy result would make these public servants free from local attachments and thus more likely to promote policies that are in the public interest.
Another big debate that Madison lost was over proportional representation in the Senate, and while this defeat also stung, he and his allies did manage to gain proportional representation in the House. What's more, Madison — supported by James Wilson, Charles Mason and Gouveneur Morris — managed to ensure that the lower house of representatives would be elected by popular vote.
Again, one might say that Madison lost a battle but won the war, for as Edmund Morgan has illustrated, getting direct, popular elections in the House was the key to tying this new central government to "the people," and thus giving it the legitimacy it clearly needed if it was to compete with the states. What's more, Madison's theory of the extended republic and the large constituencies it would spawn lent credence to his argument in favor of these popular elections. Large constituencies, Madison explained, would produce elected officials less influenced by parochial concerns. This argument helped him win over those delegates whose misgivings about "pure democracy" (which, as we have seen, Madison shared) had been bolstered by the sorry performance of the state governments.
Thus, thanks mostly to Madison, this new government would have "a plausible claim to the sanction of popular sovereignty on a national scale."
Another argument sometimes used to debunk the "myth" of Madison goes like this: Even granting Madison's major role in shaping the Constitution, many others also had leading roles in that passion play (Madison never denied it). And besides, these critics note, many of Madison's ideas were merely the refinements of the ideas of others.
To this one is tempted to say, "True, but so what?" Even without the high-tech communication systems we have today, society's 18th century elite could easily obtain information and learn of new ideas through books, newspapers, periodicals, letters and a variety of public gatherings. To ignore these ideas would have been silly, and someone like Madison would — on the contrary — eagerly digest them and use what he thought beneficial.
Certainly there is no denying the contributions of others to our Constitution, just as there is no denying that the myriad failures of the Articles of Confederation would have prompted any high-minded American patriot to consider alternatives. As Roger Brown has pointed out, this general like-minded "consensus" about the deficiencies of the Articles helped bring about "the Convention's speedy agreement to most of the basic principles of the Virginia Plan." Chief among those failures was Congress's inability to collect taxes from the states, as Brown has illustrated. As early as 1782, a prominent Bostonian named John Lowell envisioned "a centralized federal legislature empowered to enforce its laws." High on his list was the "power to tax."
Brown notes the many others who were calling for changes to the Articles similar to the ones Madison had in mind. Although such names as Jeremiah Wadsworth, Benjamin Rush, Henry Knox, Stephen Higginson and Samuel Breck don't spring instantly to mind when discussing the origins of our government, they all made important contributions to its final form. One contributor — Edward Carrington — certainly reinforced Madison's views in a letter he wrote to him in June of 1787, in which he advised Madison that "a good republic" should be framed that had "centralized power, and a tripartite structure." Carrington also advocated the federal veto over the states.
It is true as well that many states had fashioned their own governments in ways that the national government would closely emulate. Massachusetts in particular had a strong executive (governor), a bicameral legislature and a judiciary — features that to a great extent found their way into the Constitution.
We have also, to some extent, noted the famous contemporaries like Hume who had contributed to Madison's thinking. However, one of Madison's most vital conclusions — namely the way multiple factions can "check each other" — seems not (as has been supposed) to have come from Hume's teachings but from Madison's first-hand experience. As early as 1784 Madison was in the thick of a battle over religious freedom and Virginia's role in mediating the grievances of various sects, chiefly the Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
"The presbyterian clergy have at length espoused the side of the opposition, being moved either by a fear of their laity or a jealousy of the episcopalians," Madison wrote Jefferson in 1785. "I am far from being sorry for it (emphasis mine) as a coalition between them could alone endanger our religious rights and a tendency to such an event had been suspected."
In this letter, Madison not only exhibits an understanding of the self-interest that motivates these sects, but also the good that can come when they are in a constant state of conflict with each other. Perhaps Madison had heard of Voltaire's adage that the more religions there are, the better the chances they will "all live happy and in peace." But even if not, he had come to that conclusion, and he saw clearly that what worked for religion would work in politics.
In this author's mind, whether or not Madison's ideas came from others (or were shared by others), or the fact that Madison lost many of the debates during the Constitutional Convention, is of little consequence in assessing his contribution to the final document the convention produced. As to the former point, Paul Valery once asked Albert Einstein, "Master, how do you keep track of all the ideas you keep generating?" To which Einstein replied, "But I've only had two original ideas in my whole life."
And as to the latter, as I hope I have shown, assessing the "won-lost" record in the debates over particulars in Philadelphia, or attempting to show that Madison's misgivings about the final document somehow diminish his connection to it, are the quintessential examples of missing the forest for the trees.
So let us quickly view the forest. Or more expeditiously, let us review some of the letters (written on paper produced from forests) that Madison wrote to his fellow Founding Fathers in 1787, prior to the Convention. And then let us compare the ideas about government that he was working out in those letters with the government we have today.
In letters written to Jefferson on March 19th, to Edmund Randolph on April 8th and in particular to George Washington on April 16th (with each letter he becomes more confident and better at fleshing out his ideas) Madison makes the following points:
That is what Madison wanted 210 years ago, and that is what he put into the Virginia Plan he presented to the convention before the rest of the delegates could gather their wits. This, as even John Roche admits, was "a political master-stroke. Its consequence was that once business got underway, the framework of discussion was established on Madison's terms."
So what have we got today, 210 years later? We have a "new system," different from the Articles, that was ratified "by the authority of the people"; a "middle ground" relationship in which the states are sovereign but subject to the "supreme authority" of the national government, especially in all cases that "require uniformity" such as regulating trade, tariffs and so on; a judiciary that has its own supreme authority; a national executive; and a government "well organized" so that its extensive power is checked and "balanced" through this executive, judiciary and bicameral legislature. Neither last nor least, we also have an "extended republic" in which our representatives have enough freedom from the "tyranny" of parochial majorities to concern themselves with the general welfare of the nation — what Madison considered the "public good."
In other words, as I said at the top of this paper, on "the big issues," the ones that Madison worked out in his "Notes..." and "Vices..." and letters to friends — the ones that served as the foundation on which everything else was built — Madison's handiwork has clearly been preserved in our modern government. Yes, he was thwarted on many points, but it is worth noting that unlike Alexander Hamilton, George Mason and others, Madison did not pick up his ball and go home when things didn't go his way. He kept at it, attending every session of the convention (and writing the notes that serve as our only true guide to its inner workings), he spoke more than any other delegate, and he was usually the one who came up with the compromise that broke some of the most entrenched deadlocks.
He was also, without question, the best prepared of any delegate, which not only helped him in his efforts to create the Constitution, but also in his indispensable efforts to swing public opinion behind it, as well as to see it ratified in his home state. Madison wrote twenty-nine of the eighty-five Federalist Papers (including the two most famous, Federalist 10 and Federalist 51) which, more than any other initiative, helped explain and defend the Constitution, thereby turning the public response from skepticism to support. Finally, during Virginia's ratification debate, the Constitution's opponents blundered badly by proposing that it be debated clause-by-clause, which played right into the hands of always-prepared Madison. Against not insubstantial odds or opponents, including Patrick Henry and George Mason, Madison's forces carried the day.
"Madison's political career and influence rested, quite simply, on the notion that a man who did his homework and thought through issues and alternatives before debate began could often lead his lazier colleagues — of whom there would always be many — along the avenues he had selected," Jack Rakove has written, which is about as accurate a description of Madison's career as can be found. The Constitution is not only a product of those "avenues," but a testament to Madison's willingness to continue traveling them when others would have turned back.
To return to our original question then, was Madison the "Father of the Constitution?" No, but he was the Godfather. He was the first-among-equals, he was the driving force, he was the number-one idea man, and every other superlative, or cliche, one can think of.
Yet the truth is that, other than historians (among whom, as we have seen, there is debate), very few people realize what Madison means to our present day government, or — for that matter — our way of life. What do most of us know about Madison? That he was president during the unpopular War of 1812 and that his wife, Dolley, was a real live-wire. There is no Madison Monument, nor a national holiday in honor of his birthday. And even given Madison's aversion to the spotlight, one wonders whether we might have done better than giving his name to a New York City street (now symbolic of advertising), a city in Wisconsin, a posh hotel in Washington, D.C., a county in Virginia, and a bunch of high schools around the country (of which the last, given his understanding of education's importance, would no doubt make him the happiest).
In a delightful essay on Madison, written in 1981, the columnist George F. Will noted this injustice:
So perhaps a case can be made for giving Madison the overreaching title "Father of the Constitution," as a way of paying tribute, but more to the point as a way of compensating the man with the world's highest ratio of contribution to recognition.
Notes & References:
1. Novus Ordo Seclorum, Forrest McDonald, pg. 207
2. The exception was Washington, whose presence at the convention was considered crucial to its legitimacy in the public eye. Recognizing this, Madison was instrumental in persuading Washington to attend.
3. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, pg. 11
4. In his book, Redeeming the Republic, Dr. Roger Brown makes a persuasive argument that it was forces beyond the average citizen's control, such as a lack of hard currency and credit, depressed prices for export goods, the closing of British trade ports and the like that caused the so-called "vices" (indolence, extravagance, lack of discipline) that Madison and the other framers had viewed with such alarm. To oversimplify Brown's research, we might conclude then that the Constitution was the happy result of a skewed viewpoint on the part of Madison and others.
5. "The Spirit of '89," William Miller, The New Republic, June 26, 1989, pg. 22
6. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, pg. 355
7. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, pg. 357
8. "The Spirit of '89," William Miller, The New Republic, June 26, 1989, pg. 22
9. The Beginnings of National Politics, Jack Rakove, pg. 393
10. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, pg. 357
11. "The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution and the Crisis of Republican Government," Charles Hobson, William and Mary Quarterly, pg. 221
12. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, pg. 318
13. "The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action," John P. Roche, Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, pg. 502
14. "The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution and the Crisis of Republican Government," Charles Hobson, William and Mary Quarterly, pg. 216
15. "The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Republican Government," Charles Hobson, William and Mary Quarterly, pg. 233
16. Redeeming the Republic, Roger Brown, pg. 199
17."The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution and the Crisis of Republican Government," Charles Hobson, William and Mary Quarterly, pg. 228
18. Although Madison played little role in the later Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, that purchase certainly furthered Madison's ends with respect to an "extended republic."
19. Inventing the People, Edmund S. Morgan, pg. 274
20. Anyone looking for an interesting topic for a research paper would do well to explore the incredible contribution that people of Scottish descent had on the minds of the Founders, and on the Constitution itself. To name a few off the top of one's head: Donald Robinson, Madison's first teacher, James Witherspoon, the head of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (which Madison and others attended), David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Wilson, said by many historians to be the second most important member of the Constitutional Convention after Madison himself.
21. Redeeming the Republic, Roger Brown, pg. 184
22. Redeeming the Republic, Roger Brown, pg. 171
23. Redeeming the Republic, Roger Brown, pg. 182
24. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 8, pg. 345 One might say that — as was the case with much else — Madison's views on the Constitution ran a similar course as that of his friend Jefferson's views on the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was appalled at what his fellow convention delegates did to his original draft, to the point of denigrating both it and his fellow delegates. But over time his opinion of the Declaration improved markedly. Can we not believe the same of Madison's opinion of the Constitution?
25. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, pg. 318, 370 & 384
26. "The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action," John P. Roche, Major Problems in the Era of American Revolution, pg. 501
27. It was Madison, for example, who came up with the compromise over which branch of the government would have war-making power. Madison's language, that Congress would have the power to declare war, while the executive would have the power to wage war, seemed the most practical solution and remained true to the respective roles that the convention had envisioned for each of the two branches.
28. Witness at the Creation, Richard B. Morris, pg. 260
29. The Beginnings of National Politics, Jack Rakove, pg. 379