BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 6, 1999
James Madison: WritingsEdited by Jack N. Rakove(Library of America, 966 pp., $40)If having one's writings collected in a volume of the Library of America is a criterion, then James Madison at last has become a full-fledged Founding Father. Of the major Revolutionary leaders, only Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington have preceded him into what has become the American canon. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams still await entry, angry and frustrated no doubt by the fact that even the populist firebrand Thomas Paine has preceded them.Such recognition of Madison is long overdue. Although he was the major architect of the Constitution, the father of the Bill of Rights, the co-author of The Federalist, the co-founder of the Democratic-Republican party in the 1790s, and the secretary of state in Jefferson's administration, he has been most often remembered as the rather bumbling president during the War of 1812 who was unable to prevent the British from invading Washington and burning the White House. But things are changing. In 1980 a new Library of Congress building was named after him, and not long ago Montpelier, Madison's home in Orange County, Virginia, was opened to visitors. Indeed, at present Madison's reputation as one of the founders has never been higher.Perhaps the general public only now has begun to glimpse Madison's significance, but for several decades scholars have become increasingly aware of his importance. Along with Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and Franklin, Madison is one of the founders whose papers have been or are being published in massive modern editions that include virtually everything written by and to the subject. With the Supreme Court's discovery of the Bill of Rights as a source of constitutional interpretation in the last half of the twentieth century, interest in Madison as the promoter of the first ten amendments has risen accordingly. One important indication of his recently enhanced reputation is the growing number of biographies. Since Irving Brant completed his sixvolume biography (it appeared between 1941 and 1961), there have been at least four single-volume biographies--by Harold Schultz (1970), Ralph Ketcham (1971), Robert A. Rutland (1987), and Jack N. Rakove (1990)--and a masterful study of the aging statesman in retirement: Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (1989). The biography by Rakove, who is the editor of this Library of America collection of Madison's writings, offers the best introduction to Madison's career. It is balanced and beautifully written and very short--less than two hundred pages.Rakove has used his knowledge of Madison's life to make an excellent selection of documents for the Library of America's volume. The book contains nearly all the important essays that Madison wrote, including his twenty-nine contributions to The Federalist Papers, together with the most significant of his letters. Everything is arranged chronologically, so that we can follow the development of his political thought. And it is his political thought in which scholars are now most interested.Charles Beard long ago tried to turn Madison into our very own economic determinist as an alternative to Marx, but it was not until 1938, when Edward Burns published James Madison: Philosopher of the Constitution, that scholars began to investigate his political thought with any thoroughness. Although Adrienne Koch wrote several studies of Madison's thinking in the 1950s and 1960s, Madison's reputation as a political theorist was advanced more importantly in those decades by a series of essays by the historian Douglass Adair and the political theorist Martin Diamond. With the appearance of Lance Banning's carefully argued The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1995) and Rakove's own Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), Madison's eminence as a political thinker was assured.By now most scholars have come to share the view that Madison was the most profound and original political theorist not only in the Revolutionary and Constitution-making period, but also in all of American history. If England has Hobbes and Locke, and France has Rousseau and Constant, then America at least has Madison. Indeed, convinced of the originality and the sophistication of Madison's ideas, many scholars have been stumbling over themselves in their desire to explore the implications of his political thought-- less, it seems, for understanding the eighteenth century and more for understanding our own time. Since Madison was central to the creation of the Constitution, and since the "Founding," as we have come to call it, has become central to what kind of people we Americans are, Madison and his ideas have come to bear an extraordinary responsibility for the character of American politics and society.Political theorists have been especially eager to treat Madison as America's foremost political philosopher, and have compiled a small library of works analyzing his (and Hamilton's) contributions to The Federalist. According to many political theorists, to understand Madison is to understand American politics. So, in Robert A. Dahl's formulation, Madison is the pluralist who unfortunately concocted our fragmented structure of government in order to protect minority rights at the expense of majority rule. According to Richard K. Matthews, by contrast, Madison is the symbol of a cold-hearted American liberalism that promotes a selfish individualism that has no sense of benevolence and cares only for material wealth and property. Or, most recently in Gary Rosen's hands, Madison is the innovative theorist of the social compact that is the foundation of natural rights and our limited constitutional government.As these studies by political scientists and political theorists become more and more refined and precious, they seem to drift farther and farther away from Madison's eighteenth-century reality. Whatever his creativity and his originality may be, we have to keep in mind that Madison was not speaking to us or to the ages. He was very much an eighteenth-century man concerned with practical problems of nation-building, and with finding ideas that would prove persuasive to his fellow eighteenthcentury countrymen. Even his contributions to The Federalist were hastily written polemical pieces designed to convince New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. His world was not our world; indeed, our world would have been inconceivable to him. Thus in our efforts to relate his very time-bound thinking to our present predicaments we run the risk of seriously distorting his world and what he was trying to do. And despite all of Madison's achievements, we run the risk of exaggerating his originality and his creativity.Much of Madison's reputation comes from his central role in the formation of the new federal Constitution of 1787, and from his writing of twenty-nine of the eighty-five papers of The Federalist, especially Federalist No. 10, which has become the most famous document in the history of American political thought. Madison was the principal force behind the calling of the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787, and he was also the principal author of the Virginia plan that formed the working model of the convention. During the meeting he not only participated vigorously in the debates, he also took it upon himself to keep voluminous notes of the discussions. Indeed, it is mainly because of Madison's notes that we know so much about what went on in the convention. If anyone deserves the title "father of the Constitution," he certainly seems to.If he was the father, however, he was not at all happy with his offspring. At the moment of the convention's completion, Madison could not have been more deeply disappointed with what he and his fellow delegates had created. If the Constitution were ratified, he told Jefferson in September 1787, it would never do what it was supposed to do. It "will neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts against the state governments." As far as he was concerned, the Constitution that he had done so much to bring about was a failure.Madison had been thinking about reforming the existing government of the United States--the Articles of Confederation--ever since the early 1780s. Like many other American leaders, he had come to realize that the Confederation's inability to tax, to regulate commerce, and to maintain the dignity and the territorial integrity of the United States in international affairs demanded some major changes in the Articles. Yet Madison wanted to do more than deal with problems created by the weakness of the Confederation. He wanted to deal also with problems of politics in the states. It was this double purpose that made his constitutional proposals of 1787 so radical; and it was the failure of the Constitution to solve both the national and state problems that made him so despairing at the conclusion of the Convention.In 1776, the revolutionary leaders had placed great confidence in the ability of the state legislatures to promote the public good and to protect the people's rights. In the succeeding years, however, many of them had come to believe that this earlier confidence was misplaced. The Revolution had unleashed acquisitive and factional economic interests that were demanding and receiving satisfaction from state legislatures which were now elected annually by the broadest electorates in the world. Everywhere in the states, electioneering and the open competition for office increased, as new uneducated entrepreneurs such as Abraham Yates, a part-time lawyer and shoemaker of Albany, and William Findley, a Scotch-Irish ex-weaver of western Pennsylvania, used popular electoral appeals to vault into political leadership in the state legislatures.No one saw more clearly what was happening than Madison. He himself witnessed this popular politics in the several states, but, more importantly, he experienced it himself as a member of the Virginia assembly in the 1780s. Madison was surprised to discover that his fellow legislators did not understand the legislative process. He found himself having to make legislative deals and trade-offs, agreeing to bad laws for fear of getting worse laws, or giving up good bills "rather than pay such a price" as his opponents wanted. His fellow legislators postponed taxes, subverted debts owed to the subjects of Great Britain, and passed, defeated, and re-passed bills in the most haphazard manner.Legislators in all the states passed more laws than people could keep up with. In fact, Madison observed in 1786, they passed more laws in the decade since independence than had been passed in the previous century of colonial history. And those laws were not only constantly changing and multiplying, they were often unjust as well--passed on behalf of special interests in violation of the rights of creditors and other minorities. The state legislators had little comprehension of the collective good, even of their individual states, never mind of the United States. They were parochial and narrow-minded and bent on serving only the particular local interests of their constituents.This pandering to the public, especially to its "itch for paper money," was the greatest evil of all. For it meant that appealing to the people as the ultimate arbiter of political disputes could have none of the beneficial effects that good republicans had expected. A Virginia bill having to do with court reform, for example, was "to be printed for consideration of the public," but "instead of calling for the sanction of the wise and virtuous," this appeal to the people, Madison feared, would only "be a signal to interested men to redouble their efforts to get into the Legislature." Democracy, in other words, was not the solution to the problem; democracy was the problem.What Madison saw as the vices of American state politics scarcely strikes us today as all that unusual or vicious. He only described what we now take for granted: popular American politics with all its horse-trading and pork barreling. We are not surprised or upset when representatives say they have to look after their constituents' interests. We are accustomed to our politicians running scared and being worried about their particular districts. That is what American democratic politics is all about.However disillusioned Madison was with this democratic politics--this incessant scrambling for interests, this continual pandering to voters--by the mid1780s he knew that it was an ineradicable part of American social reality. People inevitably had interests; and since they wished to protect those interests, they divided into political factions. The causes of faction, he wrote in the tenth paper of The Federalist, were "sown in the nature of man." It was utopian to expect most people to put aside these interests for the sake of some nebulous public good. Yet it would be a denial of liberty to try to eliminate them. And so Madison realized that the regulation of these private factional interests was becoming the principal task of modern legislation, which meant that the spirit of party and faction was likely in the future to be involved in the ordinary operations of government.Even though many other Americans in 1787 were saying the same thing, we can only applaud Madison for his hard-headed realism, for his willingness to question the utopianism of some of his fellow republicans who had hoped in 1776 that the American people would have sufficient virtue to transcend their interests and act in a disinterested manner. And yet, when he continues with his analysis in Federalist No. 10, we begin to realize that he is not quite as cold-eyed and modern as we had thought.No government, he wrote, could be just if parties, that is, people with private interests to promote, became judges in their own causes; indeed, interested majorities were no better in this respect than interested minorities:No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold thebalance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail.Since the popular colonial assemblies had often begun as courts (the "General Court of Massachusetts"), and since much of their legislation had resembled adjudication, Madison's use of judicial imagery to describe the factional and interest-group politics in the state legislatures was understandable. Yet it was not new; and it pointed backward to the colonial world, not forward to our world. For all the brilliance of his diagnosis of interest-ridden popular politics in the states, Madison's remedy of dealing with that politics was very traditional, and ultimately it was perhaps just as utopian as the views that he was contesting.Madison hoped that the new federal government might transcend parties, and become a kind of super-judge. It would become, as he put it, a "disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests" in the various states. In fact, he hoped that the new government might play the same super-political neutral role that the British king ideally had been supposed to play in the empire.It was this kind of traditional thinking that led him to conceive of the Constitution as a solution not only to the weaknesses of the Confederation, but also to the problems of factious majorities in the states. Madison wanted the new national government to have a veto power over all state laws. Such "a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the states, as heretofore exercised by the Kingly prerogative," he told Washington a month before the meeting in Philadelphia, was "absolutely necessary" and "the least possible encroachment on the State Jurisdictions."As Rakove has pointed out, this was an extraordinarily reactionary proposal. It evoked not only the infamous phrase of the British Declaratory Act of 1766, but also the royal veto that Jefferson had so bitterly denounced in the Declaration of Independence. Madison's proposal for this national power to negate all state legislation was a measure of just how disillusioned he had become with democratic politics in the states.But how could this new national government become a neutral and disinterested umpire when the state governments had been unable to become so? "It may be asked," Madison said to Jefferson in October 1787, "how private rights will be more secure under the Guardianship of the General Government than under the State Governments, since they are both founded on the republican principle which refers the ultimate decision to the will of the majority." What, in other words, was really different about the federal government that would prevent it from succumbing to the same popular pressures and factious majorities that were besetting the state governments in the 1780s?The answer that Madison gave to this question is the source of his reputation for originality. He set forth in a number of writings, including Federalist No. 10, his theory of an extended republic. Most theorists, Montesquieu most famously, had believed that only a small territory with a homogeneous population whose interests were essentially similar could sustain a republic. Madison now argued that the reverse was true: that an enlarged and elevated republic was more capable than a small republic of behaving in a sensible and judicious manner and of promoting the general good. Faction-ridden Rhode Island had become an object lesson that smallness held no advantages for good republican government. By extending the political arena over the whole nation, the number of interests and factions in the society would increase to the point where they would check one another and make it less likely that a factious majority could combine in government to oppress the rights of minorities and individuals.Douglass Adair suggested long ago that Madison may have borrowed an idea from David Hume in arriving at his theory of an extended republic. But it turns out that many Americans in 1787 had similar ideas about the advantages of diffusing factions in an enlarged and elevated republic. As Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, there were many Federalists who attempted to refute the traditional view that republics had to be small in size, and who used arguments very much like Madison's. Nearly three weeks before the publication of Madison's Federalist No. 10, the New Jersey lawyer John Stevens contended that extensive republics like that of the United States were better able to scatter and lessen the force of factions than small republics.No one matched Madison in the depth and the elegance of his arguments, but he was not as original as we have sometimes thought. (This is equally true of most of the great political theorists when they are seen in their full historical contexts.) Once we look closely at Madison's contentions, we also discover that he was not the modern pluralist that many have believed him to be. He was not offering some early version of interest-group politics. He was not a forerunner of twentieth-century political scientists such as Arthur Bentley or David Truman. He did not see public policy or the common good emerging naturally from the give-and-take of hosts of competing interests.Instead, Madison turns out to be much more old-fashioned and classical in his expectations. He expected that the clashing interests and passions in the enlarged national republic would neutralize themselves in society and allow liberally educated, rational men--men "whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices, and to schemes of injustice"--to promote the public good in the government in a disinterested manner. Madison, in short, was not all as modern as we often make him out to be.In madison's view, not everyone in government had to be a party to a cause. He believed that there were a few disinterested gentlemen in the society--men such as Jefferson and himself--and he hoped that his system would allow these few to transcend the interest-mongering of the many in the society and be able to act as neutral judges or umpires in the new national Congress. As "an auxiliary desideratum" to his scheme, Madison predicted that the elevated and expanded sphere of national politics would act as a filter, refining the kind of men who would become national leaders. In a larger arena of national politics with an expanded electorate and a smaller number of representatives, the people were more apt to ignore the illiberal narrow-minded men with "factious tempers" and "local prejudices" who had dominated the state legislatures in the 1780s--the Yateses and the Findleys--and instead elect to the new federal government only those educated gentlemen with "the most attractive merit and the most ... established characters."Madison understood that his scheme had worked just this way in religious matters. The multiplicity of religious sects in America prevented any one of them from dominating the society and permitted the enlightened reason of liberal gentlemen such as Jefferson and himself to shape public policy and church-state relations, and to protect the rights of minorities. "In a free government," wrote Madison in Federalist No. 51, "the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects."Madison's theory may have worked out well in religious matters, but it did not seem to have much practical effect on the character of the new national government. Indeed, Madison himself at one point in the convention had actually contradicted his own theory of the multiplicity of factions by raising the specter of the nation being divided not into a variety of interests, but into the two great interests of free states and slave states.Elections to the new national government, moreover, did not work out quite as he had expected. When, in March 1789, he looked over the list of representatives who were joining him in the First Congress, he found only "a very scanty proportion who will share in the drudgery of business," and when he contemplated the problems they would face, he foresaw "contentions first between federal and antifederal parties, and then between Northern and Southern parties, which give additional disagreeableness to the prospect."And everything soon got worse. By the early 1790s, his former collaborator Hamilton had become his adversary, and was leading a faction that was promoting the interests of financiers and monarchists at the expense of the general public. It was not long before Madison and his good friend Jefferson were organizing their own faction--the Republican party--in opposition to the Federalist party. Instead of a multiplicity of interests neutralizing one another in the society, the various social and economic interests had coalesced into two great parties that had actually invaded the government.By this time Madison had put his theory of an extended republic and the multiplicity of interests behind him. He was faced with new circumstances and new problems that required new ideas and new remedies. The vices of the 1790s were no longer factious majorities in the states but a factious minority in control of the national government. What were now needed were mechanisms and devices for arousing and organizing the majority opinion of the people.That Madison thought new thoughts in the 1790s and apparently reversed many of his earlier positions bewildered some of his contemporaries, including Hamilton; and this has been a matter of great controversy among modern scholars. But perhaps Madison was more right than not when he suggested to Jefferson that he had only the eye of an "ordinary Politician" and was unwilling or unable to perceive "the sublime truths ... seen thro' the medium of Philosophy." We have to remind ourselves that Madison, as he himself noted, was not a closet philosopher. He was a working politician caught up in the daily hurly-burly of popular politics.Of course, he was an especially thoughtful politician, who tried to make sense of what he was doing and who at times even tried to fit his ideas into some sort of larger scheme. Ultimately, though, he was not a scholar or a theorist who can be judged by modern standards of consistency and coherence. For all of his achievements, Madison should never be thought of as the philosopher of American government.Indeed, there is no such being. The beauty of America's ongoing political theory is that it has never been made by any one person or groups of persons--not by Madison, or by any of the founders, or by all of them together, and certainly not by scholars in their studies. Like the marketplace, the theory of America has been made by the combined thinking of many engaged participants, no one of whom is in control (or perhaps even aware of) the complicated process of creation. And, most important, it is a political theory that was just begun in 1776 and 1787; it has continued throughout our history and continues today. The best thing about our insisting on Madison and the other founders as the basis of our political thought is that we at least start with a very high standard.Gordon Wood is University Professor and Professor of History at Brown University.
By Gordon S. Wood