This essay first appeared in the April 3, 2023 Epoch Times.
Forrest McDonald, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest constitutional historian, observed in his book “Novus Ordo Seclorum” that the framers produced a Constitution very different from the one James Madison sought.
Madison did agree with most of his fellow framers on some broad outlines: a two-house Congress, an independent executive, and an independent judiciary.
However, Madison favored a “national” rather than a federal government, with Congress enjoying absolute power to veto state laws. He wanted the president to serve for life or be elected by Congress for a single long term. He proposed that the Senate be able to make treaties without the intervention of the president and that the Senate appoint judges. Although a slave holder, Madison favored immediate abolition of the slave trade and the gradual abolition of slavery itself.
None of these ideas made it into the final draft.
Thus, it isn’t really true that Madison “wrote the Constitution”—nor was he, as often claimed, exactly the document’s “father.” The cumulative impact of other Founders on the Constitution was far greater than that of Madison alone.
Still, Madison was the most important single individual in the document’s creation. He was also one of the few (George Washington, John Dickinson, Roger Sherman, Edmund Randolph, and probably Alexander Hamilton) about whom we can say, “Without him, we might not have a Constitution.”
James Madison was born on March 5, 1751, in King George County, Virginia. He spent most of his life in Orange County at his estate at Montpelier (which is well worth visiting). His father, a planter, supported him financially in his early political endeavors.
He was educated in the Greco-Roman classics-centered curriculum described in the second installment of my series, “The Ideas That Formed the Constitution.” He won a degree from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in two years instead of the usual three. He never became a lawyer, but he diligently studied Edward Coke’s authoritative and ponderous “Institutes of the Lawes [sic] of England.”
There’s another measure of the man, derived from, literally—measure: As I can testify from personal experience, the practice of politics rewards men who enjoy robust physical constitutions, a commanding presence, and more-than-average height. In building credibility and running for office, physically unimpressive men face severe disadvantages.
Madison was never robust. He suffered from epilepsy. He stood 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. Yet he overcame those disadvantages to achieve a successful political career that culminated in a two-term presidency. This is evidence of his talents, his determination, and the respect he inspired in others.
From long immersion in the Founding-era record, I can testify also that Madison was remarkably honest. He displayed no traces of the too-clever-by-half traits that marred some other Founders—notably Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. One indication of this is how, as president, he conducted the very difficult War of 1812. He was under extreme pressure to win by ignoring constitutional restrictions on his power. But he remained scrupulously within constitutional limits and still brought the war to an honorable conclusion.
During the 20th century, some law professors tried to discredit Madison by alleging he fraudulently doctored his constitutional convention notes. They never produced convincing evidence to support that allegation, and I don’t think very many people take the allegation seriously today. Anyone familiar with Madison’s character would never believe such a charge.
Madison’s Contributions to the Constitution
Madison played central roles during every step in the Constitution’s formation: in laying the foundation, outlining initial plans, in the actual framing, in the ratification debates, and in adoption of the Bill of Rights.
Thus, in 1785 and 1786 he created a precedent for religious freedom by successfully opposing a bill in the Virginia legislature to impose a tax to fund teachers of Christianity. He thereby laid the groundwork for the Constitution’s posture toward religion: Policymakers may favor faith over non-faith, but they must be neutral among religions (pdf).
In September 1786, he served as one of Virginia’s commissioners (delegates) to a convention of states held in Annapolis, Maryland. He and the other commissioners recommended to the states sending them that they call another convention “to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” This recommendation, of course, led to the Constitutional Convention.
Shortly thereafter, Madison drafted the Virginia law that served as the Constitutional Convention’s formal “call.” (The frequent claim that Congress called the convention on Feb. 21, 1787, is inaccurate.)
Next, in conjunction with his friend and cousin, Virginia Gov. Edmund Randolph, Madison persuaded George Washington to attend the convention, thereby giving the cause of constitutional reform great respectability.
In early 1787, he performed background research on the history of confederations. And he consulted with the other Virginia commissioners to produce the “Virginia Plan.” That was an outline for a new government that served as the convention’s principal basis for discussion during its first eight weeks.
At the convention, the other framers rejected or modified Madison’s ideas time and again. Yet he remained a valuable and active participant. He represented Virginia on two “committees of the states” that fashioned compromises on trade and presidential elections. He was the principal drafter of the Constitution’s Article V, which prescribed the amendment process. He also was a member of the committee of style, which produced the Constitution’s near-final version. However, Madison did little, if any, of the actual drafting: He wisely deferred to Gouverneur Morris, who was a far better writer.
Throughout the convention, Madison documented the proceedings in a very comprehensive set of notes.
On Sept. 17, 1787, the framers finished their work and released the proposed Constitution to the public. It soon came under attack. Hamilton asked Madison to work with him and with John Jay and William Duer to produce a series of newspaper essays that would explain and support the Constitution. (Duer did not participate in the joint project, although he soon wrote some short op-eds on his own.) Madison penned 29 of the 85 essays, including some of the most important. They later were republished in a collection known as “The Federalist.”
The Federalist essays were too cerebral to be widely popular. But they served as a pro-Constitution “playbook” at several state ratifying conventions, particularly those in Virginia and New York.
Virginia’s ratifying convention met from June 2 to June 27, 1788. Madison was among the delegates. Anti-Constitution sentiment was strong in that conclave. Among the pro-Constitution team, Madison apparently served as second-in-command, next to Gov. Randolph, and they eked out a close victory.
However, in Virginia, as in several other states, the Constitution’s supporters had to make a gentlemen’s agreement with their more moderate opponents to win ratification. The bargain was, “We’ll ratify the Constitution and then we’ll all support a bill of rights.” Although Madison personally doubted whether a bill of rights was necessary, once elected to the new federal Congress he honored the agreement. He introduced the first draft of the bill and shepherded it through Congress until it obtained the two-thirds vote of each house necessary to send it to the states for approval.
As a member of the new Federal Congress (1789–1797), Madison played a central role in the early congressional debates over constitutional interpretation. In 1798, he penned the famous Virginia Resolutions against what he saw as federal government overreaching. The Virginia Resolutions didn’t, as sometimes said, join Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions in endorsing the extra-constitutional doctrine of state “nullification.” Instead, Madison favored constitutional methods of state “push-back” that, following his terminology, came to be called “interposition”(pdf).
When Jefferson became president in 1801, Madison became his Secretary of State. As Jefferson was completing his second term, Madison was elected to replace him. He served as president from March 1809 to March 1817.
After leaving the presidency, Madison assisted Jefferson in founding the University of Virginia. He remained a voice in national affairs, largely through an extensive correspondence. Perhaps his most notable political statements were the letters he wrote opposing state “nullification,” and endorsing instead constitutional methods of “interposition,” including an Article V amendments convention.
By taking care of his fragile health, Madison enjoyed what was then an extraordinarily long life: 85 years. He died on June 28, 1836.