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“No Mind Has Stamped More of Its Impression On American Institutions”

Lynne Cheney has written a splendid new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

There are many things one could focus on in a book on Madison, from his personal modesty and his “remarkable sweet temper” (in the words of William Pierce), to his loving marriage to Dolley and his lifelong, intimate friendship with Thomas Jefferson, to his indispensable role in the creation of the Constitution and his wartime leadership as president. Madison was a man of unusual self-possession and a steady temperament, brave in his struggle with seizures (which may have been caused by epilepsy), and fervently committed to religious liberty. 

But there’s one part of Madison’s life I want to concentrate on for the purposes of this post, which has to do with the fight for ratification in Madison’s home state of Virginia, which at the time was the nation’s largest and most important state. Mrs. Cheney sets the scene:

On June 14 [1788], the delegates finally began the point-by-point debate on the Constitution that George Mason had proposed eleven days before. Soon a pattern developed. [Patrick] Henry, George Mason, or James Monroe, who also opposed the Constitution, would claim there were reasons for grave concern in this clause or that one, and Madison would rise to explain briefly and cogently why their worry was unfounded. To Madison it often seemed a Sisyphean effort. He later told Edward Coles, his secretary, that Patrick Henry could undo an hour’s work with a single gesture… He wrote to Hamilton, “My health is not good, and the business is wearisome beyond expression.” … Two days later, Madison wrote to Washington, “I find myself not yet restored and extremely feeble.” He was, nevertheless, putting in a magnificent performance. One observer reported that although “the division” in the Virginia Convention was very close, a narrow win could be expected for the Federalists – “notwithstanding Mr. Henry’s declaratory powers, they being vastly overpowered by the deep reasoning of our glorious little Madison.” One of the delegates, Archibald Stuart, wrote to a friend on June 19, 1788, “Madison came boldly forward and supported the Constitution with the soundest reason and most manly eloquence I ever heart. He understands his subject well and his whole soul is engaged in its success…”

On June 25, 1788 delegates voted 89 to 79 to ratify the Constitution. If Virginia’s vote had gone the other way, Cheney points out, in all likelihood so would New York’s, in which case the whole constitutional enterprise might have come crumbling down. A French diplomat wrote home saying this: “Mr. Madison is the one who, among all the delegates, carried the votes of the two parties. He was always clear, precise, and consistent in his reasoning and always methodical and pure in his language.”

This underscores one of Madison’s most impressive qualities. In an assemblage filled with extraordinary minds, Madison was equal to them all. But he was also the best-prepared person at the Constitutional Convention. Prior to it Jefferson, then in Paris, sent Madison crates of books–more than 200–to study various forms of government. (This led him to author “Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies.”) When Madison submitted his recommendations for the ideal legislator’s library, he cited the works of Locke, Hooker, Plutarch, Hobbes, Hume, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. No one studied harder or knew more about the requirements for self-government. 

Several years after the death of the “father of the Constitution,”  the lawyer and politician Charles Jared Ingersoll would say, “no mind has stamped more of its impressions on American institutions than Madison’s.” 

Different people will argue over who was the greatest founder. Some would argue that George Washington was America’s “indispensable man.” Others would point to the brilliant mind and beautiful pen of Thomas Jefferson. But on careful reflection, taking all things into account, it would be difficult to place anyone above the remarkable man from Montpelier.


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