Commentary Magazine


Madison’s Moment

He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison promised that a large republic with a representative government would avoid the “instability, injustice and confusion” that had plagued many nations in Europe. In a representative government, he reasoned, disruptive factions would be unable to gain sufficient power to dissolve the social contract. The people’s representatives would not necessarily be paragons of virtue, but they would be less likely to succumb to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice.” In the 225 intervening years, Madison has been proven correct, with two great exceptions. One was the Civil War. The other was the 16-day government shutdown of October 2013.

Madison would, of course, be appalled. He was, after all, president during the War of 1812. That war would split the nation so profoundly as to be dubbed, variously, a civil war all its own and a second war of independence. And as for succumbing to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice,” the war’s political polarization would crest with the Hartford Convention of 1814 at which Federalists from New England would either threaten secession openly or implicitly. They had already, as Richard Brookhiser notes, been “smuggling supplies to the British army in Canada.” Shy of secession, they made noises about striking a separate peace with the British.

The “or else” tacked on to these threats was a list of constitutional amendments the conventioneers wanted adopted, among them restrictions on presidential eligibility aimed specifically at curbing the electoral success of the sons of Virginia. For those who think Republicans engineered the 2013 shutdown because they could not win elections fair and square and therefore contrived to take the country “hostage,” one wonders what they would make of such personalities as Gouverneur Morris (“Unquestionably it is civil war. And what of it?”) and Timothy Pickering.

But of course Madison was far from blameless. One clever flourish of the conventioneers was in writing that “in cases of deliberate, dangerous and palpable infractions of the constitution” it is appropriate for “a state to interpose its authority” with the federal government. This language echoed nearly word for word a section of the Virginia Resolution of 1798, which was written by Madison himself. (Madison’s authorship was not yet publicly revealed, but as it was promulgated by his party in his home state, his affiliation with and approval of its ideas were widely assumed.)

The Virginia Resolution, in turn, along with Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution, was a protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts which were put in place by the Federalists and used by President John Adams (and an enabling Supreme Court) to silence domestic criticism and stack the deck electorally against the Republicans. Madison talked Jefferson out of pushing secession in response to the Acts, but he would no doubt scoff at the idea that the government shutdown of 2013 was an unprecedented manifestation (aside from the Civil War) of partisan polarization, disrupting a history of harmony that he would not recognize.

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