Commentary Magazine

Father of the Constitution

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered
By Lynne Cheney
Viking, 576 pages

There are founding Fathers and then there are Founding Fathers. Anyone who signed the Continental Association (which set up the boycott of British goods in 1774), the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution is regarded as being among them. But who, except scholars and those who have seen the musical 1776, has heard of Button Gwinnett or John Witherspoon, both signers of the Declaration? Even John Hancock and Roger Sherman (the only man to sign all four documents) are little remembered today for anything but their names.

But the big five—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—are immortal, for without them this country could not have come into existence in anything like the form it took.

That, of course, doesn’t mean they have been equally honored. Washington and Jefferson have massive monuments to their memory in the nation’s capital, while Hamilton, the Founding Father of the American economy, has only a modest statue there placed obscurely at the back of the Treasury building rather than in front on Pennsylvania Avenue.

James Madison has it a bit better than that. In the 1970s, the massive third building of the Library of Congress was named in his honor. (It was Madison, as a member of the Continental Congress, who first suggested the establishment of a library for the use of Congress). And there is a splendid seated statue of him in the entrance hall.

But that doesn’t seem much for the man many regard as no less than “the Father of the Constitution.” Lynne Cheney, in her splendid new biography of Madison, shows exactly why it isn’t enough.

Madison was a small man, even by the standards of the 18th century, no more than 5’6″ and weighing around a hundred pounds. He thus lacked the majestic presence of Washington and Jefferson, both notably tall for their day. Nor did he possess the frenetic energy of Hamilton, who once wrote a 15,000-word essay on the implied powers of the Constitution during a single night. Madison was often sick and suffered from what was perhaps a form of epilepsy.

What he did possess was a world-class intellect. As a political scientist, he ranks with Plato, Machiavelli, and Locke. But while they mostly theorized, Madison was also intensely involved in real-world politics, holding political office most of his long life (he lived to be 85). And while John Locke wrote a constitution for the new colony of Carolina that was never ratified and largely ignored, Madison was instrumental in forging the oldest functioning constitution of a sovereign nation in the world.

Born into the gentry of Virginia’s developing Piedmont region, where Thomas Jefferson was also raised, Madison would be a slaveholder all his life. At the age of 11, he was sent to study under a Scottish schoolmaster named Donald Robertson. He thrived under his tutelage, mastering both Latin and Greek. He also learned French but, as Cheney relates, he picked up Robertson’s strong Scottish burr, rendering his spoken French more or less unintelligible. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), where he mastered Hebrew and studied law (although he never practiced).

By the time Madison left Princeton, in 1772, the rift with Britain was growing steadily worse. In 1776, he was elected to the Virginia State Legislature, where, upon first meeting Thomas Jefferson, he formed a deep bond with him that would last the rest of Jefferson’s life. Theirs was a highly synergistic relationship. As Cheney explains, “They encouraged, defended, and had a profound effect on each other—and on the nation they helped to build.”

Madison was the youngest member of the Continental Congress when he was elected in 1780 and soon proved himself adept at parliamentary maneuver. But it was being named to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that brought Madison immortality. The Articles of Confederation were clearly not working, for they did not give enough power to the central government for it to function. It did not even have the power to tax but had to rely instead on requisitioning funds from the various states.

Madison had long been thinking about what form of government was needed for the Union to succeed in the long term. It was his original contribution to political theory that, in Cheney’s phrase, “diversity sustains freedom.”

She writes: “Upending the conventional wisdom of his time, he would argue that a large republic had a better chance than a small one of succeeding because there are more interests to compete and less chance of any one of them to become tyrannical.” Thus the checks and balances among the three branches of government that have preserved us from tyranny for more than 200 years were basically a Madisonian concept.

Madison was also the author of the Virginia Plan, which, much debated and amended over the course of the summer of 1787, formed the basis of what became the United States Constitution.

The delegates to the convention had thought a bill of rights unnecessary. But several states came close to failing to ratify the Constitution because it was absent. Once the Constitution was in effect and he had been elected to the new House of Representatives, Madison wrote one. He proposed 20 amendments. Twelve would be approved by both houses of Congress and be sent to the states for ratification. One of them, about Congressional pay raises was ratified only in 1992, more than 200 years after it was submitted, and became the 27th Amendment; another was never ratified at all. Thus America ended up with its own secular Decalogue.

Madison fought to get the Constitution ratified by the states, principally by co-authoring, with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist—a series of 85 essays on the Constitution that were published in New York newspapers and widely copied around the country. Madison wrote 26 of the essays and co-authored two others with Hamilton. They remain the most important work of political science ever written in the United States. And it was Madison who wrote the most famous passage:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary…In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

John Quincy Adams first called Madison “the Father of the Constitution”—a title he always modestly rejected. But, as Cheney makes clear in her exciting account of the “miracle at Philadelphia”—to use the title of Catherine Drinker Bowen’s classic book on the subject—Madison has a better claim than anyone else.

Madison didn’t marry until he was 43, when he wed a widow named Dolley Todd. It would be a happy marriage, perhaps because their personalities complemented each other. While Madison was reserved and intellectual, Dolley was a gifted hostess and loved society. She is one of only a handful of first ladies who have been remembered beyond her own time.

Madison had no children of his own, but Dolley’s son by her first marriage, John Payne Todd, was a wastrel, a source of endless grief for both of them. Madison had to mortgage his property (and Dolley had to sell it after his death) to pay off Payne’s gambling debts and bail bonds.

If there is cause to disagree with Cheney’s portrait of Madison, it is with regard to his presidency, which she looks on more favorably than I do. Madison was so scrupulous regarding the constitutional separation of powers that he sometimes failed to provide the leadership that a president must provide. Twice this led to disaster.

Madison had adamantly opposed the chartering of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, regarding it as beyond the powers of the federal government to issue such a charter. But when the charter came up for renewal in 1811, Madison had seen how efficacious the bank was and asked Congress to renew it. However, his own vice president, George Clinton, broke a tie in the Senate, killing the bill—perhaps the only independent political act by a vice president in U.S. history. Madison could certainly have done a little politicking in the Senate to see to its passage, but he did not. The loss of the government’s prime borrowing mechanism nearly led to catastrophe the following year when the War of 1812 broke out.

In 1812, Madison allowed the so-called western war hawks, who wanted to conquer Canada, to lead the Congress into declaring war on the only country on earth capable of invading the United States, Great Britain. He sent a list of grievances against Britain to Congress but did not specifically ask for a declaration of war. He got one anyway, but only by a 79–49 vote in the House and 19–13 in the Senate, indicative of a deep divide in the country on the issue. But Madison signed the declaration anyway.

That was no way to start a war, especially as the government had little ability to borrow money after the Bank of the United States was sold to Stephen Girard of Philadelphia. Indeed, the following year, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin had to go hat in hand to Girard and beg him to take the unsold portion of a bond issue. If he hadn’t, we would have lost the war there and then for simple lack of money.

But if James Madison was, at best, a mediocre president, he was a very great man and this country will be forever in his debt. And there is no better way to learn about him and the political and intellectual world he inhabited than by reading this well-written, well-paced, and well-researched biography.

About the Author

John Steele Gordon, author of Hamilton’s Blessing and An Empire of Wealth, among other books, writes regularly for Commentary’s website. 

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