Commentary Magazine

James Madison, by Ralph Ketcham

American Enigma

James Madison. A Biography.
by Ralph Ketcham.
Macmillan. 753 pp. $17.50.

James Madison, framer and interpreter of the Constitution, is universally, and rightly, regarded as the primary theoretician of American pluralist democracy. His great treatises in the Federalist Papers have never been surpassed as expositions of American political principles and have never been more valid than in the circumstances of the 20th century. So much had Madison accomplished by his thirty-third year that his subsequent career was bound to produce an anti-climax. Nevertheless, one would hardly expect the perplexing changes of heart that followed his service at Philadelphia in the Constitutional Convention—changes which his biographers have recorded with astonishment. For scarcely had Madison set down his constitutional principles when he found them inadequate to resist an apparent subversion, and soon afterward he cast his lot with Jefferson in the latter’s protracted and bitter struggle against the two other authors of the Federalist. In the Constitutional Convention, Madison had stated that “no fatal consequences could result” from “a tendency in the General Government to absorb the State Governments”; in Federalist 10, he had presented the supporting arguments for this view. But a decade later he helped proclaim the constitutional heresies contained in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and thereby lent his prestige to the advocates of state sovereignty and hence to the train of thought that led to nullification and secession.

Every fresh excursion into Madisonian scholarship is an event of some note, extending as it does the promise of new insight into this baffling career; and the interest in Ralph Ketcham’s new biography is the greater for its author’s credentials. This biography draws on Ketcham’s work for the Papers of James Madison, that monumental project which entails the compilation and editing of every available scrap of Madisoniana. Ketcham has found this mine of material a valuable resource not only for the substance of his book but for its style: like many American historians, he writes readably enough, but depends for color on anecdote and picturesque quotation. And yet his labor in the mother lode has failed to produce a convincing and comprehensive explanation for Madison’s tergiversations.

In fact, if Ketcham advances a consistent thesis, it is that Madison suffered no radical conversions, that changes in the political milieu accounted for the changes in his position, and that under it all, he held firm to his basic beliefs. This thesis leads Ketcham into continual apologetics. He argues Madison’s side of every controversy, sometimes with ingenuity, sometimes not. One should not of course deny out of hand the possibility that Madison’s vacillations had a principled basis, distorted or misunderstood by his enemies. Ketcham gropes for a fundamental train of thought that would justify such a reading of the evidence, but in the end, he fails to give it content, and his one extended discussion of Madison’s political philosophy partakes of a certain circularity. There is a boundary, marked by placards reading “the recognition of human diversity” or “the principle of consent,” which Ketcham’s inquiry never crosses. The origins of these slogans and the theories behind them remain in obscurity.

Within those limits, however, Ketcham has written a competent and salutary book. He writes as a historian, he deals mainly with politics and diplomacy, and at these he is very good. Frequently his material is better organized, more lucidly presented, and more completely discussed than in the remarkably few other distinguished biographies of Madison.1 There are throughout the book examples of superb historical craftsmanship. Ketcham explains complicated national and international developments in crisp and accurate summaries and draws significant social and political observations from apparently trivial detail. Considering his intelligent presentation of such a broad range of history, perhaps we ought not to complain that in discussing Madison’s philosophic background, he summarizes Locke’s political thought without mentioning property, or that he overlooks the difference between Locke and Aristotle.



But the puzzle of Madison’s career remains unsolved in spite of Ketcham’s historiographical skill, and the reason, perhaps, is that the puzzle is not primarily historical or political at all, but theoretical. For Madison was not an ordinary politician; he was also the most rigorous of American political thinkers. His early career culminated in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and an original political theory. This theory held, in essence, that republics did not, as Americans had concluded from Montesquieu, necessarily have to be limited to a small extent of territory. Even the small and virtuous republics of antiquity had been wracked by factions based on different types and degrees of property-holding. In a large and diversified territory, according to Madison, such factions at least would be so divided against themselves that no single economic or religious interest would find it possible to dominate the institutions of government. This principle, joined with such political innovations as Separation of Powers and Representation, made it possible to extend a central republican government over the domain of the Articles of Confederation. Furthermore, Madison’s own experience in the Continental Congress and his study of federal history convinced him, at least in the 1780’s, that a federation had more to fear from state centrifugality than from consolidation.

Between 1787 and 1790, however, something changed. Madison grew disillusioned with his own handiwork, and went into opposition in company with Jefferson and remnants of the anti-Federalists. Here is the primary question for Madison’s biographers: Why? One explanation, pursued by Ketcham, is that the shift began during the Constitutional Convention. In Ketcham’s view, Madison reached the high-water mark of his nationalism just before the Convention’s Great Compromise gave the states equal representation in the Senate. Frustrated in his plan to represent states in proportion to their size, he abandoned his proposal for a broad grant of federal power and instead supported an enumeration of specified powers. This interpretation reduces the theoretical distance covered by Madison on the road to his conversion, and to some extent excuses it. Madison’s position on Enumeration, according to Ketcham, allowed him a clear conscience when he later argued for strict construction, even if he relied at that time on a selective use of documents. Yet Madison himself never referred to this period as marking any change in his nationalist sentiments. In fact, he indicated at the time that he supported Enumeration in order to prevent the states from undermining the powers of the federal government, as they had under the Articles of Confederation.

A more plausible explanation points to events in 1790, in the first session of Congress, when Madison broke with Treasury Secretary Hamilton over the latter’s proposal for the funding of the federal debt. Discussion of this famous episode has focused on the provision for redeeming revolutionary bonds at face value from current holders, a provision that enriched well-organized speculators at the expense of veterans and “little people.” Madison advocated a solution based on equity, recognizing both sets of claimants, and his indignation at speculators was very real. But this parliamentary dispute was hardly sufficient in itself to sour him on the federal administration and alienate him from President Washington, a man he counseled and admired.

Madison was more deeply disturbed by his fear that Hamilton’s Treasury, in league with the nation’s financial interests, could dominate Congress in the political style of Georgian England. In an essay he wrote for the Republican National Gazette, Madison accused his opponents of excessive fondness for the unvarnished methods of British government, of “operating by corrupt influence, substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty, converting . . . pecuniary dispensations into bounties to favorites or bribes to opponents.” In basing his Constitution on a diffusion of potentially dangerous factions, Madison had overlooked the superior means of communication and concerted action available to the financial interests. “The stock-jobbers will become the praetorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant,” he wrote to Jefferson in 1791. And Madison distrusted Hamilton the more for the latter’s constitutional doctrine of implied powers (based on Madison’s own arguments in Federalist 44), his attempts to strengthen the military, and finally his desire to take command of the army during the crisis with France. These measures aroused in Madison fears of an “American Cromwell,” or perhaps more precisely, of an American Bonaparte.

To Hamilton himself, Madison’s apostasy could be explained only by his extreme susceptibility to the influence of Jefferson. “Certain it is,” wrote the New York financier, “that a very material change took place and that the two gentlemen were united in the new ideas.” In some respects, this explanation is as plausible as any, although Ketcham dismisses it as a partisan libel. Madison’s celebrated association with Jefferson began in the Revolution, and even at the height of his cooperation with Hamilton, passages in the Federalist Papers reveal an anxious glance at Jefferson’s opinions. Jefferson, on his return to the United States in 1789, spent much time with Madison, and Madison’s subsequent writings reflect the alchemy worked by his friend’s charm. Madison’s genius seemingly was the sort that could be enlisted in the service of a more commanding personality; “he is probably deficient in that fervor and vigor of character which you will expect in a great man,” concluded Fisher Ames, not one of Madison’s friends. The Madison-Jefferson correspondence reveals the contrast in personality: Madison’s letters are dry, precise, powerful in logic, involuted in expression; Jefferson’s are vigorous, eloquent, filled with visionary and impractical ideas.



After shifting to the opposition, Madison followed a straight line to the most questionable of his achievements—the drafting of the Virginia Resolutions. Although commonly regarded as a step on the road to freedom of speech, this document, together with Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, is of greater importance as a statement of state sovereignty and limited construction. And herein perhaps lies a clue to Madison’s development. Madison had first raised the idea that state governments might provide a check on unconstitutional national measures in Federalist 44—ironically, the same paper that expounded the principle of loose construction which Madison later attacked in the Virginia Resolutions. It is possible Madison saw this check as the offspring of a vice—the side-effect of state encroachment on federal authority. Jefferson, on the other hand, certainly regarded it as a positive virtue, the means for controlling a dominant Federalism. This doctrine, in any case, brought forth the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which declared the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional and warned vaguely that the States should “interpose for arresting the progress of the evil.” Madison stopped there, but Jefferson went the extra step over the line, threatening state action to resist enforcement of the Acts. The difference is noted by Madison’s biographers, with the help of Madison’s own hindsight, but his contemporaries were not so acute. Madison became both the father of the Constitution and the stepfather of Nullification.

As Madison repeatedly pointed out, he himself did not participate in the most dangerous aspect of this episode, the declaration by Kentucky that the Alien and Sedition Acts were “null and void.” In fact, he gently drew Jefferson away from this doctrine. But the damage had been done. The full extent of the harm became clear in the Nullification Controversy of 1828. Madison was then in his late seventies, but his alertness cannot be questioned; he immediately recognized the full danger of Nullification—“powder under the Constitution and Union and a match in the hand of every party, to blow them up at pleasure.” Perhaps he had seen it coming since 1800. An undertone of pathos pervades the last years of this old man, who repeatedly maintained the consistency of his principles but who drafted letter after letter to refute a doctrine that his conduct had in some degree inspired. Madison is nowhere more poignant than in his political testament, left for posthumous publication:

As this advice, if it ever sees the light, will not do it till I am no more, it may be considered as issuing from the tomb, where truth alone can be respected and the happiness of man alone consulted. . . .

The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is, that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into paradise.




1 I have in mind particularly Irving Brant's monumental six-volume biography, which is now in print only in a one-volume condensation, The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969, 681 pp., $12.95). Marvin Meyers is currently preparing a selection of Madison's papers for the Bobbs-Merrill American Heritage Series.

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