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The Radicalism of James Madison

The Father of the Constitution took extraordinary steps to sweep away America’s first, dysfunctional form of government

by Jay Cost for The Wall Street Journal October 28, 2021

James Madison is remembered today as the “Father of the Constitution” for his central role in framing a new government in the crucial early years of the republic. Yet the title inadvertently renders him a defender of today’s status quo. His memory is invoked to rebut any criticism of the Constitution, which makes Madison appear much more conventional than he was. In fact, his vision for a national republic was a bold challenge to the established order. He also was pragmatic, cunning, and skilled in the art of politics. It was through this unique blend of theoretical and practical wisdom that Madison helped to overturn the old order and replace it with a daring alternative. More than two centuries later, he provides an example worth studying as we face our own constitutional quandaries.

Portrait of James Madison, 1806

When Madison joined the Continental Congress in March 1780, he was shocked by what he discovered. Long gone were the heady days of 1776 when the Congress had declared Independence. Under the Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution, the Congress had been rendered ineffectual. The states monopolized the taxing power, and the Congress could only ask them for money. Its pleas were usually unheeded, leaving the Confederation badly in arrears and unable to provision the army. So the Congress churned out paper money, generating hyperinflation that caused “disorder and perplexity [in] public affairs,” as Madison wrote to his father.

Articles of Confederation, 1777

Madison joined an energetic group of nationalists to reform the Continental Congress. Their centerpiece initiative was an impost, or tax on imports, implemented by the states with revenue earmarked for the Confederation. Madison led the political charge, inventing along the way what we today call the congressional log roll. Realizing that the states were loath to raise taxes, he lured them with “baits,” as he called them. For indebted states, the Confederation would assume their debts; for war-torn states, it would forgive delinquent requisitions. There was something for everybody, and the impost would secure the country’s finances. Madison urged its adoption, “to render the fruits of the Revolution, a full reward for the blood, the toils, the cares and the calamities which purchased it.” But a few states refused, and because of the supermajority required to pass major laws under the Confederation, the plan disintegrated.

Madison left the Continental Congress in late 1783, frustrated and radicalized. The Articles of Confederation, he realized, were beyond repair. They had to be scrapped and replaced with a new system. He and his nationalist allies hit upon the strategy of outside conventions to push for reforms, following a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over control of the Potomac River. The states appointed delegates who met at George Washington’s estate to forge a compromise. Buoyed by the success of the “Mount Vernon Conference,” the nationalists proposed a general convention on commerce, known as the Annapolis Convention. Unfortunately, only five states sent delegates, short of the quorum necessary to propose reforms. But Madison and the other attendees took the opportunity to urge the Congress to call a constitutional convention.

Madison quickly persuaded the Virginia General Assembly to endorse this idea and name Washington as a delegate, without the latter’s permission. The general hesitated, worried that involvement in politics might sully his reputation. But Madison, who had developed a close professional relationship with Washington, gently pressed him on the matter. His letters to Washington in 1786 are a master class in the subtle art of persuasion. He helped Washington realize that only he could give the gathering the “solemn dress” it needed, as Madison wrote. Washington relented, and ultimately twelve states sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention in May 1787.

The Congress had asked the Constitutional Convention to propose reforms that “render…the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Nobody knew exactly what that meant, which gave Madison an opening. That spring he drafted a bracing new plan of government that inverted the old relationship between the state and federal governments. Under his plan, Congress would have the power to legislate in all matters where “the separate states are incompetent” or “the harmony” of the union requires it. Congress could even veto state laws that undermined the national interest. Madison also proposed a radically different configuration for Congress. The people would elect the House, and the House would choose the Senate. Both chambers would employ proportional representation, rather than one-state, one-vote as under the Articles. This would be a truly national republic, unlike anything the world had seen.

Madison coupled this brilliant idea with an audacious strategy. Before the Convention, he persuaded the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegations to coalesce around his “Virginia Plan,” submitted at the start of the sessions. This set the agenda for the Convention, orienting the delegates toward re-imagining the government, rather than tinkering with the Articles. The strategy worked. Though the Convention didn’t accept key elements of Madison’s plan—the delegates chose to limit congressional power and set equal apportionment for the Senate—the Constitution still reflects his spirit of national republicanism. Ever the realist, Madison accepted these compromises and wrote more than two-dozen essays in the Federalist Papers, defending the proposed Constitution. As he wrote late in life, the “union of the states” must be “cherished and perpetuated,” and the new Constitution did just that.

The Constitution also contained one of Madison’s subtly revolutionary ideas. It would not be up to the Continental Congress or the state governments to approve the Constitution. Instead, state conventions elected by the people would decide, with the assent of nine states needed for ratification. Madison had principled reasons for this: A republican government should have public approbation. But this was also a cunning maneuver. He knew that the Continental Congress would never destroy itself to make way for the new government, and the state legislatures would not abide a drastic reduction in their powers. So Madison bypassed them, turning to the people instead. And with the threshold of nine states, he avoided the trap that snared the impost, when a few states thwarted the plan.
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While we rightly remember Madison as the Father of the Constitution, we overlook the real reason why: He was the principal engineer of this bloodless coup against the Articles of Confederation. He orchestrated a second revolution to sweep the old government away and replace it with one that conformed to his vision. That this happened without a shot being fired speaks to his political acumen.

As William Seward said of Lincoln, James Madison belongs to the ages. He is neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal nor conservative. Still, he offers powerful instruction on how we might approach our present discontents. When we see him not as a marble statue or picture on the wall, but as a real person, we can find insight and inspiration. He would not wish for us to worship the status quo simply because he helped to create it. To fix our republic, he would want us to work harder, think unconventionally and act a bit Machiavellian, just as he did.

By Jay Cost for The Wall Street Journal
This essay is adapted from Mr. Cost’s new book, “James Madison: America’s First Politician,” which will be published by Basic Books on Nov. 9. He is the Gerald R. Ford Nonresident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.