James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

By Robert J. Morgan | Go to book overview

Introduction

James Madison bequeathed his papers to us in order to satisfy the "laudable curiosity felt by all people to trace the origins and progress of their political institutions." 1 Few sources of this information match, and none exceed, Madison's for this purpose. More important, no one involved in these events exceeded him in analytical and creative political insight into the tasks of framing and explaining the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is especially rewarding, therefore, to examine these events through his mind by using the whole body of his political and constitutional thought. At the same time it is important not to claim too much. Madison explicitly rejected the idea that he was "the writer" of the Constitution and the record amply supports this disclaimer. 2 Given the chance, he undoubtedly would have been equally modest in describing his role as an architect of the Bill of Rights. Even as we bear this limitation in mind we can still learn a very great deal from him about some of the most important characteristics of our constitutional system.

He became a constitutional reformer because he wanted to expand federal powers so as to preserve a republican government strong enough to fulfill America's unique destiny. He believed reforms were necessary because the Confederation created in 1781 was, like all other ancient and modern confederations, inherently vulnerable to disunion caused by either internal conflicts or foreign intervention in the affairs of the weaker members. Prompted by this chronic crisis which threatened enjoyment of the fruits of the Revolution, Madison formulated a plan of reforms in outline to transform the republic from a league of sovereign states into a national government. Among the changes he wished to make were popular ratification of the new constitution and a bicameral Congress which would include a new house having members apportioned among the states on the basis of population and chosen directly by the voters. In defending this novel addition to our political institutions, he showed that he had a clear and sensitive grasp of, as well as firm commitment to, the ideals of responsibility, accountability, responsiveness, and accessibility as essential characteristics of democratic political institutions. Also, one of his major goals was to raise the vision of federal legislators to a continental and even international level in order to improve the quality of public policy through improvements in representative institutions. This was no minor objective in an age when philosophers and politicians alike candidly admitted that self-interest is a prime mover of political elites, and parochialism is apt to be the natural offspring of social heterogeneity. He predicted that the desirable result of this reform would probably be

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