Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

James Madison and the Constitution: Reassessing the "Madison Problem"

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

James Madison and the Constitution: Reassessing the "Madison Problem"

Article excerpt

Students of the career of James Madison have long faced a "Madison problem": how to explain his apparent inconsistencies. An advocate of national power in the 1780s, Madison championed states' rights and a strict construction of the Constitution in the 1790s. Later in his career he seemed to reverse course again, signing legislation as president in 1816 creating a federally charted central bank. It might easily be argued that his twists and turns doom any effort to discern, in the speeches and writings of "the Father of the Constitution," a meaningful original intent behind the American founding. In retirement, Madison admitted he had changed his position on the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States, and he confessed that he might have been too eager in the mid-1780s to give the new national government "as much energy as would insure the requisite stability and efficacy." At the same time, Madison believed he had been fundamentally consistent. He wrote Nicholas Trist in December 1831 that he "had indulged the belief that there were few, if any of my contemporaries thro' the long period & varied services of my political life, to whom a mutability of opinion on great Constitutional questions was less applicable."1

For years, historians tended to disagree with Madison, often attributing his opposition to Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies to political pressure from his conservative Virginia constituents. More sympathetic scholars acknowledged Madison's shifting positions but found principled reasons for them. Irving Brant argued that he became an advocate of more limited government after becoming convinced the ruling Federalist Party was abusing its power. Gordon Wood has claimed that, although Madison initially hoped the national government could restrain the excesses of populist state legislatures, he never intended to create a powerful nation-state on the European model. Some historians have minimized his nationalism in the 1780s, thus making his later embrace of states' rights something less than a dramatic conversion.2

In recent years, Madison scholars have tended to defend the intellectual coherence of his political thought with increasing vigor. Stuart Leibiger has aptly summarized the trend: "Once Madison's core beliefs are isolated and understood, his course of action appears remarkably steady. These fundamental beliefs include preserving majority rule, minority rights, and the balance of power between the branches and levels of government."3 Most historians today place Madison on an ideological spectrum between Hamilton, the prototypical nationalist, and Thomas Jefferson, supposedly the quintessential republican.4

Nevertheless, historians continue to argue about important details. Was Madison's primary commitment to civil liberties, to majority rule, to the rule of enlightened public opinion, or to the separation of powers itself? These are just a few possibilities suggested by recent works.5 While such Madison scholars as Ralph Ketcham, Lance Banning, and Drew McCoy have focused on his republicanism, with its preoccupation with the link between civic virtue and the public interest, Richard Matthews and Gary Rosen have written compelling books stressing his natural-rights liberalism and his commitment to protecting individual rights at the expense of popular political participation.6 To Martin Meyers, Madison was a "working statesman" who, as power shifted between national and local authorities, adjusted his views in an effort to maintain a proper equilibrium between the two spheres of governments.7

Madison's lengthy career, the times in which he lived, and the subtlety of his mind make generalizations treacherous. Madison said and wrote and did so much over so long a period of time-his adult life spanned the beginning of the American Revolution to the nullification crisis during the presidency of Andrew Jackson-that an enterprising historian should be able to find at least one exception to any conclusion about his political philosophy. …

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