The Novelty of James Madison's
Joyce Lee Malcolm
On May 4, 1789, barely a month after the first session of the First Congress began work, James Madison called upon his colleagues to amend the untried new constitution. He was fulfilling a campaign pledge to add a bill of rights, but one that bespoke a genuine philosophical conversion. He had gradually come to agree with Thomas Jefferson that a bill of rights was, as Jefferson put it, what “the people are entitled to against every government on earth … and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” 1
Four months later, as the final draft of that list of rights neared completion, their weary patron wrote Edmund Pendleton: “The difficulty of uniting the minds of men accustomed to think and act differently can only be conceived by those who have witnessed it.” 2 Madison had witnessed it and his success in negotiating the process is the key to his greatness. Madison was, to use a seeming oxymoron, a realistic visionary, a quality refined through arduous experience.
When it came to uniting the minds of men on the broad issues Madison was a master. He had succeeded brilliantly in Philadelphia in 1787 and again in that first session of Congress. On both occasions he got what he wanted, a strong federal government and an assertion of essential liberties without debilitating amendments. But it is important to remind ourselves that to accomplish his chief goals, he was forced to yield time after time, often on significant points. Both the Constitution, of which he has been dubbed the father, and the Bill of Rights, which he clearly fathered, differed from his original proposals, the former quite markedly. His was a triumph of tenacity, political energy, and a readiness to continue even when his proposals were defeated. When certain his colleagues were misguided, Madison never retreated from first principles.