A review of Drew R. McCoy’s The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & the Republican Legacy (1989)
(Rating 3 of 5)
In this work, Drew McCoy traces James Madison towards the end of his life. Madison is the only one left, Jefferson has been gone for over half a decade and James Monroe has been gone for just that. The nation that they built is being run by a new generation, it is larger, it is more powerful, and it is, strangely enough, even more divided. Yet, Madison is as active as ever, the former president, finds himself getting back into the political arena to fight again. The issues drive Madison, nullification is the primary target, and Madison himself feels somewhat responsible for this, since the nullifiers quote his work. He also tries to find a solution to the slavery problem and wipe it out forever. One of these he is incredible helpful the other he is not.
The nullifiers, looking for support, had approached Madison, but Madison would have none of it. The nullifiers had thought he would be on their side, since it was his earlier work they were quoting. McCoy shows that Madison took them head on writing letter after letter and paper after paper, trying to convince the American people that the nullifiers were completely wrong about their position.
“Nullification defied more. However, than the irrefutable history of the formation of the regime; it contravened as well the fundamental tenet of republican government: that the will of the majority must ultimately prevail. On the ground of principal alone, Madison reflected a theory that implied that a single state ‘may arrest the operation of a law of the United States, and institute a process which is to terminate in the ascendancy of a minority over a large majority, in a Republican System, the characteristic rule of which the major will is the ruling will.’” p.136
As a result, the nullifiers would turn on Madison; they would insult him, belittle his accomplishments, or try to say he was too old to understand his own self. Fortunately for Madison, over the years he inspired many people, some of whom became public servants themselves and would fight for him and his cause.
“Perhaps Madison braved a wry grin as he read the report of the Brodnax speech in the Enquirer. But if he were in a mood to relish irony, he must have enjoyed much more the comments of delegate Wallace, who blasted the youthful arrogance of Madison’s many detractors. ‘His commentary on his own Report,’ the delegate from Fauquier County complained, ‘has been tauntingly spoken of as a mere letter, by those who were in the feebleness of infancy, when this venerable sage, in the vigor of his perfect manhood, stood on the battlements of constitutional liberty, their ablest and most successful defender.’ It seemed, Wallace quipped, that ‘the order of nature is reversed: Youth has become the season of wisdom and experience, and age the period of rashness, ambition, and folly.’” p.154-5
While he was good on nullification, he was bad the cause of abolition. Although to quote a later U.S. President, Madison’s errors were of his judgment not his intent. In order to rid the world of slavery he would support two ideas that he felt would solve the problem. In Madison’s estimation slavery was most oppressive in areas where the free to slave ratio favored the slaves and least oppressive when slave population was very small. This is why slavery was easily rid of in the Northern states, because their slave populations were small, and slavery was even more oppressive in the Caribbean than the American South, because their free populations were small. White settlers moving west not being allowed to take any the slave population with them was making the White population the minority in some areas. The solution, according to Madison, was diffusion and colonization. Allowing the slavery to be legal in the old Southwest, would shrink the slave population in each state allowing slavery to disappear. The former slaves would be allowed to form their own country by building a colony in Africa. Both these ideas were foolish and unrealistic but Madison really believed in them, it was Madison at his worst. Fortunately, others, like General Lafayette, saw through the ridiculous idea.
“But Lafayette would not buy this bill of goods, even from Jefferson. He politely but firmly demurred: ‘Are you Sure, My dear Friend, that Extending the principle of Slavery to the New Raised States is a Method to facilitate the Means of Getting Rid of it? I would Have thought that By Spreading the prejudices, Habits, and Calculations of planters over a larger Surface You Rather Encrease the difficulties of final liberation.’” p.270
McCoy presents a window into the last years of a legend who is still fighting for the nation that he had help found. Madison is probably one of the most under appreciated historical figures. The United States owes to him a great deal, for the Republic might not have stood without him. However, with that written, McCoy’s Last of the Fathers is only for advanced readers, who must really enjoy James Madison and constitutional theory. This is a book for graduate students in constitutional studies.