Sunday, July 11, 2010


A review of Robert Allen Rutland’s James Madison: The Founding Father (1987)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Although my personnel favorite Founding Father is Alexander Hamilton, I find it very hard not to like James Madison. The title of this book declares Madison to be the Founding Father, now I do not think that is fair to the others but he is arguably one of the most important. Although not very relevant during the battles for independence itself, Madison was involved in the nation’s affairs since the beginning. He was active from his election to state legislature in 1776 to his battles, as a former president, with the nullifiers in the 1830s. Madison’s footprint can be seen it almost every major event of his life.

Rutland’s story begins with James Madison in New York, prepared to begin working on The Federalist Papers before switching back to the American Revolution. Madison’s first bid for pubic office fails but his eventually elected in 1776 to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, his physically illnesses prevented from taking a military role but he would dedicate his time as a political actor supporting the cause of independence. He was known as Thomas Jefferson’s protégé and would often do battle with Patrick Henry over freedom of religion.

(Young James Madison)

(Patrick Henry, rival)

(Thomas Jefferson, mentor and ally)

Madison would be elected, by the Virginia state legislature, to serve as a member of the Confederation Congress. There he would earn a larger reputation of coalition building, and someone who could get things done.

After the war, Madison, like others, was horrified at the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Meeting at Mount Vernon, with Washington and others, they tried to devise a plan to save the Union. After Shay’s Rebellion, it was obvious that change was necessary. When the Constitutional Convention was called for in Philadelphia, Madison played such a large role, that he would be regarded as the ‘Father of the Constitution’.

Writing the Constitution was one thing, getting it approved was another. Forming and alliance with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, they began writing The Federalist Papers. They all took the pen name ‘Publius’ and from there, they attacked the Anti-Federalist position with utter brilliance.

(John Jay, co-author)

(Alexander Hamilton, co-author)

"Madison’s first contribution became his masterpiece. All of the twenty-nine manuscripts Madison wrote for the series have been lost, so there is no telling how many times he drafted The Federalist #10 or any other essay. He had used the language of #10 before, and at the Philadelphia convention. Hamilton himself had spoken of ‘separate interests [that] will arise. There will be debtors & Creditors &c.’ Thus the essay was an amalgam of ideas then current among the men who read David Hume, Adam Smith, and other writers of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment. Madison gave an American twist to his distillation, as historian Douglass Adair later discerned. Perhaps Madison took Hume too literally—‘the same causes always produce the same effects’—but he was trying to disprove Montesquieu’s axiom that that a republican government could not operate effectively in a large geographical area. Hence the reverse judgment in The Federalist #10, that all systems of government for an ‘extended republic’ a republican form was best. Factions had caused the downfall of past republics, small and large, and Madison defended the Constitution as a means of declawing factions while preserving order.” p.30-1

When the Constitution was passed, James Madison was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he would serve from 1789-1797. He would pen the Bill of Rights that later became the first ten amendments to the Constitution. He would also draft, for President Washington, the President’s first address to the Congress and Congress’s response.

(President Washington)

“When Madison seemed about to denounce slavery as a cancer in the nation’s body politic requiring drastic surgery, he was called up short by fellow Southerners. Raised eyebrows in the South Carolina and Georgia delegations, as well as among his Virginia colleagues, forced Madison to tread softly. Like most of his southern friends who detested slavery in the abstract but enjoyed the fruits of slave labor in their own backyards, Madison was reluctant to do battle on the slavery issue. Besides, that 1808 ban on slave trade, written into the Constitution promised a healthy change within two decades. If a citizen wanted to believe that the slavery problem would melt away in a decade of so, all they had to do was point to the Constitution and its shimmering ‘1808 clause’ that implied all kinds of restrictions on the abominable human traffic. It remained a secret whether Madison believed that clause represented some kind of indelible pledge or simply was one way of avoiding a frightening problem.” p.70

It was during this time that he fell in love with and married Dolley Payne Todd. Although they would have no children together, they would be one of the greatest couples that the capital of the United States had ever scene.

(Dolly Madison, wife)

However, Congressman Madison soon found himself leading an opposition against the Washington Administration, because he felt that Alexander Hamilton’s programs gave to much power to the Federal government. Locking horns with the President and his cabinet, Madison would focus his energies getting the former Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, elected president over Vice President John Adams in 1796. They failed and Adams was elected, but Jefferson was elected to be the vice president.

Madison’s in-between office holding years were spent writing political propaganda against the Adams Administration. He would, in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts co-author, to his later regret, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. States-rights advocates would take up these resolutions, falsely, as proof of nullification.

In 1800, Jefferson won the presidential election, although the election would fall to the House of Representatives due to the actions of the eventual vice president, Aaron Burr. When Jefferson became the third President of the United States, he appointed Madison the new Secretary of State.

In this position, Madison soared. The Jefferson Administration was able to purchase the entire Louisiana Territory from Napoleon’s France. Madison also had some unintended success in the decision Mayberry v. Madison where Jefferson and Madison technically ‘won’ but the Supreme Court secured the power of judicial review. In a major difference on Constitutional law, Jefferson thought the Supreme Court's newly secured power was bad, but Madison actually liked the idea.

The Embargo Act of 1807, crippled the economy, and gave a soar taste for last year of the Jefferson Administration. Nevertheless, James Madison was able to secure the presidential nomination and, in 1808, was elected president defeating Charles C. Pinckney.

(President James Madison)

His presidency was a mixed legacy; the United States got itself into a war it did not handle very well. Madison had abolished the National Bank* only to have that action undermine the war effort. They had to then re-establish the National Bank in the middle of a war. The capital was lost, and White House and Capitol destroyed**. Also, there was an adverted succession crisis considering that both Madison’s vice presidents died before the end of their term. Although, Baltimore was held and Generals Jackson and Harrison had been able to defeat most of the British Native American allies in the South and West, the war was not his proudest moment. After the war was over, there was a general feeling that America had won its independence again. This made Madison really popular, and in 1816, Madison's chosen successor, James Monroe, was elected to succeed him.

“America was now a nation. Further negotiations with England would be necessary to settle unmarked boundary lines, but British diplomats treated their American cousins far differently after the Battle of New Orleans. The humiliating tribute paid to the Dey of Algiers came to an explosive end when the American navy pounded the Barbary Coast so thoroughly that the once arrogant ruler sued for peace. America had no direct interest in the Congress of Vienna that met in 1815, but the accords reached there prevented another outbreak like the Napoleonic wars and postponed for a century further quarrels over the American claim that ‘free ships make free goods.’ Then another Princeton graduate in the White House would revive Madison’s main argument for neutral rights.” p.233

In the twilight years of his life, Madison would come out of his retirement to do battle with the nullifiers. The nullifers were those who wanted to impose state sovereignty over the Constitution of the United States. Madison would spend the rest of his days writing articles against them.

(Madison in retirement)

This Madison biography delves into some of the most interesting details in the life of James Madison. Rutland does a good job explaining to the reader what is going in each of these chapters. The narrative flows smoothly enough to be enjoyed all readers.

*Something Jefferson himself decided not to do.

**Dolley Madison earning some fame here saving irreplaceable national treasures.

{Video is from the History Channel documentary: First Invasion the War of 1812}

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