Front Page Titles (by Subject) Gordon S. Wood, Is There a James Madison Problem? - Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century
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Gordon S. Wood, Is There a “James Madison Problem”? - David Womersely, Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century 
Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century, edited and with an Introduction by David Womersley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Is There a “James Madison Problem”?
Scholars used to talk about the “Adam Smith Problem” or, as the German scholars liked to call it, “Das Adam Smith Problem.” This problem arose out of the presumed discrepancy between the Adam Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Adam Smith of the Wealth of Nations. Smith seemed to be two different persons with very different views of human nature. While Smith’s Moral Sentiments seemed to ascribe human actions to sympathy, his Wealth of Nations seemed to ascribe them to self-interest. Much scholarly time and energy were spent trying to account for the apparent difference between the two books. Eventually, however, more recent scholarship has shown that the problem was a figment of our scholarly imaginations and that the two books can in fact be reconciled.
But can we do the same for James Madison? Nearly everyone sees two different Madisons, two Madisons who appear to be as wildly different from one another as the two different Adam Smiths used to be.
There is the Madison of the 1780s—the fervent nationalist who feared the states and their vicious tyrannical majorities and wanted to subject them to the control of the central government. Although he did not want to eliminate the states, he seems to have wanted to reduce them to what at times appear to be little more than administrative units that, as he said, might be “subordinately useful.”1 This is the Madison who has become the “Father of the Constitution.”
By contrast there is the Madison of the 1790s—the strict constructionist, states’ rights cofounder of the Democratic-Republican party who feared the national government and its monarchical tendencies and trusted the popular majorities in the states. By 1798 he was even willing to invoke the right of the states to judge the constitutionality of federal acts and to interpose themselves between the citizens and the unconstitutional actions of the central government. For the early Madison, popular majorities within states were the source of the problem; for the later Madison, these popular majorities in the states became a remedy for the problem. It is hard to see how these two seemingly different Madisons can be reconciled.
This first Madison is the author of the Virginia Plan, which became the working model for the Philadelphia Convention. We often forget what an extraordinarily powerful and sweeping national government the Virginia Plan proposed. According to Madison’s plan both branches of the bicameral national legislature would be proportionally representative, thus eliminating all semblance of state sovereignty from the national government. Moreover, this national legislature would have the power to legislate in all cases in which the separate states were incompetent and the power to negative all state laws that in its opinion contravened the Union. Madison thought this curious veto power to be “absolutely necessary and to be the least possible encroachment on the State jurisdictions.”2
During 1789 when the new Washington administration was getting on its feet, Madison still seemed to be the quintessential Federalist—“a great friend to strong government,” concluded South Carolina Federalist William Loughton Smith in August 1789.3 Although a member of the House of Representatives, Madison was President Washington’s closest confidant. He helped shape the legislation that created the departments of government and was very important in establishing the executive’s independence from Congress. Even his support for a bill of rights that dealt only with individual rights and liberties was seen as a means of subverting or diverting the anti-Federalist demand for many more substantial limits on the national government.
Only slowly did Madison seem to change. Although he reluctantly recognized the need for funding the national debt, he was not happy with Hamilton’s proposal in January 1790 to pay only the current holders of the government’s bonds. But Hamilton’s plan for the national government to assume all the state debts angered him even more. These issues were not beyond compromise, however, and at a dinner arranged by Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison clinched a deal in which southerners would accept the national assumption of state debts in return for having the permanent capital on the Potomac. With Hamilton’s proposal for a national bank, however, compromise appeared impossible and Madison’s criticism of the secretary of the treasury’s plans became even more severe.
Hamilton was not surprised by opposition to his financial plans. He knew that state and local interests would resist all efforts to strengthen national authority. But he was surprised that his harshest critic in the House of Representatives was his long-time ally James Madison. He thought that Madison had desired a strong national government as much as he had. He could not understand how he and Madison, “whose politics had formerly so much the same point of departure,” could have diverged so dramatically.4
In the House, Madison argued not only that the bank bill was a misguided imitation of England’s monarchical practice of concentrating wealth and influence in the metropolitan capital but, more important, that it was an unconstitutional assertion of federal power. He urged a strict interpretation of the Constitution, claiming that it did not expressly grant the federal government the authority to charter a bank.
By the end of 1790 Madison and other Virginians were openly voicing their alarm at the direction the national government was taking. By 1791 Madison was privately describing the supporters of Hamilton’s program not only as “speculators” but also as “Tories,” a loaded term that suggested the promoters of royal absolutism.5 By 1792 Madison and Jefferson were emerging as the leaders of what Madison called the “Republican party” in opposition to what seemed to them to be Federalist efforts to establish a consolidated British-style monarchy. But so much was the Republican Party the result of Madison’s efforts alone that it was often referred to as “Madison’s Party.”6 By May 1792 Hamilton had become convinced “that Mr. Madison cooperating with Mr. Jefferson is at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and actuated by views in my judgment subversive of the principles of good government and dangerous to the union, peace and happiness of the Country.”7
With the coming of the French Revolution and the outbreak of war between republican France and monarchical Britain in 1793, the division between the Federalists and the Republicans deepened and became more passionate. The future of the United States appeared to be tied up in the outcome of the European struggle. “None of the Republicans,” writes historian James Morton Smith, “was more committed to the concept of the revolution in France as an extension of the one in America than was Madison.”8
By this point Madison was convinced that Hamilton and the Federalists were bent on making a “connection” with Great Britain and “under her auspices” were determined to move “in a gradual approximation towards her Form of Government.” Until his retirement from Congress in December 1796, Madison remained the undisputed leader of the Republican Party in the Congress and its most effective spokesman in the press. When the crisis of 1798–99 came to a head, it was not surprising that Madison and Jefferson should have emerged as states’ rights’ advocates against the consolidationist tendencies of the Federalists.
What happened? What could account for this apparently remarkable change of sentiment? From being the leader of the nationalist and Federalist movement in the 1780s, Madison became the leader of the states’ rights and anti-Federalist movement in the 1790s. Explaining this change does seem to be a major problem, one that has bedeviled Madison’s biographers and historians of the Founding era.
Most biographers and historians have concluded that Madison did indeed change his mind about national power. “In drawing back from Hamilton’s program,” writes Ralph Ketcham, “Madison took another step backward from the nationalism he had first expressed so firmly in May 1787. . . . Hamilton and others,” Ketcham goes on to say, “judged correctly Madison’s changing attitude toward national power, and perhaps had some grounds for feeling betrayed by him.”9 During the early 1790s, writes Jack Rakove, Madison “revised many of the beliefs he had held as the radical nationalist in the late 1780s.”10 During the early part of 1790, writes Joseph Ellis, “Madison went through a conversion process . . . from the religion of nationalism to the old revolutionary faith of Virginia.”11 His was a “divided mind,” write Stanly Elkins and Eric McKitrick, pulled in opposing directions by the forces of “nationalism” and “ideology.”12 Even his most sympathetic biographer, Irving Brant, suggests that the disagreement between Hamilton and Madison on social and economic matters though it had existed for a long time “grew until it produced a change in Madison’s political and constitutional views, but,” Brant added, “there was no deviation from the straight line he followed in economic and social issues.”13
Scholars’ explanations for Madison’s apparent change of views have varied. Some have described his “sudden turn” in 1790 to be a matter of “political expediency,” designed as “the opening move in a resumption of state-oriented politics.”14 Others have stressed his awakened loyalty to the sentiments of his Virginia constituents. Taking off from this new consciousness of Madison’s Virginianness, still others have pointed to his inability to comprehend bond markets and mercantile affairs and have emphasized that his objection to Hamilton’s program seemed to rest on his disgust with northern speculators and moneyed men.15 Others have talked about his friendship with Jefferson and his willingness to defer to his older colleague, ready “always,” as he told Jefferson in 1794, to “receive your commands with pleasure.”16 And still others have stressed that he “thought as a working statesman,” shifting his opinion in accord with his perception of where the threats to liberty and republican government lay.17
As far as I know, Lance Banning, in his very formidable book, The Sacred Fire of Liberty, is the only present-day scholar to maintain that Madison did not change his views in the 1790s.18 But in order to stress Madison’s consistency in the 1790s, Banning has to play down Madison’s nationalism in the 1780s and turn him into something less than a full-blown nationalist. “He was,” says Banning, “a nationalist . . . at certain times, on certain issues, and within the limits of his revolutionary hopes.” In other words, says Banning, modern scholarship has mistaken Madison’s position in the 1780s. It “has generally misjudged the hopes and fears that he brought into the Constitutional Convention.” It has “misinterpreted a major change of mind which started while the meeting was in process”; and therefore it has come to “hold a poorly balanced view of what he said and what he was attempting in The Federalist.” The opposition Jeffersonian Madison of the 1790s, concludes Banning, “was not as inconsistent with the ‘father of the Constitution’ as is usually believed.”19
I have a lot of sympathy with Banning’s position. I too believe that Madison was more consistent in his outlook than we historians have admitted. But I have a different explanation for that consistency. It is not, as Banning says, that Madison was less a nationalist in the 1780s than we used to think. Madison was, I believe, very much a fervent nationalist, eager to create a national government that would control certain kinds of behavior in the states. But he was not the kind of nationalist that other Federalists such as Hamilton were. And when he came to realize what kind of national government that Hamilton was trying to create, he naturally went into opposition. His conception of what the national government ought to be was not being fulfilled. In other words, ultimately there is not a Madison problem after all.
Trying to discover consistency in a politician who lived a long life in a rapidly changing society may be a foolish and unnecessary project. Does it really matter if he changed his views? He certainly thought so; to the end of his life he always maintained that he was consistent in his beliefs and that it was Hamilton who abandoned him.20 Certainly we can never escape from the fact that the later Madison is different in many ways from the early Madison. No doubt he was a nationalist in the 1780s and a states’ rights advocate in the 1790s. Yet at some basic level Madison remained in harmony with himself throughout his career. There were not two James Madisons.
How to explain that consistency in Madison’s thinking? First of all we have to get back to the eighteenth century in order to understand exactly what Madison was trying to do in 1787. It may be that we scholars have been attributing far more farsightedness to Madison than he was in fact capable of. In our eagerness to make Madison the most profound political theorist not only in the Revolutionary and Constitution-making period but in all of American history as well, we may have burdened this eighteenth-century political leader with more theoretical sophistication than he or any such politician can bear. We want him to be one of the important political philosophers in the Western tradition. If the English have Hobbes and Locke, and the French have Montesquieu and Rousseau, then we Americans at least have Madison.
Convinced of the originality and sophistication of Madison’s ideas, many scholars have been stumbling over themselves in their desire to explore the implications of his political thought, less, it seems, for understanding the eighteenth century and more for understanding our own time. Since Madison was central to the creation of the United States Constitution—the “Founding” as we have come to call it—Madison and his ideas have come to bear an extraordinary responsibility for the character of American politics and society.
Political scientists have been especially eager to treat Madison as America’s foremost political philosopher and have compiled a small library of works analyzing his (and Hamilton’s) contributions to The Federalist. According to many political theorists, to understand Madison is to understand American politics. So, in Robert A. Dahl’s formulation, Madison is the pluralist who unfortunately concocted our fragmented structure of government in order to protect minority rights at the expense of majority rule. Or, according to Richard K. Matthews, he is the symbol of a cold-hearted American liberalism that promotes a selfish individualism that has no sense of benevolence and cares only for material wealth and property. Or in Gary Rosen’s hands, he is the innovative theorist of the social compact that is the foundation of natural rights and our limited constitutional government.21
As these studies by political scientists and political theorists become more and more refined and precious, they seem to drift farther and farther away from Madison’s eighteenth-century reality. Whatever his creativity and originality may be, we have to keep in mind that Madison was not speaking to us or to the ages. His world was not our world; indeed, our world would have appalled him. Thus in our efforts to relate his very time-bound thinking to our present predicaments, we run the risk of seriously distorting his world and what he was trying to do. And despite all of his achievements, we run the risk of exaggerating his creativity.
If we are to recover the historical Madison, I believe we have to soften if not discard the traditional idea that Madison was the “Father of the Constitution.” He himself, of course, always held that it was “the work of many heads and many hands.”22 With good reason, for the Constitution that emerged from the Philadelphia Convention was not what he had wanted. When during the Convention Madison lost the battle over proportional representation in both houses of the legislature with the so-called Connecticut Compromise, he was deeply depressed. He even caucused the next day with his fellow Virginia delegates over whether or not to withdraw from the Convention. When he lost his congressional power to negative the states’ laws, he was even more disheartened. He thought the Constitution was doomed to fail. Just before the Convention adjourned, he told Jefferson that the new federal government would accomplish none of its goals. The Constitution, he said, “will neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts against the state governments.”23 This is really a quite extraordinary statement: it gives us some idea of how little the final Constitution resembled his original intentions, more or less embodied in his Virginia Plan.
His Virginia Plan was certainly nationalistic and original, but it was a quirky, even visionary, kind of originality that it expressed—one that proved unacceptable to most Federalists. The Virginia Plan grew out of Madison’s view of what was wrong with America in the 1780s. For him the weaknesses of the Confederation, which nearly everyone seemed to acknowledge, seemed secondary to the vices within the several states. Not only did the self-interested behavior of the states weaken the Union, but, more important, popular politics within the states threatened the Revolutionary experiment in self-government. Ever since independence, said Madison, the states had passed a host of laws whose “multiplicity,” “mutability,” and “injustice” called “into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such Governments, are the safest Guardians both of public Good and private rights.”24 By 1787 Madison was convinced that these problems within the states contributed more to the calling of the Philadelphia Convention than did the obvious weaknesses of the Confederation. It was this conviction that led Madison to the peculiarities of his Virginia Plan—especially the power to veto state laws and the sweeping legislative authority granted to the Congress.
Of course, there were many other Federalists who shared his disgust with what was happening in the states, and agreed with his remedy of establishing an elevated national government. But many of them did not agree with the strange judicial-like way he hoped to deal with the factional politics he found in the states. Madison had a very unusual conception of American politics.
In his analysis of the sources of interest and faction in his most famous Federalist paper, No. 10, he seems at first to be very much the cold-eyed realist. Interest-group politics, he wrote, was an ineradicable part of American social reality. People inevitably had interests, and because they wanted to protect those interests, they divided into political factions. The causes of faction, he said, were quite simply “sown in the nature of man.” It was naive to expect most people to put aside these interests for the sake of some nebulous public good. And it would be a denial of liberty to try to eliminate them. He thus realized that the regulation of these private factional interests was becoming the principal task of modern legislation, which meant that the spirit of party and faction was in the future likely to be involved in the ordinary operations of government.
At this point, even though many other Americans in 1787 were saying the same thing, we scholars have generally applauded Madison for his hardheaded realism, for his unsentimental willingness to question the utopianism of some of his fellow republicans who had hoped in 1776 that the American people would have sufficient virtue to transcend their interests and act in a disinterested manner. Yet when he continues with his analysis in Federalist No. 10, we begin to realize that he is not quite as cold-eyed and practical as we had thought.
No government, he wrote, could be just if parties, that is, people with private interests to promote, became judges in their own causes; indeed, interested majorities were no better in this respect than interested minorities.
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail.25
Since the popular colonial assemblies had often begun as courts (the “General Court of Massachusetts”) and much of their legislation had resembled adjudication, Madison’s use of judicial imagery to describe the factional and interest-group politics in the state legislatures may seem quite understandable.26 But it was not entirely practical and does not seem forward-looking; it tends to point back toward the colonial world, not toward our world at all.27 For all the brilliance of Madison’s diagnosis of interest-ridden popular politics in the states, his remedy of dealing with that politics was very traditional and perhaps ultimately just as utopian, just as visionary, as the views he was contesting. Madison’s conception of the new national government was not modern at all. It was idealistic and in many respects harked back to older conceptions of government. Madison hoped that the new federal government might transcend parties and become a kind of super-judge. It would become, as he put it, a “disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests” in the various states.28 In fact, he hoped that the new government might play the same super-political neutral role that the British King ideally had been supposed to play in the Empire.29
It was this kind of adjudicatory thinking that led him to conceive of a new national government with a remarkable power to veto all state laws. Such “a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States, as heretofore exercised by the Kingly prerogative,” he told Washington a month before the meeting in Philadelphia, was “absolutely necessary” and “the least possible encroachment on the State jurisdictions.”30 As Jack Rakove has pointed out, this was an extraordinarily reactionary proposal.31 But not only was it reactionary, it was also bizarre. It evoked not only the infamous phrase of the British Declaratory Act of 1766 but as well the royal veto that Jefferson had so bitterly denounced in the Declaration of Independence. His proposal for this national congressional power to negative all state legislation was a measure of just how peculiarly odd Madison’s thinking actually was.
Madison envisioned a very strange kind of national government. He wanted a national government that was principally designed to evade popular majoritarian politics in the states in order to protect individual liberties and minority rights. He certainly had little or no interest in creating a modern state with a powerful executive. In fact, he seems to have never much valued executive authority in the states as a means of countering legislative abuses, and his conception of the executive in the new national government remained hazy at best. As late as April 1787, he told Washington that he had “scarcely ventured as yet to form my own opinion either of the manner in which [the executive] ought to be constituted or of the authorities with which it ought to be cloathed.”32 Through much of the Convention he assumed that the powers over appointment to offices and the conduct of foreign affairs would be assigned not to the president but to the Senate. Only in mid-August when Madison and other nationalists became alarmed by the states’ gaining equal representation in the Senate were these powers taken away from the state-dominated Senate and granted to the president.
Madison very much desired to transcend the states and build a nation in 1787, but he had no intention of creating for this nation a modern war-making state with an energetic and powerful executive. Instead, he wanted a government that would act as a disinterested judge, a dispassionate umpire, adjudicating among the various interests in the society. Which is why he, unlike his friend Jefferson, eventually came to value the position of the Supreme Court in American political life: it was the only institution that came close to playing the role that in 1787 he had wanted the federal Congress to play.33
With this conception of the new national government as a neutral disinterested umpire, Madison becomes something other than the practical pluralist that many scholars have believed him to be. He was not offering some early version of modern interest-group politics. He was not a forerunner of twentieth-century political scientists like Arthur Bentley or David Truman. He did not envision public policy or the common good emerging naturally from the give-and-take of hosts of competing interests. Instead, he turns out to be much more old-fashioned and classical in his expectations. He expected that the clashing interests and passions in the enlarged national republic would neutralize themselves in the society and allow liberally educated, rational men—men, he said, “whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices, and to schemes of injustice”—to decide questions of the public good in a disinterested adjudicatory manner.34
Madison, in other words, was not all as realistic and as modern as we often make him out to be. In his view not everyone in government had to be a party to a cause. He believed that there were a few disinterested gentlemen in the society—men like Jefferson and himself—and he hoped that his system would allow these few to transcend the interest-mongering of the many in the society and be able to act as neutral judges or referees in the new national Congress. As “an auxiliary desideratum” to his scheme, Madison predicted that the elevated and expanded sphere of national politics would act as a filter, refining the kind of men who would become these national umpires.35 In a larger arena of national politics with an expanded electorate and a smaller number of representatives, the people were more apt to ignore the illiberal narrow-minded men with “factious tempers” and “local prejudices” who had dominated the state legislatures in the 1780s and instead elect to the new federal government only those educated gentlemen with “the most attractive merit and the most . . . established characters.”36
Madison’s theory did not seem to have much practical effect on the character of the new national government; in fact, by March 1789 Madison was already predicting that the elevated Congress would behave pretty much as the vice-ridden state legislatures had behaved.37 In the Congress we do not hear any more talk about his notions of an extended republic and the filtration of talent. These notions turned out to be as unrelated to reality as his idea of a congressional power to veto all state laws had been. He had other ideas now that turned out to be equally impractical. The truth is Madison was never the hard-headed realist that we have often thought him to be. Despite the often curious and probing quality of his mind, Madison was at heart a very idealistic, if not a utopian, republican, not all that different from his visionary friend and colleague Jefferson.
Madison began to reveal his peculiar conception of what the national government ought to be when he gradually became aware in the early 1790s of the kind of government that Washington, Hamilton, and other Federalists were actually creating. It was not a judicial-like umpire they were after but a real modern European-type government with a bureaucracy, a standing army, and a powerful independent executive. Like Madison, other Federalists may have been concerned about too much majoritarian democracy in the states, but these Federalists had much grander ambitions for the United States than simply controlling popular politics in the states and protecting minority rights. Hamilton and his fellow Federalists wanted to emulate the state-building process that had been going on for generations in Europe and Great Britain.
If any of the Founders was a modern man, it was not Madison but Hamilton. It was Hamilton who sought to turn the United States into a powerful modern fiscal-military state like those of Great Britain and France. Madison may have wanted a strong national government to act as an umpire over contending expressions of democracy in the states, as his Virginia Plan suggests. But he had no intention of creating the kind of modern war-making state that Hamilton had in mind. Which is why he had no sense of inconsistency in turning against the state that Hamilton was building in the 1790s.
The great development of the early modern period in the Western world was the emergence of modern nation-states with powerful executives—states that had developed the fiscal and military capacity to wage war on unprecedented scales. Over the past several decades scholars have accumulated a rich historical and sociological literature on state formation in early modern Europe.38 From the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century, the European monarchies had been busy consolidating their power and marking out their authority within clearly designated boundaries while at the same time protecting themselves from rival claimants to their power and territories. They erected ever-larger bureaucracies and military forces in order to wage war, which is what they did through most decades of three centuries. This meant the building of ever more centralized governments and the creation of ever more elaborate means for extracting money and men from their subjects. These efforts in turn led to the growth of armies, the increase in public debts, the raising of taxes, and the strengthening of executive power.39
Such monarchical state-building was bound to provoke opposition, especially among Englishmen who had a long tradition of valuing their liberties and resisting Crown power. The country Whig–opposition ideology that arose in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was essentially proto-republican. It was resisting just these kinds of monarchical state-building efforts taking place rather belatedly in England. When later eighteenth-century British radicals like James Burgh and Thomas Paine warned that the lamps of liberty were going out all over Europe and were being dimmed in Britain itself, it was these efforts at modern state formation that they were talking about.40 Madison, Jefferson, and many other Americans had fought the Revolution to prevent the extension of these kinds of modern state-building efforts to America. They were not about to allow Hamilton and the Federalists to turn the United States into a modern fiscal-military state burdened by debt and taxes and saddled with an expensive standing army. Such states smacked of monarchy and were designed for the waging of war. “Of all the enemies to public liberty,” wrote Madison in 1795, “war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other [enemy].” As “the parent of armies,” war, he said, not only promoted “debts and taxes,” but it also meant that “the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.”41 These sentiments, which Madison never ceased repeating, were the source of the Republicans’ sometimes hysterical opposition to the Hamiltonian Federalist state-building schemes of the 1790s.
Many American Revolutionaries, including Jefferson and Madison, wanted to end this kind of modern state-building and the kinds of international conflicts that this state-building promoted. Just as enlightened Americans in 1776 sought a new kind of domestic politics that would end tyranny within nations, so too did they seek a new kind of international politics that would promote peace among nations and, indeed, that might even see an end to war itself.
Throughout the eighteenth century, liberal intellectuals had dreamed of a new enlightened world in which corrupt monarchical diplomacy, secret alliances, dynastic rivalries, standing armies, and balances of power would disappear. Monarchy, unresponsive to the will of the people, was the problem. Its bloated bureaucracies, standing armies, perpetual debts, and heavy taxes lay behind its need to wage war. Eliminate monarchy and all its accouterments, and war itself would be eliminated. A world of republican states would encourage a different kind of diplomacy, a peace-loving diplomacy—one based not on the brutal struggle for power of conventional diplomacy but on the natural concert of the commercial interests of the people of the various nations. If the people of the various nations were left alone to exchange goods freely among themselves—without the corrupting interference of selfish monarchical courts, irrational dynastic rivalries, and the secret double-dealing diplomacy of the past—then, it was hoped, international politics would become republicanized, pacified, and ruled by commerce alone. Old-fashioned diplomats might not even be necessary in this new commercially linked world.42
Suddenly in 1776 with the United States isolated and outside European mercantile empires, the Americans had both an opportunity and a need to put into practice these liberal ideas about international relations and the free exchange of goods. Thus commercial interest and revolutionary idealism blended to form the basis for American thinking about foreign affairs that lasted well into the twentieth century. To some extent this blending is still present in our thinking about the world.
“Our plan is commerce,” Thomas Paine told Americans in 1776, “and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port.” There was no need for America to form any partial political connections with any part of Europe. Such traditional military alliances were the legacies of monarchical governments, and they only led to war. “It is the true interest of America,” said Paine, “to steer clear of European contentions.” Trade between peoples alone would be enough.43 Indeed, for Paine, Jefferson, Madison, and other idealistic liberals, peaceful trade among the people of the various nations became the counterpart in the international sphere to the sociability of people in the domestic sphere. Just as enlightened thinkers foresaw republican society held together solely by the natural affection of people, so too did they envision a world held together by the natural interests of nations in commerce. In both the national and international spheres, monarchy and its intrusive institutions and monopolistic ways were what prevented a natural harmony of people’s feelings and interests.
These enlightened assumptions are what lie behind the various measures of commercial coercion attempted by Madison, Jefferson, and other Republicans throughout the 1790s and the early decades of the nineteenth century. They knew only too well that if republics like the United States were to avoid the consolidating processes of the swollen monarchical powers—heavy taxes, large permanent debts, and standing armies—they would have to develop peaceful alternatives to the waging of war. Madison was not a completely naive utopian. He feared, as he wrote in 1792, that “a universal and perpetual peace . . . will never exist but in the imaginations of visionary philosophers, or in the breasts of benevolent enthusiasts.” Nevertheless, because war was so foolish as well as wicked, he still hoped that the progress of reason might eventually end war, “and if anything is to be hoped,” he said, “every thing ought to be tried.”44
The ideal, of course, was to have the world become republican, that is, composed of states whose governments were identical with the will of the people. Jefferson and Madison believed that, unlike monarchies whose wills were independent of the wills of their subjects, self-governing republics were likely to be peace-loving—a view that Hamilton had only contempt for. Madison did concede that even republics might occasionally have to go to war. But if wars were declared solely by the authority of the people and, more important, if the costs of these wars were borne directly and solely by the generation that declared them, then, wrote Madison, “ample reward would accrue to the state.” All “wars of folly” would be avoided and only brief “wars of necessity and defence” would remain, and even these might disappear. “If all nations were to follow [this] example,” said Madison, “the reward would be doubled to each, and the temple of Janus might be shut, never to be opened again.”45 In other words, Madison believed that a republican world might be able to close the door on war forever.
In a world of monarchies, however, Madison concluded that the best hope for the United States to avoid war was to create some sort of peaceful republican alternative to war. This alternative was the use of commercial discrimination against foreign enemies backed ultimately by the withholding of American commerce; these measures were, he said, “the most likely means of obtaining our objects without war.”46 In other words, Madison proposed the use of what we now call economic sanctions—something that even today we often desperately cling to as an alternative to the direct use of military force. Given the importance Republicans attached to commerce in tying nations together, it made sense to use it as a weapon in international politics.
I suggest that this republican idealism—this fear of the modern fiscal-military state and this desire to find peaceful alternatives to war—is the best context for understanding the thinking of Madison and other Republicans. It helps to explain not only their attitude toward modern state power but also their resort to trade discrimination against Great Britain in the early 1790s. Madison and the other Republicans were so outraged at Jay’s Treaty in 1795 because the treaty took this essential weapon away from the United States. In the same way this context helps to explain Jefferson’s and Madison’s policies in the years following the lapse of Jay’s Treaty in 1806—the several non-importation and nonintercourse acts against the two European belligerents, Britain and France. These efforts came to a climax with what Jefferson called his “candid and liberal” experiment in peaceful coercion—the Republicans’ disastrous embargo of all American trade between 1807 and 1808, surely the most extraordinary example in American history of ideological principles brought directly to bear on a matter of public policy.47 Actually Madison believed in the coercive purpose of the embargo more than did Jefferson. To the end of his life Madison remained convinced that the embargo would have eventually worked if it had not been prematurely repealed.48
But probably the most convincing evidence of Madison’s being an idealistic republican seeking to avoid a strong federal government and the state-building processes characteristic of the modern European monarchies was the way he and the other Republicans prepared for and fought the War of 1812. “Prepared for” is hardly the term to use. The Republicans in the Congress talked about war, but at the same time proposed abolishing the army. They cut back the War Department and defeated efforts to build up the Navy. They abolished the Bank of the United States on the eve of hostilities, and in March 1812 they very reluctantly agreed to raise taxes, which were to go into effect, however, only if an actual war broke out.
Historians often harshly criticize Madison and the Republicans for the inept way they prepared for and conducted the war. But this criticism misses the point of what Madison and the Republicans were most frightened. As Jefferson said in 1806, “Our constitution is a peace establishment—it is not calculated for war.”49 War, the Republicans realized, would lead to a Hamiltonian monarchical-type government—with increased taxes, an overblown bureaucracy, heavy debts, standing armies, and enhanced executive power. Since war was a threat to republican principles, the Republican Party and administration would have to wage the war that began in 1812 in a manner different from the way monarchies waged war. As Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin pointed out at the outset, the Republicans’ dilemma was to wage a war without promoting “the evils inseparable from it . . . debt, perpetual taxation, military establishments, and other corrupting or anti-republican habits or institutions.”50
Madison remained remarkably sanguine during the disastrous events of the war. Better to allow the country to be invaded and the capital to be burned than to build up state power in a European monarchical manner. Even during the war he continued to call for embargoes as the best means for fighting the war. He knew that a republican leader could not become a Napoleon or even a Hamilton. He knowingly accepted the administrative confusion and inefficiencies and the military failures, calm in the conviction that, in a republic, strong executive leadership could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought.51
So even though the war settled nothing, it actually settled everything. It vindicated the grand revolutionary experiment in limited republican government. As the City of Washington declared in a formal tribute to the president, the sword of war had usually been wielded at the expense of “civil or political liberty.” But this was not the case with President Madison in the war against Britain. Not only had the president restrained the sword “within its proper limits” but he also had directed “an armed force of fifty thousand men aided by an annual disbursement of many millions, without infringing a political, civil, or religious right.” As one admirer noted, Madison had withstood both a powerful foreign enemy and widespread domestic opposition “without one trial for treason, or even one prosecution for libel.”52
Historians living in a world dominated by theories of preemptive war, a vast federal bureaucracy, a sprawling Pentagon, an enormous CIA, huge public debts, taxes beyond any the Founders could have imagined, and well over a million men and women under arms may not appreciate Madison’s achievement, but contemporaries did. “Notwithstand[ing] a thousand Faults and blunders,” John Adams told Jefferson in 1817, Madison’s administration had “acquired more glory, and established more Union than all his three Predecessors, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, put together.”53
We historians have gotten so used to praising Madison the author of the Tenth Federalist and denigrating Madison the president that we assume they must be two different Madisons. But there is no “Madison Problem” except the one that we have concocted. Maybe we ought to spend less time investigating Madison the author of the Tenth Federalist and more time investigating Madison the president. His conception of war and the world, whether we agree with it or not, might give us a better perspective on the confusing times in which we live.
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[1. ]Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 473.
[2. ]James Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787, Jack N. Rakove, ed., James Madison: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1999), 81.
[3. ]Stuart Leibiger, Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 123.
[4. ]Hamilton to Edward Carrington, May 26, 1792, Harold C. Syrett et al., eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 11:432.
[5. ]Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 234; James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, May 1, 1791, in James Morton Smith, ed., The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776–1826 (New York: Norton, 1995), 2:685.
[6. ]Smith, Republic of Letters, 2:881.
[7. ]Hamilton to Edward Carrington, May 26, 1792, Syrett et al., Papers of Hamilton, 11:429.
[8. ]Smith, Republic of Letters, 2:747.
[9. ]Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 314.
[10. ]Jack N. Rakove, James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 93.
[11. ]Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 55.
[12. ]Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 146.
[13. ]Irving Brant, James Madison: The Nationalist, 1780–1787 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948), 217.
[14. ]E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 298.
[15. ]Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 136–45.
[16. ]Madison to Jefferson, October 5, 1794, in Smith, Republic of Letters, 2:857.
[17. ]Marvin Myers, ed., The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), xlv.
[18. ]In a short article written nearly a half century ago, Neal Reimer did emphasize Madison’s consistency over time. Reimer, however, merely stressed Madison’s lifelong commitment to republicanism, which is scarcely in doubt, and admitted that in the 1790s “Madison retreated somewhat from his earlier nationalism.” Reimer, “The Republicanism of James Madison,” Political Science Quarterly 69 (1954): 45–64, quotation at 56.
[19. ]Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 42, 9.
[20. ]See Madison to C. E. Haynes, February 25, 1831, in Gaillard Hunt, ed., The Writings of James Madison (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), 9:442; and N. P. Trist, “Memoranda,” September 27, 1834, in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911, 1937), 3:534.
[21. ]Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956); Richard K. Matthews, If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995); Gary Rosen, American Compact and the Problem of Founding (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999). For more recent uses of Madison by political theorists, see John Samples, ed., James Madison and the Future of Limited Government (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2002).
[22. ]Madison to William Cogswell, March 10, 1834, in Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 3:533.
[23. ]Madison to Jefferson, September 6, 1787, in Smith, Republic of Letters, 1:491.
[24. ]Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States” (April 1787) in Rakove, Madison: Writings, 69–75.
[25. ]Madison, The Federalist No. 10, ibid., 160–67.
[26. ]On the colonial legislatures acting as courts see Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 154–55.
[27. ]Note, for example, Samuel Adams’s traditional use of judicial imagery in 1772 in describing what happens when a man leaves the state of nature and becomes a member of society. In the state of nature, wrote Adams, man by himself was sole judge of his own rights and the injuries done him. By entering into society, however, “he agrees to an Arbiter or indifferent Judge between him and his neighbors.” Samuel Adams, “The Rights of the Colonists,” 1772, in Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904–08), 2:353.
[28. ]Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787, in Rakove, Madison: Writings, 81.
[29. ]It was traditional to think that government, which for most states in the world meant a monarch, was supposed to be an impartial judge among the members of the state. A king was presumed to be more capable of this impartiality than anyone else in the society precisely because his self-interest supposedly coincided with the general interest; this, in fact, had been the best justification of monarchy through the ages.
[30. ]Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787, in Rakove, Madison: Writings, 81.
[31. ]Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 51.
[32. ]Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787, in Rakove, Madison: Writings, 81. For Madison’s downplaying of the executive in the state governments, see Madison to Caleb Wallace, August 23, 1785, ibid., 41–42.
[33. ]Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 70–71, 102. Of course, as Oscar and Mary Handlin pointed out in Commonwealth: A Study in the Role of Government in American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774–1861, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), Massachusetts and presumably other state governments in the first half of the nineteenth century, by doling out much of their sovereign power especially in the creation of corporate charters that became private vested rights, did end up exercising just their police powers and acting to a large extent as merely impartial arbiters and umpires among the various competing interests in the society. Although these nineteenth-century liberal state governments did not very actively promote a positive public good in the way Madison and most other Revolutionaries had desired, they at least seem to have come to resemble the judicial-like government Madison had wanted for the United States.
[34. ]Madison, The Federalist No. 10, in Rakove, Madison: Writings, 160–67.
[35. ]Madison, “Vices of the Political System,” ibid., 79.
[36. ]Madison, The Federalist No. 10, ibid., 166.
[37. ]Madison to Jefferson, March 29, 1789, in Smith, Republic of Letters, 1:606.
[38. ]There is a huge literature on early modern European state-building. See especially Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688–1783 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989); Brian M. Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Lawrence S. Stone, ed., An Imperial State at War: Britain from 1689 to 1815 (London: Routledge, 1994); Thomas Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). It was Brewer who originated the term “fiscal-military state,” and I have been much influenced by his book, Sinews of Power. But the work that provoked my thinking about Madison anew was Max M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), and I am much indebted to it.
[39. ]For an important account of the different capacities of early modern states to extract money from their subjects or citizens without bankrupting them, see James Macdonald, A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).
[40. ]It is this opposition to modern state-building that infuses Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).
[41. ]Madison, “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795, in Thomas A. Mason et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 15:518.
[42. ]This is a much neglected topic. The only major account concerning America is Felix Gilbert’s little book, To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), which historians have much too casually dismissed. We have no major study of the Americans’ Model Treaty of 1776, which attempted to embody these liberal ideas about war and commerce.
[43. ]Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776), in Common Sense and Other Writings, ed. Gordon S. Wood (New York: Random House, 2003), 22–23.
[44. ]Madison, “Universal Peace,” February 2, 1792, in Rakove, Madison: Writings, 505.
[45. ]Ibid., 507. Janus, the ancient Roman god, was noted not only for two-facedness. To commemorate Janus, the Romans always left the temple of Janus open in time of war so that the god could come to their aid. The door was only closed when Rome was at peace.
[46. ]Madison, “Political Observations” in Mason et al., Papers of Madison, 15: 518–19.
[47. ]Jefferson to Madison, March 24, 1793; to Tench Coxe, May 1, 1794; to Thomas Pinckney, May 29, 1797; to Robert R. Livingston, September 9, 1801; and Jefferson, Eighth Annual Message, November 8, 1808, in Merrill Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1006, 1014, 1045–46, 1093, 544.
[48. ]J. C. A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic 1783–1830 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 22, 36.
[49. ]Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: Second Term, 1805–1809 (Boston: Little, Brown: 1974), 76.
[50. ]Albert Gallatin to Jefferson, March 10, 1812, in Henry Adams, The Life of Henry Gallatin (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1879), 455–56.
[51. ]Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography, 586, 604.
[52. ]Irving Brant, James Madison: Commander in Chief, 1812–1836 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), 419, 407.
[53. ]John Adams to Jefferson, February 2, 1817, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:508.