The historian Irving Brant, who wrote a six-volume biography of James Madison, once complained about his subject’s modest place in America’s historical memory. “Among all the men who shaped the present government of the United States of America, the one who did the most is known the least.” Madison is surely the only Founding Father who may be less well known among the general public than his wife, but the inestimable Dolley Madison often overshadowed her husband. In a modest effort to redress this Madisonian neglect, here are five things we should all know about America’s fourth president.
1. Madison stands behind only George Washington in his contribution to the Founding. America could have won its war for independence without Madison, but absent his influence, it is difficult to imagine what kind of political system would have emerged from the Revolution. Madison helped orchestrate the campaign to hold a federal Constitutional Convention, and he persuaded a reluctant Washington to join the Virginia delegation. Madison’s Virginia Plan for a new national government set the convention on a path to scrap the old Articles of Confederation. After the convention adjourned, Madison wrote twenty-nine Federalist essays, explaining the Constitution to a skeptical public, and he led the fight for ratification in Virginia. After the Constitution took effect, Madison, hoping to placate its remaining critics, introduced in Congress a package of amendments that became the Bill of Rights. In 1827, the Philadelphia lawyer Charles Ingersoll, appropriately enough, dubbed him “the Father of the Constitution.”
2. Ironically, the Constitution Madison fathered was not the Constitution he wanted. The historian Forrest McDonald has calculated that Madison lost on forty of seventy-one convention votes. His fellow delegates rejected his proposal to give Congress a veto over state laws and his plan to create a “council of revision,” consisting of the president and select federal judges, with the power to veto acts of Congress. He bitterly opposed the Great Compromise, apportioning seats in the House of Representatives based on population, but providing for state equality in the Senate. Madison believed representation in both houses should be based on population.
Madison ultimately supported the Constitution not because he thought it was perfect, but because he concluded it created the strongest national government the people were likely to accept.
3. Although Madison has been overshadowed by Thomas Jefferson, his far more charismatic friend and ally, they worked together as equals. Madison did serve as Jefferson’s secretary of state and became his handpicked successor, but in private, they could disagree. Madison’s greatest achievement, his role in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, was undertaken with virtually no help from Jefferson, who was then serving as American minister to France – and showing a marked indifference to the cause of constitutional reform.
4. Despite historians’ often harsh assessment of Madison’s performance as commander-in-chief during the War of 1812, contemporaries did not rate his presidency a failure. True, Madison led an unprepared nation into a conflict that might have been avoided. His questionable administrative skills contributed to one memorable debacle, the burning of the public buildings in Washington, D.C. by a British raiding party in August 1814. Yet, fearing the rise of an “imperial presidency,” President Madison respected civil liberties, and he did not try to dominate the other branches of government. Madison’s inconclusive little war did no permanent damage to American interests, and it ended with Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Madison left office in 1817 as popular as ever.
5. James Madison is not an easy man to know. A contemporary, the French diplomat Louis Otto, described him as “a man one must study for a long time in order to make a fair appraisal of him.” After a long career, Madison left behind volumes of finely nuanced papers and speeches, but he often appeared to shift positions dramatically. An outspoken nationalist in the 1780s, he became a defender of states’ rights in the 1790s, only to show nationalistic tendencies later.
Historians have disagreed whether he was driven by political expediency or changing circumstances. I think Madison maintained a fundamental belief in the principles of republican government, but on so basic an idea as his commitment to democracy, the scholarly debate continues.