Even if you are an expert, chances are that your idea of James Madison is highly skewed. He gets almost no credit for his most important accomplishment; two of his supposed chief achievements were less important than many think; he opposed another before he was for it; and he tried to reel one in after he cast it out.
1) Take the most common title for Madison: “Father of the Constitution.” The standard version of Madison’s life has him working hard to bring about the Philadelphia Convention that wrote the Constitution, presenting the Constitution’s rough draft to the Convention, persuading fellow delegates to adopt it, and co-authoring The Federalist Papers to get it ratified.
But virtually all of that is wrong. Yes, Madison did help persuade the states to assemble a convention, and yes, he did take the lead in drafting the nationalist Virginia Plan, but beyond a three-branch central government—which other delegates proposed as well–most of Madison’s plan was rejected. In fact, he was on the losing side on the majority of votes cast in the Philadelphia Convention. So unhappy was Madison with the Convention’s omission of his favorite ideas that he predicted the new government would fail within a few years. He always refused “credit” for writing the Constitution.
2) After the Philadelphia Convention ended, yes, Madison did work energetically for ratification, notably in his home state of Virginia and in New York. He wrote just over one-third of The Federalist Papers (which in his day were known simply as The Federalist).
But those essays had little effect on the ratification campaign. Most were first published in New York newspapers, where they did not persuade the vast majority of New Yorkers to vote Federalist. (Over two-thirds of the delegates to New York’s ratification convention were elected as Antifederalists.) They weren’t all republished in any other state. And in Virginia, where Madison and his friends did circulate several dozen copies of the book version of the series, it’s not clear that they persuaded anybody. The Federalist Papers’ fame rests on their authors’ later political eminence.
3) Having helped win a narrow victory for the Federalist (pro-ratification) side in his state’s convention, Madison stood for legislative election to the U.S. Senate. He lost. Next, he unhappily submitted himself to an authentically popular campaign for the House, which he resented. Here, despite previously having argued that a bill of rights was both unnecessary and potentially dangerous, Madison accepted his constituents’ demands for one. Only by that margin did he win a seat in the House of Representatives.
Madison really does deserve his title of Author of the Bill of Rights—but only if we understand it as he did. His argument that a bill of rights was unnecessary had been that since Congress would have only the powers that were listed in the Constitution, and since the Constitution did not say, for example, that Congress could regulate the press, it would be superfluous to add provisions such as that Congress could not regulate the press.
In the House, Madison repeated this argument. He also added that adoption of a bill of rights would allay the fears of some people who would otherwise support the Constitution. Besides, since Congress had not been granted power to do any of the things the Bill of Rights would say it could not do, Madison added, this would not restrict the new government’s powers in any significant way. In short, Madison intended the Bill of Rights as a placebo, and he sold it to his colleagues on that basis. With one notable (negative) exception, it would be over a century before the Bill of Rights came to play a significant role in American life—and even then in an un-Madisonian way.
4) In 1791, two years from the Federal Government’s birth, Madison propagated one of the classic approaches to constitutional interpretation: strict construction. In opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s Bank Bill, Representative Madison developed the states’ rights-centered approach to constitutional interpretation that would come to be associated with Thomas Jefferson. By 1798, Madison joined Jefferson and other opponents of Federalist over-reaching in warning that the states would resist unconstitutional and dangerous federal usurpation. In the last decade of his life, the 1830s, Madison decided this argument could be carried too far. Instead of distinguishing the 1790s from the 1830s, he denied that he had said a state could resist federal policy. But he had.
5) Most important among Madison’s achievements, by far, is one for which he gets very little credit. In his very first elected office, aged 25, Madison coined the phrase “free exercise of religion” for the Virginia Declaration of Rights. This marked a great leap for religious freedom from the traditional English “toleration” of dissident opinion. In time, Madison would include the same phrase in the Bill of Rights as well. What almost everyone overlooks, however, is that although Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson failed to win its adoption. Only Madison was able, through expert parliamentary and political maneuver, to convert Jefferson’s rejected Bill into the mighty Statute that made Virginia’s the first officially secular government in the world. Jefferson claimed the credit, even putting his authorship on his gravestone, but Madison deserves it. Without Madison, it would have been simply a good idea.