James Madison: Philosopher and Practitioner of Liberal Democracy -  A Symposium

James Madison: Federalist

Lance Banning, University of Kentucky

Back when I began to study history--too long ago to mention--it was fair to say that Madison was understudied.  It would still be fair to say that he is very poorly known among the general public.  But, through the last few decades, scholars have repaired the previous neglect.  Currently, from those who well recall the American Founding, Madison gets credit in abundance--credit, on occasion, that would probably have made him blush.[i]  Scholars almost universally acknowledge that this great Virginian was so absolutely central at so many points in the creation of the federal republic that the well-informed can hardly fail to see its founding partly through his eyes.  He led the nation's largest state, which led the others, in the calling of the Constitutional Convention, took the leading part in framing and defending the reform, prepared the Bill of Rights, and joined with Jefferson to organize the nation's oldest party.  He now appears so central that he has been called "the founding father,"[ii] and it is not uncommon to encounter references to the Madisonian Constitution or the Madisonian System that governs us today, though Madison himself was quick to protest any such extravagent acclaim.[iii]  And yet, though several of the finest scholars of our time have labored to improve our understanding, it may still be true that even in the mammoth corpus of the scholarly productions of the last half century, we can find no founding father with whom the national memory is more at odds with his contemporaries’ understanding of the man or with his own conception of himself.

Drew McCoy, one of the most profound and eloquent of modern students of that age, has written brilliantly about the huge disparities between our modern mental images of Madison the man or Madison as president of the United States and the impressions and collective judgments of the people of his time.  Moderns, even scholars of the founding, commonly remember Madison in shades of gray or black:  a shy, diminutive, and often sickly pedant, better suited to a college than to Congress, working quietly and bookishly behind the scenes or in the shadows of his taller colleagues from Virginia.  Impressions of the course of his political career are nearly as unflattering as recollections of his personality and stature.  Though scholars generously credit his enormous contributions in the years from 1787 through 1789, they also represent him (generally speaking) as a timid politician who retreated speedily from the expansive continentalism of The Federalist and of the framing of the Constitution toward the states' rights stance of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798.  He was a statesman, they suggest, who grew increasingly less capable with lengthening experience and age, so that the foremost framer of the Constitution and the victor over Patrick Henry in the ratifying contest in Virginia lived to be the fumbling president who stumbled into war and fled into Virginia while the British burned the White House.

Contemporary judgments were different indeed.  John Adams, who was no admirer, said at the conclusion of the War of 1812 that Madison's administration had "acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all his three predecessors, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, put together."[iv]  Our post-romantic age admires a forceful, energetic, charismatic presidential style, and countless numbers of the generation who participated in the War of 1812 found just such leadership in Andrew Jackson.  But when Madison retired from politics in 1817, many thought that, as a wartime president and as a man, he had exemplified the character required of a republican chief magistrate to a degree that only Washington had once exceeded (and, of course, as Jackson most decidedly would not).  To McCoy, in fact, the nation's loss of a collective memory of Madison as an exemplar of republican morality and leadership, of Madison as an embodiment of "The Character of the Good Statesman," may be the most regrettable of all the tricks that history has played.[v]

The failure of our recollections, to be sure, could probably be traced to Madison's own time, since character was something of an issue even then.  Jefferson expressed the views of Madison's admirers.  Madison, he said in 1790 (at a time when Jefferson was serving under Washington himself) was simply "the greatest man in the world."[vi]  "I have known him [intimately] from 1779," Jefferson repeated in 1812, "and from three and thirty years' trial, I can say conscientiously that I do not know in the world a man of purer integrity, more dispassionate, disinterested, and devoted to republicanism; nor could I, in the whole scope of America and Europe, point out an abler head."[vii]  By no means everyone agreed.  While there were never any doubts about his personal integrity, disinterestedness, or brilliance, many of the very qualities that friends admired could be interpreted by his detractors as his most apparent faults.  To Alexander Hamilton, he seemed too hopelessly idealistic, not a man familiar with the world.[viii]  To others, his remarkable capacity to see all sides of every issue, to admit the limitations of his own positions, to insist on a regard for popular opinion, to demand respect for foes, and to adjust his hopes and thoughts to changes introduced by circumstances and by time could easily be read as weakness, vacillation, playing to the gallaries, timidity, and base abandonment of principles that he had once held dear.[ix]  And though his friends consistently described him as amusing, affable, and full of anecdote and wit--"one of the most companionable men in existence"--even they admitted that he could seem stiff and cold in public.[x]

But it is not the personality alone that seems to me persistently misunderstood in such a large proportion of the shelves of modern writings.  Thus, the finest current study of the first few years under our current Constitution participates with the majority of writings on this era in what is actually a highly partisan--indeed, a Hamiltonian--interpretation of his course.[xi]  Indeed, with nearly no significant exceptions, Madison's biographers since Irving Brant, accompanied and followed by the huge majority of other writers on the new republic, have followed Alexander Hamilton in seeing Madison's career as curiously twisted:  divided into two (or sometimes three) distinctive segments, separated by a sharp, self-contradictory reversal.  Explanations of this great "reversal" may be friendly or condemnatory in their thrust.  Some follow Hamilton in crediting the subject's personal integrity and good intentions.  Others see his "switch" as an example of his personal ambition, his weakness under pressure, or even his capacity for Machiavellian intrigue.  There, in any case, it is.  Within three years, from 1789 to 1792, the scholars say, the leader of the Federalists of 1788, the "nationalist" who hewed the path to constitutional reform and argued that extension of the sphere of the republic was essential to control majority oppressions, had transmogrified himself into a spokesman for states' rights, joining Thomas Jefferson in an attempt to forge a party that would act, as they conceived it, as an instrument of popular opinion and of democratic choice.[xii]

I do not mean to make a blanket condemnation of modern scholarly opinion.  In several of the absolutely critical respects, modern scholarship is certainly correct about the great Virginian.  A decade after Independence, it informs us, the United States was faced, in the opinion of a major portion of its leaders, with something like a double-barreled crisis.  One barrel pointed squarely at the sheer survivability of the confederation of the states.  The inability of the existing central government to pay its debts, enforce its laws, correct an economic downturn, or confront the rising animosities between assorted states and regions raised the specter of a quick collapse into a number of distinct and probably colliding small confederations.  The other barrel of the crisis threatened the republican experiment itself.  As Madison expressed it, "the unstable and unjust career of the [governments of the] states"--the multiplicity, the mutability, and the injustices of local laws--had "forfeited the respect and confidence essential to order and good government"; "those least partial to popular government or most distrustful of its efficacy were yielding to anticipations that, from an increase of the confusion, a government might result more congenial to their taste or their opinions; whilst those most devoted to the principles and forms of republics, were alarmed for the cause of liberty itself, at stake in the American experiment."[xiii]  Madison's distinctive contribution, scholars have explained, was to conclude that these two challenges were so inseparably related that neither could be met without attention to the other and that neither could be actually repelled without a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the current federal system.[xiv]  This was the insight that informed the plan that Madison and his Virginia colleagues offered to the Constitutional Convention, the insight that informed his leadership of the convention and his unforgettable defense of the completed Constitution in the greatest classic of American political thought--most memorably, of course, in Federalist no. 10 and Federalist 51.  “Extend the sphere” of republican government, he wrote,

and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their strength, and to act in unison with each other. . . .  In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a Republican remedy for the diseases most incident to Republican Government.[xv]

The "policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests the defect of better motives might be traced through the whole system of human affairs," he added.

In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights.  It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests and, in the other, in the multiplicity of sects.  The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. . . .  The larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self government.[xvi]

Here, however, is the rub.  Put as I have put it, modern scholarship is right about the framer's most distinctive contributions.  The problems start with the interpretative commentaries on these contributions.  Or, to put it more precisely, misinterpretations of the framer's stand and objects seem inherent in the usually unrecognized assumptions underpinning, or embedded in, the great majority of commentaries on these contributions, whether these are written by the celebrators or the critics of his work.  Interpretive mistakes begin with the assumptions, seldom seriously challenged, that throughout the 1780s, Madison was one of a committed group of nationalists pursuing centralizing change, that he preferred a stronger central government than the convention finally approved, and that he switched from broad construction of the central government's authority to strict construction of the Constitution only when confronted with Alexander Hamilton's proposal for a national bank.  The errors usually incorporate a seemingly unshakeable, ubiquitous conviction that the key to Madison's ideas is Federalist no. 10, with help from no. 51.  Regrettably, the scholarship contains more problematic notions than a short address can possibly explain.  Nevertheless, the message, with some help from modern jargon, may be put quite briefly.  Prevailing understandings of the founder's course and objects are in many cases thoroughly misleading from Madison's own point of view.  The "spin" that all sides put on his ideas creates a figure who is less James Madison than a construction of our own interpretive conventions and our own political concerns.  And this, of course, does not mean merely that the scholarship has not done justice to the man.  It means that the impressions left by much of even the most brilliant secondary work stand squarely in the way of anything that Madison might teach us.  If what we see in Madison is mostly a distorted image of ourselves, we hardly come to grips with Madison himself; and if we usually misread James Madison, we commonly misunderstand the Founding.

            A short address cannot present a full, compelling case for many of these points; this is the object of my recent book.[xvii]  Brevity, in fact, may force me to be harsher on some scholars I admire than would reflect my full, considered judgment.  Nevertheless, a summary of leading points of a rebuttal of this scholarship seems necessary to an effort to correct this focus.

            Among political theorists, so far as this historian can tell, the great foundation for attempts to come to grips with Madison is still the work of Martin Diamond.[xviii]  Crudely speaking, Diamond's understanding of the founder can be captured in a phrase--one that I have heard repeated almost as a mantra in colloquia that bring historians and theorists together.  "Madison's whole scheme," wrote Diamond,

essentially comes down to this.  The struggle of classes is to be replaced by a struggle of interests     . . . a safe, even energizing, struggle which is compatible with, or even promotes, the safety and stability of society. . . .  In a large commercial society the interests of the many can be fragmented . . . into relatively small groups, seeking small immediate advantages. . . .  The mass will not unite as a mass to make extreme demands upon the few.[xix]

As Diamond saw it, the crux of Madison's solution to the classic riddle of constructing a regime that might combine majority control with safety for the liberties and property of all was the idea of multiplying interests in a large commercial republic.

Conflicting "spins" can certainly be placed on readings similar to Diamond's.  For Richard Matthews, Jennifer Nedelsky, and a host of more senior scholars, Madison's preoccupation with the threat to propertied minorities that would inevitably be posed by popular majorities composed of those with little property or none, Madison's deliberate decision to protect the rights of property by countless checks and balances on the majority's desires, betrayed the democratic promise of the Revolution and grounded the United States upon a Constitution that results in rule by an elite or governmental gridlock.[xx]  This was not, of course, the spin that Diamond had himself imparted to his reading.  To him, the framer's famous argument for an enlargement of the sphere of the republic, which would make it difficult for factious popular majorities to form, did not identify him as a poorer democrat than other figures of his time.  It simply marked him as a wiser one, since it is foolish to deny that a majority may take advantage of minorities if it is not restrained, and since most human beings would surely, much like Madison, prefer the rule of the majority's considered reason to its temporary, passionate desires.  For Diamond, nevertheless, as clearly as for others, Madison's solution did identify him plainly as a modern liberal.  Madison, that is, participated in the modern enterprise of lowering the sights of politics so that prosperity and safety, not glory or the cultivation of the highest moral character in citizens, is understood to be the fundamental end.  Accepting humans for the interested, opinionated creatures that they are, he settled for the form of government least bad in an imperfect world.  Which was not a dreadful thing to do.  Rather, both for Diamond and for many others, Madison's solution marked him as the sober thinker who detoxified the democratic Revolution and identified America with an enduring promise that the rule of the majority might be combined with human rights and fundamental justice.

Yet Diamond, bless his memory, was nonetheless almost as wrong about the founder as the scholars who have put a different spin on Diamondesque interpretations.  For almost every implication of the phrase describing Madison's solution--multiplying interests in a large, commercial republic--is outrageously misleading.  Madison was not an advocate of multiplying clashing interests among the people.  He believed, instead, that founders of a liberal republic, who could not eradicate the differences inseparable from freedom, ought to use the unavoidable plurality of interests in a civilized society to reduce the probability of passionate injustices and to improve the chances that the long-term public good would be preferred to the majority's immediate desires.[xxi]  Similarly, Madison was not in fact an advocate of large republics.  What he advocated was a large, compound republic, blending national authority with a considerable reserve of powers that would not be shifted to the federal sphere; and when his deep commitment to a genuinely federal republic, not a wholly national one, is fitted back into the picture, nearly every aspect of his thinking will assume a different appearance.[xxii]  Moreover, Madison was never a proponent of a large commercial republic.  The ordinary connotations of this word stand Madison precisely on his head, suggesting that he took the opposite position from the one he took in fact on one of the contemporary arguments that split him from the likes of Hamilton throughout his long career.[xxiii]

What Diamond really did--and it has been repeated by a host of later scholars--was to misinterpret Madison's most famous essay, Federalist no. 10, then horse the rest of Madison into the framework this created.[xxiv]  But Madison assumes a different shape when Federalist no. 10 is studied in the light of all the other essays in the series and of all the other acts and words surrounding its preparation.  Number 10 is not the key to Madison's founding vision, and it is most regrettable that this one piece is often all that moderns read of Madison’s many writings.  This essay is his commentary on the great advantages of an enlarged republic for controlling democratic faction, which is one--but only one--of many problems that the champions of an elective government are bound to solve.  Understanding this can help us understand as well that, in the last analysis, it was by no means Madison's concern about unjust majorities that marked him as distinctive in his age.  It was his faith that such majorities could be restrained without abandoning majority control--indeed, without recourse to grounding any part of government on an authority that would be independent of the people.[xxv]

But Diamond was by no means singular in his excessive fascination with this single essay.  Historians from Charles A. Beard to Gordon Wood have almost always been more interested in Madison's and other Federalists' alarm about conditions in the states, about the dangers apprehended by the few in states directed by the many, than they have in the pervasive fear among Americans of the 1780s that the Union was in danger of collapse.  Thus, Wood insists that the decision to abandon the Articles of Confederation in favor of a constitutional reform that would have been unimaginable a few years before cannot be explained in terms of the federal problem; it has to be explained in terms of the Federalists' determination to restrain popular democracy and move the power to make decisions from the upstart demagogues who ran the states to men more like themselves.[xxvi]

Sometimes, though, a political or constitutional problem may be just that, not a reflection of vast, underlying social changes or dramatic class divisions.  This, at least, is certain: though Madison was undeniably concerned about conditions in the states and did undoubtedly intend to rectify such problems, he specifically contested Wood's contention that the problems of the Union might have been resolved without a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the federal system.  Madison insisted that the problems of the Union were insoluble within the framework of the Articles of Confederation--and this, not something else, was surely his initial and most crucial contribution to the Founding.  The problems of the Union as a union, not the multiplicity and mutability of local laws, were the concerns that led him to propose a total constitutional revision.  And the Constitution he envisioned and defended was by no means meant, as he conceived it, to effect a massive transfer of political responsibilities from the states to the central government or into hands that would be unresponsive to the people.  The Constitution was designed to make it possible for the central government to act effectively on matters that were already federal responsibilities, and on a carefully restricted range of other matters that even Antifederalists believed should be in federal hands.[xxvii]  Some Federalists did want to shift as much authority as possible to central hands and even to the branches of the federal government that would be least responsive to the people.  These, however, were the Federalists whom Madison opposed in the years after 1789.

This is a brief, a crude, and probably an unfair summary of some of the interpretative problems deeply seated in the body of extensive scholarship on Madison's objectives and ideas.  Perhaps, however, it will serve, at least, to make the ironies stand out and prompt some reconsideration.  The Madison who speaks to us today through modern secondary studies is in largest part a creature of our own interpretive conventions and our own political concerns.  It is not James Madison we hear, but a dramatic, distant figure who echoes back imperfectly the fears or aspirations of a later time.  Thus, the eighteenth-century gentleman whose most particular contempt was saved for the projectors, jobbers, and promoters of his day[xxviii] has seemed to some a mainstay of the bourgeois counterrevolution.  To others, he appears the spokesman (villainous or admirable, according to the writer's own convictions) for the modern, "commercial" republic, which is pretty much what he profoundly hoped America would not become.[xxix]  The man who thought he was devoting his career to vindicating liberty--by which he meant a system based entirely on an equal people and responsive to their will--is summarized as having meant that ordinary people ought to have as small a part in governing as democratic notions would permit, so that the propertied might long protect themselves against the prospect of redistribution.  The constant champion of strict construction of the people's charters, the ablest advocate that the United States has ever seen of an extended, but compound, republic, is recast as a New Dealer who retreated from and then dissembled his original desire to centralize the system.[xxx]  The living figure who attempted desperately to get around two partially conflicting conceptions of human freedom, who tried to set a standard of disinterested public service, who urged affectionate consideration for the interests of the other citizens who were embarked in the collective effort, who believed that his and others' honor was at stake in the commitment to prepare a Bill of Rights, and who insisted that it was "chimerical" to think that any form of government could render liberty secure without some virtue in the people,[xxxi] is represented as a coldly calculating realist who moved the nation from its classical republican to modern liberal foundations and assured it that a calm pursuit by everyone of their particular self-interests would suffice for modern times--if only, by mechanical contrivances, ambition could be made to counteract ambition.[xxxii]

Historically, in 1786, James Madison set out to rescue liberty, by which he meant both private rights and popular self-governance, from threats that could destroy it:  from the fragmentation of the Union that protected the republican experiments in Massachusetts or Virginia;[xxxiii] or from popular abuses that had disillusioned certain leaders of the democratic revolution and were capable, if they continued, of destroying popular commitment to the cause.[xxxiv]  Generally neglected in the modern scholarly preoccupation with his very real concern about these popular abuses is the great degree to which he blamed abuses in the states on the Confederation's inability to handle its commercial problems and establish the conditions under which the Revolution could succeed.  The solution, he contended, did not lie in doubting that the people still retained sufficient virtue to support a democratic Revolution.  The solution was to reconstruct the central government in ways that would correct the errors of the framers of the constitutions of the states, to arm this reconstructed government with power to correct the underlying economic sources of the nation's current ills, and therefore to create the circumstances under which the people's virtue could be reasserted.[xxxv]

Still, Madison had never been a nationalist in many of the ordinary implications of that word, and he did not become an advocate of a consolidated, rather than a partly federal, republic in 1787 or 1788--much less an advocate of multiplying interests in an extended, "commercial" republic.  He did not become a centralist because he always thought that concentrated central power would conflict with genuine dependence on the people, and we will never understand his purposes and thinking if we regularly emphasize his fear of state majorities at the expense of recognizing the centrality of his commitment to a truly popular regime.  He collided with the other Federalists of 1789 because, whatever they believed, he understood the Constitution as the people's law, which was to be revered and not remolded by their servants, because he saw the federal features of that Constitution as essential to preserve the Revolution, and because he always thought that a republican solution to the vices of republics still required that rulers would remain responsive to the people's needs and will.[xxxvi]

Madison was not, of course, a democrat by current definitions of that word.  His concept of the people usually excluded large proportions of the population.  He decidedly did not believe that the immediate and unenlightened inclinations of majorities of people should be put into effect without resistance.  But this was not because he valued order and protection for the rights of property above all else.[xxxvii]  It was because he knew that every kind of right could be endangered by inflamed majorities of people, though he also thought that every kind of right could be protected most completely in a system where majorities, when they had been enlightened and their passions had been cooled, would ultimately rule.  Madison's was not the sort of democratic faith attractive to the radical imagination, in his own time or in ours.  With Madison, however, it is critical to see that faith in popular self-governance, not fear, was at the center of his service.  Our century has blamed him for his fears or praised him for the realistic wisdom that insisted on restraining the majority's demands.  Contemporary enemies were more inclined--and nearer right--to see him as unconquerably romantic.  They understood what we have commonly forgotten:  that what he was committed to conserving was a people’s government, although a people’s government that would protect the liberties of all.  How many modern democrats believe, with Madison, that the majority of ordinary people can and should be trusted, once their will has been matured, even with interpreting or thoroughly remodeling the fundamental law?  How many think, with him, that fundamental liberties of both the private and the public sort are safer with the people than they are with an elite of federal officers and judges?  He believed it, and so far as we have failed to understand how fully he committed his career to vindicating this belief, memory has done a grave injustice to his service.  He is famous, much too often, for things he did not do and thoughts he never had, for things--too many times--that he resisted through the whole of his career.  Maybe he was wrong.  Neither Madison nor any other founding father would have wanted us to treat their writings or their Constitution as a sacred text.  But maybe, on the other hand, James Madison and other founders still have much to teach--provided, to be sure, that is them and not a version of ourselves to whom we pay attention.


[i].In 1834, a correspondent addressed Madison, the last surviving member of the Constitutional Convention, as the author of the national charter.  Madison went out of his way to remark that the writer had given him "a credit to which I have no claim . . . .  This was not, like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, the offspring of a single brain.  It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands."  JM to William Cogswell, March 10, 1834, in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (RFC), 4 vols. (New Haven, Conn., 1937), 3:533.

[ii].This is the subtitle, for example, of Robert A. Rutland's recent biography, James Madison (New York, 1987).

[iii].Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers:  James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge, 1989), 17.

[iv].Adams to Jefferson, Feb. 2, 1817, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (New York, 1959), 508.

[v].This and the preceding paragraph lean heavily on the first chapter of The Last of the Fathers, which has this title.

[vi].George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, 1948), 181.

[vii].Quoted in James Morton Smith, ed., The Republic of Letters:  The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826, 3 vols. consecutively paged (New York, 1995), 38.

[viii].Conversation with George Beckwith, Oct. 1789, in Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 26 vols. (New York, 1961-1979), 5:488.

[ix].Bitter and mocking comments by Madison's congressional colleagues on his sponsorship of the Bill of Rights can be reviewed in Helen E. Veit et al., eds., Creating the Bill of Rights:  The Documentary History from the First Federal Congress (Baltimore, 1991), 247, 263-64, 278, 288.  For even more scathing denunciations of Madison's discrimination proposal of 1790, see Ralph Ketcham, James Madison:  A Biography (New York, 1971), 310-11, together with George Cabot to Benjamin Goohue, May 5, 1790, Beverly Goodhue Papers, New York Historical Society Library; and Gouverneur Morris to Robert Morris, May 3, 1790, Gouverneur Morris Letterbook, Library of Congress.  The last two were kindly supplied by Kenneth Bowling from the files of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress.

[x].Margaret Bayard Smith on an evening at Montpelier in 1828; quoted in McCoy, 26.

[xi].Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism:  The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York, 1993).

[xii].On the dominant interpretation of Madison's supposed reversal and its sources, see my article, "The Hamiltonian Madison:  A Reconsideration," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 92 (1984): 3-28.

[xiii].JM's preface to his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Adrienne Koch (New York, 1969), 15.  See also his "Vices of the Political System of the United States," in William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962--), 9:345-58.  The last collection is cited hereafter as PJM.

[xiv].Particularly effective on the importance of Madison's linkage of the two crises are the works of Jack N. Rakove, including James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (Glenview, Ill., 1990).

[xv].Federalist no. 10, in Jacob E. Cooke, ed., The Federalist (Cleveland, 1961), 64-65.

[xvi].Federalist no. 51, ibid., 349, 351-53.

[xvii].The Sacred Fire of Liberty:  James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995).

[xviii].Now collected in William A. Schambra, ed., As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit:  Essays by Martin Diamond (Washington, D.C., 1992).

[xix].Ibid., 33.

[xx].Richard K. Matthews, "If Men Were Angles":  James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason (Lawrence, Kans., 1995); Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism:  The Madisonian Framework and Its Legacy (Chicago, 1990).

[xxi].I believe that Madison explicitly repudiated the notion that he favored increasing the variety of interests in the country in his essay on "Parties," which appeared originally in the National Gazette on Jan. 23, 1792 and is available in PJM 14:197-98.

[xxii].A fuller argument to this effect is much of the burden of my Sacred Fire of Liberty.

[xxiii].This has been clear, it seems to me, since the publication of Drew McCoy's first book, The Elusive Republic:  Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980).

[xxiv].See Alan Gibson, "The Commercial Republic and the Pluralist Critique of Maxism:  An Analysis of Martin Diamond's Interpretation of Federalist 10," Polity 25 (1993): 497-528.

[xxv].Gordon S. Wood (The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969]) has capably explained that in the first, full flush of democratic revolution, when Americans set out to build their state republics, it could be difficult to see how the body of a democratic people could endanger fundamental rights, which were their own.  It is surprising, nevertheless, that so many scholars should suggest that Madison virtually discovered the problem of majority faction.  The probability that the few would be oppressed by an unrestrained many was a banality of eighteenth-century British and American thought, which is one of the reasons why all the revolutionary states separated executive and legislative powers and prepared bills of rights (or wrote elements of the latter into their constitutions).  Countless numbers of Americans were, indeed, strongly reminded of this ancient axiom during the middle 1780s.  A few, including Alexander Hamilton, suspected that the only sound solution might be lifetime terms of office for the executive and upper house, which would approach the British model as nearly as elective principles would possibly permit.  Madison's distinctive contribution was not to think that factious majorities could be a problem, but to suggest that, in America, people did not ordinarily divide into a many and a few, and that a large republic would restrain their tendency to do so.  For his condemnation of the alternative solution--"creating a will in the community independent of the majority"--see Federalist 51, Cooke, 351.

[xxvi].Gordon S. Wood, "Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution," in Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II, eds., Beyond Confederation:  Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1987), 72.

[xxvii].Federalist no. 45, Cooke, 311-14:  The Constitution "proposes . . . much less . . . the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union than . . . the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS."  For the most part, it only "substitutes a more effectual mode of administering" powers that, in theory, were already vested in the Confederation Congress.

[xxviii].Disgusted by the scramble to acquire rights to purchase stock in Hamilton's Bank of the United States, Madison wrote Jefferson on Aug. 8, 1791 (PJM 14:69):  "These and other abuses make it a problem whether the system of the old paper under a bad government or of the new under a good one be chargeable with the greater substantial injustice.  The true difference seems to be that by the former the few were the victims to the many, by the latter the many to the few."

[xxix].In addition to McCoy, The Elusive Republic, see Lance Banning, "Political Economy and the Creation of the Federal Republic," in David Thomas Konig, ed., Devising Liberty:  Preserving and Creating Freedom in the New American Republic (Stanford, Cal., 1995), 11-49.

[xxx].This is my characterization of the slant of the greatest biography of Madison:  Irving Brant, James Madison, 6 vols. (Indianapolis, 1941-61).

[xxxi].Remarks in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, in Merrill Jensen, et al., eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison, Wisc., 1976--), 10:1417.

[xxxii]."In bestowing the eulogies due to the partitions and internal checks of power, it ought not the less to be remembered that they are neither the sole nor the chief palladium of constitutional liberty.  The people, who are the authors of this blessing, must also be its guardians.  Their eyes must be ever ready to mark, their voice to pronounce, and their arm to repel or repair aggressions on the authority of their constitutions" ("Government of the United States," National Gazette, Feb. 4, 1792, in PJM 14:218).

[xxxiii].See, for example, his remarks in the Constitutional Convention on June 29 (RFC 1:464-65):  "Let each state depend on itself for its security, and let apprehensions arise of danger from distant powers or from neighboring states, and the languishing condition of all the states, large as well as small, would soon be transformed into vigorous and high-toned governments. . . .  The same causes which have rendered the Old World the theater of incessant wars and have banished liberty from the face of it would soon produce the same effects here."

[xxxiv].See, for example, his pre-convention letters to Washington and Jefferson in PJM 9:286, 318.  The diseases of the current system, he warned, had "tainted the faith of the most orthodox republicans"; and sincere disciples of liberty "must soon perceive" that republicanism "cannot be preserved at all under any modification which does not redress the ills experienced from our present establishments."

[xxxv].However true it may be that many revolutionary thinkers of the middle 1780s were coming to doubt that Americans possessed the virtue necessary to sustain republican government, it is also true that Madison himself cannot be fairly cited as ever saying that the country's fundamental problem was a deficiency of popular virtue.  "Most of our political problems," he insisted, "may be traced up to our commercial ones, as most of our moral may to our political" (JM to Jefferson, March 18, 1786, PJM 8:502).

[xxxvi].In 1834, Nicholas P. Trist asked Madison why he had "deserted" Hamilton in 1790 and 1791.  Madison's "very words," as Trist reported them, are among the most suggestive he ever spoke.  "I deserted Colonel Hamilton, or rather Colonel H. deserted me . . . from his wishing to . . . administer the government . . . into what he thought it ought to be, while, on my part, I endeavored to make it conform to the Constitution as understood by the Convention that produced and recommended it and particularly by the state conventions that adopted it" (RFC 3:533-34).

[xxxvii].Madison's 1792 essay on "Property" (PJM 14:266-68) reminded gentlemen who believed that property was safer in Great Britain than in the new United States and who were inclined to imitate or praise the British system on these grounds, that "As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights": in his opinions and their free communication; in the practice and profession of his faith; in "the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them"; etc.  Government was "instituted to protect property of every sort," not merely property defined as material possessions.  And judged by this criterion, the British system was hardly a worthy "pattern" for the United States.  No one who valued the rights of property above other political goods could possibly have suggested Madison's 1790 scheme for discriminating between current and original holders of the public debt, which may have been the period's most literal proposal for taking property from some and giving it to others for reasons that were quite explicitly redistributive in part.

The paper, James Madison: Federalist, is an abbreviated and slightly altered version of a published essay from "James Madison: Memory, Service, and Fame," edited by Peter McNamara (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 121-140.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress Help Desk (May 31, 2001)