James Madison: America’s First Politician

Published on December 9, 2021

If you ask a random American on the street when the United States was born, it is almost certain that you will be told July 4, 1776. There is no doubt that the Fourth of July, celebrated across the country to this day, was a monumental event signifying the independence of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain, but I would argue that the true birth of the United States as a cohesive and unified country arrived more than a decade later when the United States Constitution went into effect in 1789.

The Articles of Confederation, formulated in the wartime environment of 1776 and 1777, was born at a time of urgent necessity as the thirteen colonies banded together to defeat the most powerful military force on earth. The weak central government that the articles created was intended to form a “league of friendship” between what most people thought of as thirteen fully sovereign states. Although the central government was expected to fund military spending and conduct foreign policy, its powers were strictly limited especially when it came to the imposition of taxes. After the war, it became abundantly clear by the mid 1780s that the Articles no longer fulfilled the needs of a young and growing nation.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of James Madison’s contributions to the political process of the late 1780s that led to the ratification of the United States Constitution. Although Madison was only in his mid-thirties during the Constitutional Convention, he was already a well-known figure on the political stage after his service in the Virginia House of Delegates and the Continental Congress. Although small in physical stature, quiet in demeanor, and often overshadowed by Thomas Jefferson, his fellow Virginian, Madison was a political genius. This is the subject of Jay Cost’s new book, James Madison: America’s First Politician. The biography covers the entire scope of Madison’s life, but Cost emphasizes aspects of Madison’s political genius that many readers might not be familiar with. In particular, he sheds light on the question of how Madison could have been such a stalwart ally of Alexander Hamilton during the formulation and advocacy of the Constitution only to become Hamilton’s political adversary during the 1790s.

Over the last two decades, I have read widely on Thomas Jefferson including Dumas Malone’s epic six volume biography along with several more contemporary biographies. Jefferson, despite all of his flaws, remains the Founding Father who I most closely associate with the ideals of the American revolution. But for all of his virtues, both intellectual and political, Jefferson was much more of an idealist than a pragmatist and, despite his polite and refined demeanor, could be highly bitter and partisan. This was especially evident when Jefferson served with Alexander Hamilton in George Washington’s first cabinet. Had Jefferson not been reserved and unfailingly polite in his personal interactions, it is not hard to imagine that Hamilton might have challenged him to a duel — that is how bitter their political rivalry was in the 1790s. But Jefferson played hardball mostly through surrogates, not personally, and it is quite impossible to imagine him in a fistfight, much less a duel.

As a Jeffersonian, I would often come across James Madison since he and Jefferson were not only political allies but best friends throughout their adult lives. Jefferson’s early influence on Madison cannot be overstated. Nearly a decade older, Jefferson was always the senior partner in their political alliance and Madison unfailingly deferred to him especially in the early years. I had long assumed that Jefferson’s service in France during the period in which the Constitution was drafted meant that Madison had fallen more under the influence of Alexander Hamilton and that Jefferson’s return to the United States to serve in the Washington administration caused Madison’s break with Hamilton.

This impression is not at all fair to James Madison based on Cost’s book. Madison was no one’s crony or sidekick, and his political philosophy, while naturally evolving over time, was broadly consistent from the 1780s through 1817 when Madison completed his second term as President. There is no doubt that Madison favored a much stronger federal government than Jefferson would have preferred and that Jefferson’s absence from the United States in 1787 deprived him of the ability to give Madison timely feedback as the Constitution was developed. It is true that transatlantic communication was agonizingly slow in the eighteenth century and weeks would pass before letters would arrive making collaboration between Jefferson and Madison impossible. Had Jefferson not been in France at this key juncture, it seems more likely that he would have been personally involved in the drafting of the Constitution, perhaps supplanting Madison’s role. It is difficult to replay history.

Examining the actual history that took place, Madison clearly wanted a strong central government, in many ways a stronger one than the one that eventually emerged from the convention. The political realities of the 1780s severely restricted how strong the central government could be, and the Constitution was a product of sometimes tortured compromise. Despite his own disappointment with the final draft in September 1787, Madison put his heart and soul into making the case for ratification. The Federalist Papers are a monumental series of eighty-five essays written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay over the months following the convention. To this day, the Federalist Papers serve as the key source of insight into the elusive concept of “original intent” since the authors meticulously explain the rationale for Constitution and argue in favor of its ratification.

The notion of “original intent” is interesting because from the very beginning there was heated debate over what the Constitution actually meant. This became apparent immediately after the Constitution went into effect in 1789 and George Washington’s cabinet became a war zone between Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury. Much to President Washington’s discomfort, the political drama continued even after Hamilton and Jefferson both retired from the Administration.

America’s first political parties soon emerged with Jefferson and Madison founding the Democratic-Republican Party (which was known as the Republican Party at the time but is not the direct predecessor of today’s GOP) and Hamilton founding the Federalist Party.

Americans have been fighting over the meaning and intent of the Constitution ever since it went into effect. Today, we debate the original intent of the founding generation often without being cognizant of the fact that the founding generation itself never agreed on the extent of the powers the Constitution granted to the federal government and what was truly reserved to the states and the people. The Constitution was most flawed in its tolerance for slavery, an original sin only rectified by the thirteenth amendment which was ratified in 1865 after a long and bloody civil war.

Madison and Jefferson were simultaneously indispensable men during the birth of the United States and lifelong slaveholders. Cost doesn’t let Madison off the hook when it comes to the question of slavery noting that Madison did not seem to experience much cognitive dissonance between his political ideals of freedom and his ownership of human beings.

Our task in the early twenty-first century is to somehow reconcile these contradictions without “canceling” our entire history and heritage. Jefferson was the indispensable man behind the Declaration of Independence and Madison served the same role when it comes to the United States Constitution. They were flawed men, but also political geniuses and they embodied the ideals of the enlightenment.

Modern day Americans need to come to terms with the fact that we can simultaneously revere the ideals that animated the founding generation while also acknowledging their failures. Cost’s book is an important contribution toward developing this understanding.

For readers who are interested in James Madison but are undecided about reading the book, I suggest listening to Clay Jenkinson’s interview of Jay Cost on The Thomas Jefferson Hour, one of my favorite podcasts covering early American history. A brief excerpt from the book appeared in The Wall Street Journal in October.

After reading the book, it occurred to me that there is no prominent monument to James Madison on the national mall in Washington DC. Apparently, the only monument to Madison is the building bearing his name that is part of the Library of Congress. The building, which opened in 1980, has a modern style of architecture that I can only describe as nondescript. Years ago, I obtained my library card for the Library of Congress within this building. After I received my card, I immediately took the tunnel under Independence Avenue to … the Thomas Jefferson building which contains the spectacular main reading room.

It seems to me that James Madison deserves a more prominent memorial.

James Madison: America’s First Politician