Protean

Finally, James Madison Mania

The fourth U.S. president is often ignored—he’s not even on the currency anymore—but four new books remind us that tiny James Madison was a man to reckon with.


04.05.15 10:45 AM ET

The Bible tells us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. So where do we put the Founding Fathers on our money? George Washington occupies the quarter and, most important, the dollar bill. Over the years the Mint has rolled out dollar coins showing Ike, Susan B. Anthony, or Sacagawea, to no avail; Americans want the dollar to be scruffy paper with George on it. Thomas Jefferson holds the ubiquitous nickel and the elusive $2 bill. Alexander Hamilton gazes, buff and brash, from the tenner. And high rollers and drug dealers greet healthy, wealthy, and wise Benjamin Franklin on the C-note.

And where did we put James Madison? On the $5,000 bill. Which was discontinued in 1969.

Why the monetary dis? Unlike Washington, James Madison (1751-1836) was no military hero. At the beginning of the Revolution he joined the militia in Orange County, Virginia, his home, but washed out thanks to “the discouraging feebleness of his constitution.” He was a good writer—The Federalist Papers, pro-Constitution editorials he wrote along with Hamilton and John Jay, are still taught in colleges and cited in Supreme Court decisions—but he was not a great one, having neither Jefferson’s pure contralto, nor Franklin’s perfect twinkle. His life lacked the melodramatic arc of Hamilton’s. He was in politics for 40 years, he was the fourth president, he was smart—no need to put him in our wallets.

The publishing industry has been kinder to Madison. There is justice in this, since he was one of the most bookish of the founders, who were a bookish lot. Whenever Madison saw a problem ahead of him, he always preferred to address it by reading up on it. In 1786, as the prospect of writing a new constitution loomed—the Constitutional Convention would meet in Philadelphia the following year—he got a shipment of more than 200 books from Paris, sent by his best friend Jefferson, then minister to France (he thanked Jefferson for this “literary cargo”). When a question of political theory or history came up in Philadelphia, Madison wanted to be the best informed man in the room.

Now Madison could study a literary cargo of books about himself. Four new titles join the list: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis; Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father by Michael Signer; The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties, by Carol Birken; and Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America by David O. Stewart.

Madison was known as the Father of the Constitution in his lifetime, for his labors in writing, ratifying and amending it, and the first three authors look at him primarily in that role. Ellis shows him pushing, throughout the 1780s, along with Washington, Hamilton and John Jay—the Quartet of the title—for a new form of government. Signer’s book climaxes with an account of the Virginia state convention that ratified the Constitution in the summer of 1788. Berkin looks at Madison’s efforts, in the first session of the House of Representatives (1789), to add to the Constitution a bill of rights. Only Stewart covers Madison’s entire life—quite a job, for he died, the last of the Constitution’s signers, 49 years after the Constitutional Convention met.

The Quartet displays the skills that have won Ellis a Pulitzer and a National Book Award: mastery of the material, a strong, suave style, and an eye for character. Here is how he introduces Madison: “Amid the flamboyant orators of the Virginia dynasty, he was almost invisible and wholly unthreatening but the acknowledged master of the inoffensive argument that so often proved decisive….it was impossible to unleash one’s full fury against him without seeming a belligerent fool. His style, in effect, was not to have one.”

Madison and his allies in the quartet aimed to supplant the United States’ first form of government, the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles there was no executive or judiciary, only a one-house Congress in which each state cast one vote. Congress had meager powers—it could not raise taxes, but only ask the states for money. Under this system the United States had won the Revolution. But there had been a lot of floundering. “We have become a many-headed Monster,” wrote Washington after the war, “that never will Nor can steer to the same point.” Madison and Hamilton called for a Constitutional Convention to meet in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787; they and Jay persuaded Washington to attend; then all four worked—the first three publicly, as authors of The Federalist Papers and as delegates to their respective state ratifying conventions; Washington behind the scenes—to make sure the states approved the new document.

Madison’s signal contribution to the quartet’s efforts was theoretical. He came up with the perfect rebuttal to the most powerful argument made by defenders of the status quo. They maintained that the quartet’s attempt to govern the United States as a republic rather than a relaxed alliance was doomed to fail because republics had to be small. Citizens had to know each other, and their representatives intimately; a large republic would inevitably become an empire, as had happened to Rome after it ingested the Mediterranean. Madison answered that the city-sized republics of the ancient world were in fact hotbeds of all-or-nothing civil strife. Only the disparate interests of a large republic could guarantee that no ambitious man or group could dominate it. “Improper or wicked project[s] will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union” than a single state, he wrote in his first essay in The Federalist Papers (#10).

In a later essay (#51) he added a wrinkle. The complex system that the Philadelphia convention produced—a president, a judiciary, and a two-house Congress—would act as an additional check on would-be bullies and despots. Each branch of government would stick up for itself; thus the “several constituent parts” would be “the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”

Madison had put his literary cargo to good use.

In Becoming Madison Michael Signer spends a lot of time on the ratification struggle. The Constitution required the approval of nine states before it could go into effect; as a practical matter, Virginia, the largest, had to be one of the approving states. The Virginia ratifying convention, which met in Richmond in 1788, was a wild affair, pitting Madison against Patrick Henry, the Constitution’s most flamboyant critic, whose final oration was accompanied by an actual tempest.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Signer is best however on Madison’s youth, and the medical mystery of his life. The future founding father had problems with his own father. James Madison Sr. gave his son a fine education—schools and tutors, followed by Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). He paid his son’s bills: James Jr. had no profession, and no jobs apart from public service. What James Sr. gave with one hand, however, he withheld with the other: Signer characterizes one of the father’s letters as showing “strong, but suppressed, emotion,” and he argues that Madison’s relations with his strong, suppressed parent caused the seizures that plagued him throughout his life—palpitations and choking, followed by fainting. Biographers have wondered whether Madison had epilepsy. Signer says the fits were anxiety attacks. Madison’s failure to become a militiaman was such an attack: He collapsed during a musket drill, as his father, a senior officer, looked on. “Madison,” writes Signer, “loved his father but felt controlled by him.” He “may have felt deep anger at his father … and his anxiety could have resulted from the conflict between that anger and his inability to express it.” It’s hard to diagnose someone two centuries after the fact, but this strikes me as a bull’s-eye.

The Bill of Rights is a close-up on the politics of 1789. Madison intended to play a leading role in the new government he had made. But first he had to get elected to the House of Representatives, running against his neighbor and friend James Monroe for a seat in central Virginia. He won that contest in February 1789. Once he arrived in New York City, then the nation’s capital, he began a second contest, to amend the Constitution. Madison wanted amendments because the Constitution’s critics feared that American liberties would be devoured by a too-powerful federal government (in the waning days of the Constitutional Convention the delegates had considered adding a Bill of Rights, but they dropped the idea, largely because they were eager to go home). In New York in May 1789 Madison offered his own bill of rights. After much tinkering, Congress sent 12 amendments to the states in September. The first, a formula for determining the size of congressional districts, never passed (Congress has handled the matter with legislation). The second, regulating congressional pay raises, was not ratified until 1992, when it became the 27th Amendment. The rest, ratified by December 1791, are the first 10 amendments we have today.

Berkin gives a useful reminder of how petty politics could be, even in the golden age. George Mason, a former ally of Madison’s who became an opponent of the Constitution, described the men who signed it as “coxcombs … intriguing office-hunters … fools and knaves.” Rep. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts dismissed Madison’s amendments as “an immense mass of sweets and other herbs and roots for a diet drink.” Rep. William Smith of South Carolina commented on the “ill-humour & rudeness” of his colleagues. “To make it worse,” he added, “the weather is intensely hot”—a problem that would only be worsened by moving the nation’s capital to Washington, D.C.

The publishers of Madison’s Gift asked me to blurb it, and I did: “David O. Stewart tracks [Madison] through the partnerships, personal and political, that defined his career, shaped a new nation—and lifted him to the White House.” The five partners Stewart focuses on are Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, James Monroe, and wife Dolley. Stewart goes beyond the story of the Constitution, to Jefferson’s election as president in 1800, followed by Madison’s election in 1808. Perhaps the most interesting partner in Stewart’s round-up, because he is relatively under-studied, is Monroe. Monroe tried to jump into the White House ahead of Madison in 1808; he bolstered Madison’s administration during the difficult War of 1812 (Monroe was a Revolutionary War veteran, with a natural flair for leadership); and he finally became president himself in 1816. Keeping Monroe down, but keeping him loyal was one of Madison’s most adroit political feats.

There is a gap in the new Madison books. They show him as a supple theorist, and a clever politician. But Madison was also a theorist and creator of political organizations, almost as old as the Constitution, and as deeply rooted in our public life. He and Jefferson rose to power in 1800 by shoving aside Hamilton, the second president John Adams, and (though they were careful not to say this) the legacy of Washington. They had an ideological agenda: having strengthened the federal government, they wanted to dial it back; they disliked Hamilton’s financial program; once the French Revolution began in 1789, they supported it and even trusted its usurper, Napoleon.

They only rode these arguments to power however by pioneering a new world of modern politics. Madison and Jefferson invented the first American political party, the Republicans, who changed their name to the Democrats in the 1830s (the GOP is a different, still-later organization). They invented partisan media: the National Gazette, their first mouthpiece, began publishing on Halloween, 1791. Fox and MSNBC are its descendants. They built the first political machine, the Virginia Dynasty—two terms of Jefferson, followed by two terms of Madison, followed by two terms of Monroe: 24 years of government by neighbors and soul mates.

James Madison, shy theorist, was instrumental in all these sometimes backroom, sometimes bare-knuckle maneuvers. That could, and should, be the subject of more books.