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James Madison

James Madison and the Making of America,  by Kevin Gutzman

Kevin Gutzman’s James Madison and the Making of America tackles the daunting task of answering how, in a remarkably purposeful and active life, James Madison devised the basic republican theory behind American government, led in drafting and ratifying the Constitution, sat at Washington’s right hand in establishing the new government, and then late in life was the authoritative voice interpreting the place of the Constitution in a growing America. Gutzman’s day-by-day analysis of the debates and actions of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is long—80 pages—but superb. He demonstrates Madison’s deep insight and great skill in first framing the task of the Convention, then, in responding to virtually every point raised by its members, guiding the debate to workable conclusions, and most remarkable of all, helping to fashion a document agreed to by “all states present.”

Later, in a well-informed analysis, Gutzman treats insightfully Madison’s contributions to The Federalist essays as a dialogue with increasingly effective Anti-Federalist articles, highlighting the basic issues of energetic government, insurance against tyranny, and meaningful representation. Gutzman misses, though, Madison’s movement in Federalist 10 from a sort of conflict-of-interest treatment of the “factions” always present in a free society to an understanding that seeks to sustain pursuit of the public good after the factions have been neutralized through their conflict with each other. This neglect recurs in Gutzman’s commentary on Federalist 63, concerning the Senate, in which Madison explained the wiser, more public-spirited quality of debate possible there.

Gutzman’s most thorough and penetrating analysis is of Madison’s premier role in the fateful discussion of the new constitution and its principles. In his 50-page account of the Virginia Ratification Convention of June 1788, Gutzman explores Madison’s confrontation with Virginia’s leading republican theorist (and disgruntled non-signing member of the Convention of 1787), George Mason, and the legendary orator and dominant figure in Virginia politics for a decade, Patrick Henry, both of whom were determined to prevent Virginia’s ratification.

With important help from Edmund Pendleton, Edmund Randolph, George Nicholas, and a rising young lawyer, John Marshall, Madison took the lead in defending and expounding the new constitution. In an insightful summary of the debate, Gutzman shows not only what the main issues were but how, in dramatic exchanges with each other, Henry and Madison clarified them for their colleagues, the public, and indeed themselves.

Henry charged that the members of the Philadelphia Convention had formed “a great consolidated Government, instead of a confederation,” which would put “the republic in … extreme danger.” Instead of the government of “general peace, and a universal tranquility [that] prevailed in this country” under the Articles, Henry began to foresee under the proposed constitution—in a portion of his speech not directly quoted by Gutzman—an America that in seeking national glory would find only oppression:

If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.

Madison retorted that those who “suppose the General Legislature will do every mischief they possibly can, and that they will omit to do every good which they are authorized to do” denied the very basis of the new constitution. “I go on this great republican principle,” the father of the Constitution said, “that the people will have the virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom” to the offices of government.

He put his confidence not “in our rulers” ex cathedra, “but in the people who are to choose them.” Madison added later in the Convention, in a pronouncement aimed directly at Henry, “I profess myself to have had a uniform zeal for Republican Government. If the Honorable member” felt differently, Madison charged, “he is greatly mistaken. From the first moment that my mind was capable of contemplating political subjects, I never, till this moment,” he continued, “ceased wishing success to a well-regulated Republican Government. The establishment of such in America was my most ardent desire.”

Gutzman takes this claim as his keynote: he shows how in these momentous exchanges, at the most critical stage of the development of American self-government, Madison formulated the undergirding principles and helped fashion them into workable instruments by which “we the people” might rule.

Other portions of the book, though well written and generally accurate, are not up to the standards of these splendid pages. There are 208 pages covering about five years of Madison’s life, leaving 156 pages for the other 80. The account of Madison’s study at Princeton reveals the outlines of his education there but misses the deeper learning born of his response to President John Witherspoon’s Aristotelian approach to the nature of government and to his critique of Scottish Enlightenment learning.

Madison’s signal contributions to the doctrine of full “liberty of conscience” in religious conviction in his early protests against religious persecution in his Orange County home, in his implanting that phrase in the Virginia Constitution of 1776, in his role in securing passage of Jefferson’s “Bill for Religious Freedom,” and in his sponsoring the Bill of Rights to the federal Constitution are explained effectively. But Gutzman fails to emphasize Madison’s primarily public purpose in these moves: freedom of religion and the flourishing of churches resting not on force but on genuine conviction of conscience. This, Madison believed, would nourish the habits of critical understanding and concern for moral principles that he believed were essential to the practice of good citizenship in a republican society.

Gutzman tells the story of Madison’s leadership in the House of Representatives, 1789-1792, and his role in the political controversies of the 1790s, but he sees this too much in light of Madison the Virginian and defender of states rights rather than a Madison concerned, perhaps futilely, for a non-partisan politics and a broader understanding of the freedom of expression indispensable to republican self-government. His brief account of Madison’s service as secretary of state and then president, 1801-1817, properly shows him as seeking faithful implementation of the Constitution. But in following Henry Adams’s “pro-Federalist” interpretation of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Gutzman misses Madison’s earnest attempt amid the perilous, high-stakes diplomacy of the Napoleonic wars to protect American interests through economic sanctions and trade restrictions rather than violence and war. His “unimperial” conduct of executive power during the War of 1812, criticized by Gutzman and often inept and unrealistic, was nonetheless a successful demonstration of the capacity of the nation to conduct a war against the world’s leading military power without losing its republican character in the process.

Gutzman fails to see that the same above-party republicanism that guided Madison through his “making of America” leadership, 1787-1791, led him to nominate for the Supreme Court two “Republicans of the New England stamp,” first John Quincy Adams (who declined) and then Joseph Story. Gutzman asserts that Madison should have known that Adams would not have been “a potentially reliable Jeffersonian voice on the Supreme Court” and that Story would become “John Marshall’s right-hand man … in his energetic advocacy of a Hamiltonian reading of the Constitution.” Both nominations were examples, Gutzman supposes, of Madison’s inept, naïve, Jeffersonian partisanship.

Yet the Story appointment was not, as Gutzman says, “the most spectacular flop in appointment history” even if he turned out not to be the “reliable Jeffersonian” Gutzman imagines Madison wanted on the court. Actually Madison admired Story’s profound non-partisan understanding of the Constitution, appointed him for that reason, and ended up being pleased with Story’s career on the court, just as both of them came increasingly to agree with Marshall’s broad construction of the Constitution.

Marshall wrote to Story in 1830, as the nullification crisis burgeoned, that “Mr. Madison is himself again [avowing] the opinions of his best days.” Thus the Chief Justice validated the story Gutzman tells of Madison’s steady affirmation in retirement of an interpretation of the Constitution not far from Marshall’s—both men rising above their long partisan differences to agree, as they had in 1788, on the foundations of “the making of America.”

Gutzman shows how Madison’s disavowal of Virginia Judge Spencer Roane’s insistence on the primacy of state court decisions over federal ones accorded with Marshall’s pronouncement of federal supremacy in McCullough v. Maryland (1819). Madison partially defended the “American System” of Henry Clay and the protective tariff—if not as forcefully as their supporters would have liked—and he was appalled at the argument of John C. Calhoun that states could nullify within their boundaries federal laws they thought were unconstitutional. Gutzman summarizes brilliantly Madison’s large role in refuting the states’ rights proponents and his support of the Virginia Assembly argument that “the resolutions of 98-99, gave no support to the nullifying doctrines of South Carolina.”

Though Gutzman finds Madison’s compromising position on the power of the slaveocracy at the Virginia Convention of 1829 and his failure to free his own slaves unworthy of his republican ideals, the author concludes admiringly with Madison’s “Advice to My Country.” It was “dearest to my heart and dearest in my convictions,” the dying Madison said, “that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.” It was this Union, conceived, framed, ratified, explained, implemented, defended, and cherished by Madison, that Gutzman cogently and rightly sees as the essential “making of America.” His book is a signal contribution to our understanding of this near-miraculous epoch in our national history.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of the The American Conservative.

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