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Jefferson-Madison- founding fathersSenator Rand Paul has been using the following quotation in his speeches to the United States Senate and most recently used this in a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation discussing “constitutional foreign policy” as the founding fathers had envisioned.

“Madison wrote, ‘The Constitution supposes what history demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch most prone to war and most interested in it, therefore the Constitution has with studied care vested that power in the Legislature.”‘

After watching Senator Paul’s speech and becoming intrigued by the Madison line which he referred to, I began searching for the source which his notes did not provide. In my search I encountered dozens of articles citing the line, most attributed to Senator Paul (see here and here). After a thorough search using Google I could not locate the passage in question verbatim until I stumbled upon this reference which narrowed my search down to a letter written to Thomas Jefferson in “c. 1798” (circa 1798).
Pouring another glass of wine, I then headed off to find a digitized version of the works of James Madison which is located at Google Books here. In this volume we find dozens of letters “c. 1798” to Vice President Jefferson including a blistering critique Madison relays about John Adams.

“There never was, perhaps, a greater contrast between two characters than between those of the present President [Washington] and his predecessor; although it is the boast and prop of the present that he treads in the steps of his predecessor. The one, cool, considerate, and cautious; the other, headlong, and kindled into flame by every spark that lights on his passions : the one, ever scrutinizing into the public opinion, and ready to follow, where he could not lead it; the other, insulting it by the most adverse sentiments and pursuits. Washington a hero in the field, yet overweighing every danger in the Cabinet: Adams without a single pretension to the character of a soldier, a perfect Quixote as a statesman. The former chief magistrate pursuing peace every where with sincerity, though mistaking the means: the latter taking as much pains to get into war as the former took to keep out of it.”

When I finally arrived at my destination of Madison’s letter to Thomas Jefferson of 2 April, 1798, I was not disappointed in what I found. You get the sense that Madison knows a very royal and very controversial screw-up is forthcoming from Adams which we now know as The Alien & Sedition Acts. He says: “The revocation of the instructions is a virtual change of the law, and consequently a usurpation by the Executive of a legislative power.”

Madison’s chief concern in this letter is that the separation of powers, ordered by The Constitution is being sacrificed to John Adams’ quest for power and his abuse of the Executive. In the following letter (digitized into plain text for the first time), Nota Bene: Madison’s alarm that the President would actually call out the military without Congress’s authorization which Presidents do today before finishing their poached eggs. For the record, the actual phrase that Senator Paul has been attributing to James Madison is a paraphrase, you will find it in bold below. I hope by posting this letter as written and in context here, the debate Senator Paul has begun will be enhanced.

April 2d, 1798. DEAR Sir,

The President’s message is only a further development to the public of the violent passions and heretical politics which have been long privately known to govern him. It is to be hoped, however, that the H.[ouse] of Rep[resentatives] will not hastily echo them. At least it may be expected that, before war measures are instituted, they will recollect the principle asserted by 62 vs. 87, in the case of the Treaty, and insist on a full communication of the intelligence on which such measures are recommended. The present is a plainer, if it be not a stronger case; and if there it has been sufficient defection to destroy the majority, which was then so great and so decided, it is the worst symptom that has yet appeared in our Councils.

The constitution supposes, what the History of all governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has, accordingly, with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature. But the doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in that Department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready, without cause, to renounce it. For if the opinion of the President, not the facts and proofs themselves, is to sway the judgment of Congress in declaring war; and if the Pres[ident] in the recess of Congress create a foreign mission, appoint the Minister, and negotiate a war Treaty, without the possibility of a check, even from the Senate, until the measures present alternatives overruling the freedom of its judgment; if, again, a Treaty, when made, obliges the Legislature to declare war contrary to its judgment, and, in pursuance of the same doctrine, a law declaring war imposes a like moral obligation to grant the requisite supplies until it be formally repealed with the consent of the P[resident] and Senate, it is evident that the people are cheated out of the best ingredients in their Government, the safeguards of peace, which is the greatest of their blessings. 

I like both your suggestions in the present crisis. Congress ought clearly to prohibit arming, and the President ought to be brought to declare on what ground he undertook to grant an indirect licence to arm. The first instructions were no otherwise legal than as they were in pursuance of the law of nations, and, consequently, in execution of the law of the land. The revocation of the instructions is a virtual change of the law, and consequently a usurpation by the Executive of a legislative power. It will not avail to say that the law of nations leaves this point undecided, and that every nation is free to decide it for itself. If this be the case, the regulation being a Legislative, not an Executive one, belongs to the former, not the latter authority, and comes expressly within the power, “to define the law of nations,” given to Congress by the Constitution. I do not expect, however, that the Constitutional party In the H.[ouse] of Rep[resentatives] is strong enough to do what ought to be done in the present instance.

Your idea, that an adjournment for the purpose of consulting the constituents on the subject of war, is more practicable, because it can be effected by that branch alone, if it pleases, and because an opposition to such a measure will be more striking to the public eye. The expedient is the more desirable, as it will be utterly impossible to call forth the sense of the people generally before the season will be over, especially as the towns, et cetera, where there can be most despatch in such an operation, are on the wrong side; and it is to be feared that a partial expression of the public voice may be misconstrued or miscalled an evidence in favor of the War party. On what do you ground the idea that a declaration of war requires of the Legislature? The force of your remark, however, is not diminished by this mistake; for it remains true, that measures are taking, or may be taken by the Executive, that will end in war, contrary to the wish of the Body which alone can declare it.

Books related to James Madison and the Founding may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis is a revised transcript from The Mike Church Show

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Published: Feb 8, 2013
Author
Mike Church
Mike Church is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He is the host of The Mike Church Show on Sirius Satellite Radio. A radio talk show host, author, filmmaker, and singer/songwriter, he is best known for his fearless ability to skewer liberals and fake conservatives with searing, in‐depth analysis. He was named “The Most Radical Man On The Radio” by “The American Conservative.” He can be heard on Sirius XM Patriot Channel 166 & 14 from 6:00-9:00 a.m. (EST) Monday through Friday.
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1 reply to this post
  1. Good find Mike. That last line is worthy of bold type and paraphrasing for readability:

    "The force of your remark… remains true, that measures… may be taken by the Executive, that will end in war, contrary to the wish of the Body which alone can declare it."

    – Marshall

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