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James Madison

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The essential part of the life-work of James Madison, although he was for two terms President of the United States, lay in the broad studies of organic government which he made when a young man, and the happy use to which he put his valuable knowledge when it came time to bind thirteen jealous and independent States together in a firmer Union than had been secured by the original articles of Confederation devised under the leadership of Samuel Adams. Madison is justly called "the Father of the Constitution." General Washington's thoughts were on war; Franklin, Jefferson and John Adams were busied with foreign relations or domestic statutes. Madison was able to propose a plan which, while it perpetuated slavery, ac least held the free and the slave States together in a manner that protected them from foreign aggression.

It was the singular fortune of the principal framer of the Constitution to soon turn against the original up-holders of his work. Logically, he should have remained a Federalist all his life. When his State became anti-Federalist, he, as the pupil of Jefferson, assumed the active leadership of the forces which Jefferson was able to array against Hamilton, and, later, against John Adams. When it came time, under Jefferson's triumphant doctrine, for the master to step aside, the pupil, as a reward for his fidelity to both prophet and doctrine, was made President. In Madison's second term as President, a not very glorious war was carried on to a not very glorious peace; a Federalist Convention at Hartford took on an appearance very near to Secession, and the Democratic party itself was rent by a schism under Clinton. To the honor of James Madison, we cannot attribute his Constitution-making studies or labors to any cause other than his own genius for useful industry; no other statesman could claim even their suggestion. On these works, his fame as a Patriot Father securely rests.

James Madison was born March 16, 1751, at Port Conway, King George County, Virginia, while his mother was visiting her parents. His father was a planter, and dwelt on the estate called Montpellier, which afterward became the home also of the son, who was the first-born of seven children. James went to a school under the mastership of Donald Robertson, a learned Scotchman. The clergyman of the parish, the Rev. Thomas Martin, of New Jersey, was a member of the Madison family, and as tutor prepared James for Princeton College, to which he was doubtless recommended by the clerical gentleman. James entered Princeton at eighteen, and, by unusual and unhealthy application, compressed the studies of two years into one, taking an extra year in Hebrew. In 1771 he was given the degree of Bachelor of Arts and returned to the Rappahannock River broken in health and crippled in ambition. Theological studies had taken possession of his intellect, and, many years after Patrick Henry had forced the Virginia Resolves on the House of Burgesses, James Madison was more interested in religious controversies than in taxation without representation. In 1774 he wrote to William Bradford, Jr., of Philadelphia:

"But away with politics ! . . That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and, to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such purposes. There are at this time, in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox." "If the Church of England had been the established and general religion in all the northern colonies, as it has been among us here, and uninterrupted harmony had prevailed throughout the continent, it is clear to me that slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us."

He may not at that time have seen that a secular life offered the means of uprooting the evils of bigotry, and as he was but twenty-three years old he had lost little time in monastic broodings. He soon became a member of the Committee of Public Safety for Orange County, and, a year later, its Chairman. But he regarded his election as a delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1776 as his first entrance into public life. Here Jefferson had become the dominating force. Be-side ordering the Virginia delegates in Congress to vote for a Declaration of Independence, the home convention made a Bill of Rights and a Constitution. Into the Bill of Rights Madison entered religious freedom as a "right" and not a "privilege tolerated." He was elected to the first Assembly, but because he did not stand for office in the customary fashion, by "treating" and public solicitation at the market-place, he was defeated for the second Assembly. But already his fame as a learned man—for he could study twenty out of the twenty-four hours, even exceeding Jefferson's assiduousness—had recommended him to the Revolutionists, and they appointed him one of the State Senate, where for two years he took a prominent part, and was then sent as a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation at Philadelphia, where he arrived in 1780. There he found everything out of order for the lack of money. His plan would have been to apportion a levy of supplies upon the people, taking the needed things by force and leaving with the ex-proprietors an interest-bearing certificate. In this way he would stem the tide of a depreciating paper money. He would have suffered at Philadelphia but for the generosity of a patriotic Jew broker named Hayne Solomon, who lent him money and refused to make a business-matter of it, conceiving that Madison's services to the republic were of high value. "The price of money is so usurious," Madison wrote, "that Solomon thinks it ought to be extorted from none but those who aim at profitable speculations." A study of the inherent weakness of Congress, together with the lessons enforced by great personal inconvenience, caused Madison to look further—that is, toward some system of Federation that would cause the States, acting as a whole, to be able to confer on their representatives a respectable authority. He prepared an Address to the States, which was considered unusually able and valuable, asking that Congress be given the power to levy an import duty for the period of twenty-five years. His numerous references, in debate and by writing, to the schemes of government and administration that had found favor in other ages and administrations, drew attention to his learning in that direction, and he soon be-came recognized as an expert in organic law—a talent that daily grew in importance. Never did scholar and politician confront a more complex or unpromising problem. The Confederated States needed $3,000,000 a year, principally for interest on $40,000,000 owed. Through the nerveless arteries of the government as so far instituted, there was a flow of only $500,000 therefore bankruptcy, bad faith, and discredited agencies were matters of every day's experience, with cumulative disasters. As little could be accomplished by one man at Philadelphia, Madison, like Jefferson, determined to at least establish a working democracy in Virginia, and transferred the scene of his labors to the Legislature of that State, where the debt, the currency, slavery, and the commerce of the Chesapeake offered in miniature the questions which must at last come before the Nation, if there were to be one, as a result of the war. With a genius for self-government the Anglo-Saxon people settle questions only when the questions are desperately near, and then with compromises that destroy the symmetry of biography. Thus they escape troubles that never come, which doctrinaires cannot be said to do; but a severe usury is often paid on those troubles which have not been prepared for.

It may be that the solemn young statesman was driven away from Philadelphia by an adventure of mis-prized love. A handsome young woman repudiated the arrangements of her father with Madison, looking to her marriage, and from the tone of Jefferson's consolatory letter to his younger friend, it would seem that the beauty had cruelly ensnared an unwelcome lover's affections.

As a Virginian Madison now set out to give The other colonies examples of submission to the Union. It was here that such proffers must originate, for the Northern States considered that they had more valuable rights to cede, as they were trading communities. The effort to regulate commerce in Virginia, so that it could be taxed without a wasteful number of custom-houses, led to a conference between the Chesapeake States. This conference led to invitations to Delaware and Pennsylvania, and so rapidly did difficulties subside in the presence of men earnest for the general welfare, that it was soon a matter of discernment for a constitutional scholar like Madison to note that a meeting of the thirteen States might be expected to produce a practical compact. He therefore pushed through his own Legislature a call for a trade conference at Annapolis, in September, 1786. Nine States appointed delegates, five States met, and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Address to the States, beyond which action the convention did not deem it prudent to go. But this Address was fertile in good results. It called upon the States to accredit new delegates to a Convention which should meet at Philadelphia in May, 1787, "to devise such further pro-visions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." Virginia was the first to con-form to this request, and General Washington and James Madison were among the delegates. Seven States convened.

Madison had wrought up the trade-port question till the Annapolis convention became feasible. New Jersey made the first broad conveyance of power to her dele-gates, and Hamilton seized the occasion with genius. Had the matter waited but a little longer, the two confederacies of 1861 would have been precipitated in 1787 or thereabouts, for the northern and southern interests were then as well marked as at any time during the existence of slavery. It was this institution that gave to the Union such a complex machinery of government, and it was Madison's mechanical ability that was able to set that machinery in operation.

When the Convention met, the Quakers, with the dying Dr. Franklin for spokesman, presented memorials that demanded the extinction of slavery and expressed the repugnance of free people to a union with bondmen. The slaveholders were by no means unprepared with indignant replies. Nobody had disputed the fact that non-resistant Quakers were a poor reliance in time of war. If the South had its slaves, the North had its Quakers. "We take each other, with our mutual bad habits and respective evils, for better or for worse." The Quaker made up in continuous complaint for what he lacked in pugnacity, and to the fire-eaters of the South was a most unfraternal and undesirable colleague. "These people were meddling with what was none of their business, and exciting the slaves to insurrection. Yet the South had not required the assistance of Congress to exterminate the Quakers."

It cannot be said that Union was possible without the guarantee of slavery. The man (Madison) who made Union feasible was a slaveholder. The man (Jefferson) who was most determined there should be a democracy was also a slaveholder, and, though filled with humane solicitude for the unfortunate race, deemed it beyond the reach of self-government. The Quakers, who were then the insistent foes of slavery, would not on principle resist their own enslavement, believing that force settled no controversy.

How could thirteen sovereign States guarantee to each other an equal performance of duties for the common welfare, and give bond to fulfill the promise? Could they remain in all their equality as States? Manifestly not, and so far as that equality was preserved, the greatest wrong was done, for it might happen that a small State, by its two Senators, would defeat a law that was practically local to a State with ten times the population. Should the slaves be counted as population? If so, then the expenses of government should fall proportionally. But to secure power by population, white or black, and escape taxation by reason of the small white population, appeared to be necessary to the South-ern States. Beside, the authority of seven States did not seem to bestow the needed dignity to the Convention. Could Madison weave out of such warp and woof the web of a sound and powerful Nation? He thought he could do so. Being a slaveholder, and at the same time an organic law student, he set about the work with a will, and was powerfuly aided by two things. There was a man at hand—General Washington—fitted to be the President. There was a coadjutor present in Alexander Hamilton who not only demanded all the central authority that Madison wished to institute, but so much more that he, could he put his plan in operation, would erect an oligarchy of wealthy electors, who would choose a presiding officer with monarchical power over the Senate, the States, and their Governors. By the side of Hamilton's views, the centralization of Madison looked tame indeed, and left most of the liberties of the people untrenched upon. To accomplish this, however, being a slaveholder himself, he found it no less necessary (although personally satisfactory) to make terms with the slaveholding States that were agreeable to them and dis-tasteful to the North. Pinckney, of South Carolina, went home and said to his constituents : "By this settlement we have secured an unlimited importation of negroes for twenty years; nor is it declared that the importation shall be then stopped; it may be continued. We have a security that the general government can never emancipate them, for no such authority is granted. We have obtained a right to recover our slaves in what-ever part of America they may take refuge, which is a right we had not before. In short, considering all circumstances, we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make. We would have made better if we could; but, on the whole, I do not think them bad." It will be seen that what Madison indulgently called compromises were encroachments, but these were made necessary in order to secure majority rule in Congress, against which there was much question. "South Carolina and Georgia," says Madison, "were inflexible on the point of slaves." The Constitution begins with "We, the people." The State's rights advocates thought it ought to begin : "We, the States."

Madison's original plan for a Union was somewhat as follows : A House of Congress wherein the population was represented, rather than the States, with necessary modifications, so that the body should not be un-wieldy and yet each State should have at least one representative; all general laws to be passed by Congress; a comparatively permanent Senate with power to veto all State laws; the Nation to have all the judiciary and troops; a national executive power (not named in de-tail); a ratification of the plan by the people at the polls. Madison deplored the mention of force as a compelling cause. The Convention sat with closed doors till September 17, 1787, and evolved, on the whole, a more democratic instrument than Madison's. , More self-government was left to the States, both in their laws and their judges. The debates, apart from "the peculiar institution," evolved a new fabric, wherein the aristocratic features of the English government were omitted, and the rights of local government carried down as far as the town meeting, which was an adjustment to the New England form. Madison was at first disappointed—no better pleased than Hamilton. A little later, when he learned that Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams were almost up in arms against the compact, and that General Washington looked to him to support the Federalist contest in Virginia, he became ardent in his support, and asserted, in echo of General Washington's belief, that it would be the only opportunity offered to sign a Constitution other than in blood. When the Convention met in Virginia Patrick Henry made the only struggle in which he ever met defeat, and Madison led the Federalists. Brissot, a great French Girondist, leader of that party, who saw Madison then, describes him as eloquent and logical, but tired in manner. "His look announces a censor; his conversation discovers the man of learning; and his reserve is that of a man conscious of his talents and of his duties." Patrick Henry revenged himself on Madison by preventing his election to the new United States Senate, and gerrymandered the Congressional districts so that Madison was elected only after a struggle, freezing his ears in the campaign over a "shoestring district." It is a freak of fortune that "gerrymandering" is named for Gerry, who deplored it, and not after Henry, who invented it. During the years that the new Constitution was under fire, Madison joined with Hamilton and Jay in newspaper essays supporting the instrument, which finally were printed in a book called the Federalist. When Madison came in opposition to Patrick Henry, he separated himself from popular favor, a fact of which he seems to have been deeply sensible, for as soon as the Constitution was safely adopted, he made rapidly over to the side of the question generally taken in Virginia, and in the House of Congress became the leader of the anti-Federalists against the national bank, assumption, and the method of paying the outstanding obligations of the confederacy. He prepared the first ten amendments to the Constitution, making that instrument tolerable to Pat-rick Henry. He offered twelve, but two failed of adoption by the States. In the matters that may be familiarly expressed as the case of the soldier vs. the speculator, he believed in paying the soldier, but events threw the money into the hands of the speculator despite his most earnest efforts to be more just. Mr. Gay in his "Life of Madison" says : "That the loss should remain chiefly with the soldiers of the Revolution, and the gain fall chiefly to those who were shrewd enough, or had the means to speculate in the public funds, was a lamentable fact; but to discriminate between them was not within the right of the Government. That he would have had it discriminate was creditable to Madison's heart; it was rather less creditable to his head." We are ready to aver in confutation of this criticism, that what is creditable to the heart is the best law, and that there is no just law not founded on plain common sense. The men who should have been cheated last, where cheating was thought to be necessary, were the soldiers, by whose blood and courage the Nation sprang into being. The men whose reward should have been most economically bestowed were those who had exemplified only the baser emotions of greed and the ignoble arts of cunning. We honor James Madison for his stand, though he had to change parties to get on that side of the controversy.

For ten years after the making of the Constitution the history of Madison is essentially like that of Jefferson—active hostility to everything advocated or done by Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, with a slowly growing body of representatives in Congress coming in touch with him and resenting the means by which the Treasury measures were carried through the Houses. Hamilton wrote to Carrington : "I am convinced that Madison, coöperating with Mr. Jefferson, is at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and actuated by views, in my judgment, subversive of the principles of good government, and dangerous to the union, peace, and happiness of the country." As the newspaper war waxed wordy, both Hamilton and Madison entered the lists, and Freneau's paper was hated by the Federalists as if it were the organ of Satan. In 1793, Giles, of Virginia, moved a House attack on Hamilton, demanding an investigation, but the resolutions, still in the archives twenty-five years later, were in Madison's hand. Madison and Jefferson took a journey together to New York, and, both being farmers, the Federalists said they went "sowing tares." Fisher Ames wrote : "Madison is become a desperate party leader, and I am not sure of his stopping at any ordinary point of extremity." But Hamilton, too, was a foe to beware of. To cripple the French interests and anger France, he refused to pay American debts to the de facto Government. If the Federalists must have war, they wished to have it with France; if the Democrats must have war, they could see no patriotic reason why it should not be with England. These feelings engendered bitter personal hatreds. When the President made the ignoble treaty with England—the best terms England would vouchsafe—the Democrats in the House strove to coerce him into its nullification, but failed. "The progress of this business throughout," Madison wrote to Jefferson, "has been to me the most worrying and vexatious that I ever encountered." The reception of James Monroe at Paris was a crumb of comfort, but his recall and attempted disgrace by the Federalists increased the hostility of the Democrats to-ward the circle toward whom General Washington leaned for advice. Madison left the House when Gen-eral Washington laid down the Presidency. He was the acknowledged leader of a rapidly-growing party of opposition. About this time he married a widow, Dorothea Payne Todd (the daughter of a Quaker), who was only twenty-six. She became the "Dolly Madison" celebrated in the annals of the White House, as one of the most famous of its mistresses. She survived her husband thirteen years, and her bust, after she had arrived at more than mature years, is familiar in the engravings of today. Mr. Madison built a new house at Montpellier, and Jefferson and Monroe personally aided him in getting things set to rights.

When John Adams had become well-enmeshed in unpopularity, by the passage of the Alien and Sedition laws, Jefferson and Madison let loose the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Madison wrote the protest of Virginia, which declared that these laws were an infraction of the Constitution—a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of unwarranted power; that Virginia declared these laws utterly null, void, and of no effect, and invited other States to join her in this action." This action returned to plague him in the days of Calhoun's nullification, for the South Carolinians could see no difference in the conditions.

When Jefferson became President he at once called Madison to be Secretary of State, and here the lieutenant passed eight cheerful and easy years, safe under the shadow of a master, with an increasing popularity registering on all political doctrines for which he stood. He continued to write, his most important paper being the mistily-named "Examination of the British Doctrine which subjects to capture a neutral trade not open in time of peace." Napoleon's decrees of Berlin and Milan, denying to all other nations the right to buy English goods, and England's rigorous exercise of her assumed right of search on our vessels, gave Jefferson plenty of food for fire-eaters. But of this the wise man partook sparingly, leaving the feast of glory to his pupil, who, in 1809, was made, in Randolph's phrase, "the second King of the second dynasty," becoming fourth President of the United States by a large majority. Madison, as President, induced Erskine, English Minister, to agree to a fair treaty that was at once repudiated at London. The anti-English party that had followed Jefferson docilely began to push its own course upon Madison, and, as the price of reelection, he was forced to declare war on Great Britain, a. course amply justified by all considerations save the one of prudence, which had alone withheld Jefferson.

The War of 1812 developed the fact that Madison was a poor war-President. Hostilities began on the Canadian frontier; Detroit was surrendered and Michigan lost; Buffalo was burned. In August, 1814, Admiral Cockburn landed at Washington and burned some part of it, chasing the President and Dolly Madison away from a fine dinner, served hot and smoking. Ben Harrison retrieved Michigan and General Jackson chased the British out of New Orleans, with a glorious battle, after the treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent, whereby the honor of American arms might, on the whole, be held to be undimmed; but peace to America came only as an incident in the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and all the wrongs remained unredressed, and all the arrogations of the English unquestioned. Our peace commissioners were instructed to say nothing whatever of the right of search.

An ugly episode of the war had been the secret Federalist Hartford Convention, called to protest against hostilities, whose members were ever afterward visited with popular contempt. The peace came at a moment that painfully revealed their poltroonery.

In April, 1817, a new national bank, with a capital of $35,000,000, only one-fifth owned by the Govern-ment, was chartered. A slightly protective tariff was placed on the statute-book. Thus by these whirligigs of politics, the Federalists might now bewail the "corrupt squadrons" and the Treasury power as gloomily (but not so eloquently, because they had no Jefferson) as when in former years the master of Monticello wrote letters to him of Montpellier. In less than twenty years the Democratic party was doing precisely those things which it had most abhorred in Alexander Hamilton. If he were right, they at least became the patient if somewhat heavy imitators of his genius. The fortunate ending of an unwise war gave to the closing years of Mr. Madison's Administration a relief from partisan rancor and more serious disturbance. He retired to Montpellier in 1817, and the succession was given to James Monroe, according to the plans of Thomas Jefferson, entered on years before. Josiah Quincy called Madison and Monroe James I and James II.

For nearly twenty years Mr. Madison lived in high honor at Montpellier, a planter who lost interest in neither history nor government. He was justly considered as the only great authority on the Constitution, and succeeding statesmen strove, with his interpretation of its meaning, to keep within the scope of its provisions. In retirement the great stores of his learning came into play to sustain his reputation as the chief of the original fathers surviving. His private character was spotless. His manner, somewhat severe in youth, seems to have softened with continued success, and he became a fine story-teller. In courteous personal treatment of political adversaries he excelled. "I never," says Paul Jennings, his slave and body-servant, "saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, though he had over a hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it." He never even rebuked a slave before others. "I do not think he drank a quart of brandy in his whole life. He took a single glass of Madeira at dinner, but during the last fifteen years of his life he did not touch intoxicating liquors." He was an advocate of greater opportunities and rights for women, and an effective friend of public education. On his dying bed he exhibited the good nature which had been the most admirable characteristic of his maturer years and punned on the word "lie" as he sank weakly back upon his pillow. The whole Nation mourned in his last days, and he died full of honors June 28, 1836, and was buried at Montpellier. "Mr. Madison," said the faithful slave who attended him, "was, I think, one of the best men who ever lived."

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