“A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.”
—James Freeman Clarke
James Madison was not “The Father of the Constitution.” I know you were probably taught that in school. I myself am guilty of having foisted that old truism of the history classroom off on countless sullen but gullible undergraduates. That comes of my believing what I was told, until firsthand investigation and reflection taught me better. What Madison is the father of is every trimming and time-serving politician who ever played the middle against both ends, obscured the real issues with verbiage, and bent the Constitution to fit his own abstract conceptions of government.
All of Madison’s prominence was owed to three factors—an over-facile pen; his family connections and friendship with Jefferson; and his staying power (though he considered himself too frail to take part in the War of Independence in his 20’s, he lived to be 85, being the last surviving member of the Philadelphia Convention and leaving the most extensive notes of the proceedings of that closed-door affair).
Far from being the prominent member of the Convention that he portrayed himself to be, having pushed himself in by means of his father’s great holdings in one part of Virginia, he found his overly grandiose and overly abstract schemes swiftly shunted aside by more experienced and sensible men. (M.E. Bradford has given a good account of this in “The Great Convention as Comic Action.”) His role in securing ratification in Virginia has often been exaggerated, as has the influence, at the time, of The Federalist Papers. (As if such men as General Washington and John Marshall needed the help of little Jimmy Madison in securing approval of the Constitution!)
His election as President rested not on any merit or popularity of his own, but simply on his friendship with Jefferson, by which he managed by a narrow margin to win precedence over Monroe, a far better man though not as artful a dodger. Madison left the Presidency having failed as an executive, as a party leader, and as a national symbol. His large reputation in history is mostly a creation of much later times—the New Deal era especially—when politicians have found his ambiguous and protean Constitution amenable to their purposes.
Madison was not in any sense a great thinker. In Jefferson’s letters and writings we can find hundreds of quotable and striking thoughts; in all of Madison’s vast squibblings, very little. Of all the Founding Fathers, he, because of his superficiality, lends himself the most readily to modernization and liberalization. That is why he is called “The Father of the Constitution.”
Throughout his life, as is amply documented here though to a different import than I am placing on it, he did all in his power to prevent issues from being clarified and settled, which is the classic attitude of the politician as opposed to the statesman. First allied with Hamilton in the attempt to secure a strongly centralized government, he shifted to an alliance with Jefferson to the opposite end. In his later years, which are covered by this book, during the nullification crisis he secretly played both sides for all they were worth. First, he denied that the interposition of South Carolina against the tariff was the same thing as had been initiated (if not consummated) by Virginia and Kentucky in 1798-99, which was a falsehood. (In response Jefferson’s son-in-law produced the original draft of the Kentucky Resolutions in Jefferson’s hand, which was an even stronger assertion of state sovereignty than what was actually adopted.) Madison attacked nullification for going too far, and then he attacked its opponents for going too far the other way. This might be considered, as it is by Professor McCoy, to be a noble pursuit of “balance” among viewpoints. It might also be considered lying and cowardice.
There were in the early Republic only two honest positions to take. One was to side with Hamilton, Marshall, and Webster in the pursuit of a vigorous centralized government. The other choice was to follow Jefferson, John Taylor, and Calhoun in defending the agrarian republic. Congressional sovereignty versus state sovereignty; a commercial progressive society versus an agrarian one. (There was no question that the overwhelming majority of people preferred the Jeffersonian version at first, if not later.) Both these positions were forthright and patriotic, involving a sincere vision of the future of America.
Madison’s response—exactly that of the vile cunning politician and the timid scholar in any situation—was to take both positions at once: divided sovereignty, whatever that is, and a “balance” of interests. He was followed in this by a host of cunning politicians, especially Martin Van Buren, the real architect of modern American democracy (and not his unwitting cover, Andrew Jackson). The practical result was to confuse the issues hopelessly, to prevent their clarification and peaceful solution, and to render the national discourse forever into a deceitful game that avoided real issues.
Since Madison’s later career was spent on the Jeffersonian side, he did the most extensive damage to that side—by professing to uphold its principles while constantly cutting the ground from under them. His role in the slavery controversy was the same. He condemned slavery in principle, and also condemned its opposite, antislavery.
I should make it clear that I am conveying my view of Madison, not Professor McCoy’s. He is a good deal more scholarly, sympathetic, and temperate in his evaluation than I am, though he is certainly aware, and explores in detail and with insight, some of the ambiguities I have mentioned.
This book deals with Madison’s later years (he left the White House in 1817 and lived until 1836) and with certain of his disciples of the next generation, whose careers and ideas are traced up to the Civil War and beyond. Thus the book is not about the early Republic, but is a study of antebellum America and particularly of the slavery issue, which Madison and his heirs failed totally to cope with. This middle period of American history is in many ways the most important and the least understood part of our past, and this book is an honest, original, and penetrating look at some aspects of it.
One of the most interesting unasked questions in American history is what happened to Virginia after its central and premier role in the Revolution and the early Republic. It retained for a long time its prestige, and any significant Virginia politician was ipso facto a national figure, but after Monroe it failed to make any creative or even important contribution to our political history. This was something that Calhoun often pointed out: if Virginia would only get its act together and take its proper place at the head of the Union, most problems could be solved. McCoy does not answer the question “why not” fully, but he asks it and contributes to its answer.
There are several reasons why most American historians have not asked the question. One is that they lack sufficient historical imagination for it to have occurred to them. A more important reason is that modern Americans are simply emotionally incapable of recognizing the fact that a preponderance of their great Founders and early leaders were, in their primary social identity. Southern slaveholders. Thus they are condemned always to puerile and superficial misunderstandings of their own history. For some reason it is easier to put this fact out of mind in dealing with the early period than with the antebellum period, although, in fact, slavery was quite as salient in American life in 1787, if not more so, than in 1860. McCoy is too good a historian to avoid the hard issues, however.
Madison spent his entire life as a slaveholder, and a major one, although like Jefferson and some other—though not all—of the Southern leaders of the early Republic, he was theoretically opposed to it. He was never able, and, McCoy suggests, not really willing, to do anything about it, which, obviously, was a great tragedy. Much of the book is concerned with three followers of Madison in the next generation who also failed to make much headway: Edward Coles, Nicholas P. Trist, and William Cabell Rives. Thus we have an intimate firsthand view of the Madisonian legacy in the immediate post-Madisonian period.
All three of these figures were Virginians of the planter class. Coles moved to Illinois, emancipated his slaves, and played an important part in averting the real possibility of slavery being introduced legally into Illinois. Thereafter he became increasingly bitter and marginalized. Having, he thought, attempted to implement the Madisonian desire for emancipation, he found Madison to be, in fact, restraining and rather lukewarm.
Nicholas P. Trist, another emigre Virginian, was an intellectual dilettante who spent most of his life in minor patronage positions in the federal government. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to apply “Madisonian” principles of balance to the seam-splitting, unruly America of the Jacksonian and antebellum eras, but only succeeded in being ineffectual and irrelevant.
The most important, but least interesting, of the three junior Madisonians was Rives, who was off and on Senator from Virginia as well as U.S. Minister to France, Madison’s official biographer, and probably as famous a figure in his own time as Calhoun, Clay, or Webster. Rives played the perfect Madisonian role in national politics. He was definitely for state rights, but nullification was going too far. The South was definitely justified in rebutting outside interference with slavery, but it was not justified in actually defending slavery. When the question was national bank or no national bank, Rives supported a sort of seminational bank.
Having spent his entire career working, with considerable success, to disrupt Calhoun’s efforts to clarify the issues to their fundamentals and unite the South, he ended—too late by his own standards—in the 1860’s exactly where Calhoun had been decades before: as a member of the Confederate Congress. It was a career of total foolishness and failure.
What is most valuable in Professor McCoy’s work is his exploration of all the gradations of opinion and reaction of Madison and his three disciples as they attempted to apply their version of the Founding principles to new times and new forces. These were not few and simple views and responses but many and complex ones, as McCoy makes clear in his sophisticated exposition, and they were concerned with such fundamental matters as executive versus legislative power, or state versus central authority; with traditional principles of political economy confronted by new conditions; and with the issue of slavery and the position of the black minority in American society.
The bottom line is an indication of failure. McCoy, like any good modern, sees this failure as a sign of moral weakness in Madison and in men like him who did not follow through on their professed antislavery views by becoming abolitionists and egalitarians. In a sense, this is an unhistorical reading of the period, because freeing the black people was simply not as important a priority to Madison as it now seems to us, nor was it ever conceivable for him to adopt the modern role of Olympian reformer or to forward emancipation without riding roughshod over all the principles of government that he held sacred.
[The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy, by Drew R. McCoy (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press) 386 pp., $29.95]