Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

James Madison: father of ... government gridlock

October 10, 2011 by Richard Brookhiser


Editor’s Note: Richard Brookhiser discussed his new book on James Madison at the National Constitution Center October 11th. To hear a podcast of the program, click the play button below. [audio:]

James Madison, fourth president, is better known as the Father of the Constitution—a title that Philadelphians especially should know. In Signers’ Hall at the National Constitution Center, the bronze Madison stands, all five feet of him, at the right hand of George Washington as he presides over the signing of the document.

James Madison (Wikimedia Commons)

But Madison had another child, which everyone in America knows as the presidential election cycle swings into the Iowa/New Hampshire madhouse. Madison was the Father of Politics. He invented many of the political institutions we live with, and foresaw the shape of things to come more clearly than any of his fellow founders.

Madison’s constitutional role came first. Son of a Virginia planter, he spent the Revolutionary War and its aftermath in state and national government, where he had first-hand experience of failure and dysfunction. In 1786, he maneuvered a conference on interstate commerce in Annapolis, Maryland, into a call for a Constitutional Convention. When the convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison attended every session, from May to September, speaking more than almost anyone else, and keeping notes of every motion and speech.

After the Constitution went before the states for approval, he led the fight for ratification in Virginia, then the nation’s largest state, and was a key player in New York, where he wrote a series of pro-Constitution op-eds for the local newspapers, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay; today it is known as The Federalist Papers. In 1789, Madison, now a congressman, shepherded the Bill of Rights through the House.

Madison was more than just busy—he was intellectually creative. Most republics throughout history had been city states, and theorists argued that citizen oversight could work only in small communities. If that was true, it was bad news for the United States, which already stretched from Maine to Georgia. In Federalist #10, Madison made a new argument: republican government would be more stable in a big country, because selfish factions would find it harder to seize power over an “extend[ed] sphere.”

The new Constitution was an elaborate contraption, with a president, a judiciary, and two houses of Congress, all coexisting with thirteen states. In Federalist #51, Madison embraced the gridlock. The “interior structure” of the government ensured that the different branches would “keep…each other in their proper places.” Ambitious men would always seek to amass power; that was human nature. But under the Constitution “ambition” would “counteract ambition.”

Madison’s contributions to politics began in the early 1790s. The Constitution was up and running, and Madison and his friends were running the show: Washington was president, Hamilton was Treasury Secretary and Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State. They began to fall out, however, over Hamilton’s financial program.

The details aren’t important here—Hamilton thought he was building American prosperity; Madison thought he was enriching his banker cronies. What is important is what Madison did to fight him.

In Federalist #51, Madison embraced the gridlock.

Madison and Jefferson together created the first modern political party. In the summer of 1791 they took a trip to New York and New England, supposedly to relax, actually to touch base with northerners who disliked Hamilton as much as they did. The next year, Madison christened the new alliance the Republican Party. Forty years later, it changed its name to the Democratic Party; the modern GOP is a separate organization.

Madison also helped found the first partisan newspaper, the National Gazette. He found the editor—a former college classmate of his, Philip Freneau. Jefferson gave him a nominal job at the State Department; in his free time, Freneau thwacked Hamilton and Washington (who called him “that rascal Freneau”). Journals of opinion, political bloggers and TV yakkers all descend from him.

Madison’s wife, Dolley, became the first political wife. A stylish extrovert, she compensated for her husband’s shyness. As one senator wrote, Madison could make a “generous display” of DC dinner parties because he had “a wife to aid in his pretensions.”

Madison the theorist justified what Madison the pol was doing. A big country and a complex government, he decided, were not sufficient obstacles to the Hamiltons of this world. Public opinion had to be mobilized to stop them. “Every good citizen” had to become “a sentinel over the rights of the people.” The people did not just rule at the ballot box on election day; they had to be consulted at all times.

Madison’s world has its problems. Consultation blends seamlessly into manipulation. Lobbyists and pressure groups pitch in. As media proliferates, the national conversation metastasizes, from newspaper essays to the 24/7 shoutfests of today.

Madison would take it all in stride. The Constitution is the rules, politics is the game. Wherever we look, high or low, we can see Madison’s fingerprints.

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review. His newest book is James Madison (Basic Books, 2011). This essay appeared Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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