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The Many Hats of Mr. Madison

ISSUE:  Autumn 1996
The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. By Lance Banning. Cornell.$35.

It is a question that puzzled James Madison’s contemporaries, and one that has embarrassed his champions and drawn cries of apostasy from his enemies ever since. How do historians of the American Revolution and the Early Republic reconcile the Madison who spearheaded the creation of a powerful central government in the 1780’s with the Madison who hoisted the banner for states’ rights a mere decade later? How does one explain the man who co-wrote The Federalist with Alexander Hamilton in 1788 and who then, only a few years later, offered the principal challenge to the treasury secretary’s financial system, providing the intellectual and organizational spark for an opposition party? And finally, given these circumstances, how does one explain Madison’s own belief that he was the most intellectually consistent of the Founders?

One begins, as Lance Banning has done, by taking the last claim seriously and exhaustively reexamining Madison’s speeches and writings within their larger historical context. Banning argues compellingly that Madison’s seeming inconsistencies are the result of historians’ interpretations cast in the light of their own time and concerns. This is particularly true of our understanding of the U.S. Constitution, which has privileged the views of Hamilton over those of the Virginian. In conventional accounts, Madison’s fear of majority rule and his obsession with property rights led him to design a powerful national government to be led by an elite insulated from the popular will. Later, inexplicably—perhaps because of personal pique, or political power?—Madison turned his back on his own experiment and launched a counterrevolution that culminated in the Jeffersonian triumph of 1800.

Not so, says Banning, As Madison later wrote in an effort to explain the trajectory of his career, he had not abandoned Alexander Hamilton; rather it was Hamilton who had abandoned him, by forcing new and dangerous constructions on a constitution that had been adopted by the people as the basis of a compound republic of circumscribed powers.

According to Banning’s balanced and nuanced reconsideration, Madison began his national career in the Continental Congress in 1780 as an ardent defender of Virginia’s special interests and not as the nationalist he is so often portrayed. Not only did Madison support centralizing measures with reluctance during the crisis of 1782—83, but his cooperation with Hamilton and Robert Morris “prefigured the confrontation” with the former in the 1790’s. Madison, Banning emphasizes, was a revolutionary who shared the widespread American belief that the British sought to impose their corrupt financial system on the colonies. Thus he advocated certain national measures—support for the army and the union of the states, for example—while opposing the trappings of the British system— rampant speculation and long-term public debt. At no time was he willing to contravene the Articles of Confederation, the constitutional basis of the Union.

It was the inadequacies of the Confederation government in the 1780’s that finally forced Madison to admit that reform was necessary to save the republican revolution. Assaults on private property in the state legislatures in the form of paper money bills, tax abatements, and the like, and the powerlessness of the Confederation in matters of trade regulation threatened to reduce the republican experiment to chaos. In this light, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that Madison helped bring about was less a counterrevolutionary coup than an attempt to save and consolidate republicanism.

Banning is particularly good in assessing Madison’s central role in the convention deliberations, noting that he wore many hats and represented many interests there. He was at once a Virginian, a continentalist, a Southerner, a scholar, a Republican, and a defender of the West. Most important, however, is what Madison learned throughout that Philadelphia summer and how much his thinking changed as the debates wore on. The convention helped him in his struggle to establish an effective government that was based on the will of the people. To Madison the committed revolutionary, there could be no lasting republic that was not equipped with powers to ensure its own survival. In the creation of a compound republic—not “wholly national” and not “purely federal”—Madison found his solution.

Madison’s collaboration with Hamilton on The Federalist tends to obscure the very different sets of assumptions they held. As Banning points out, Hamilton had from his early days in the Continental Congress a vision of national greatness predicated on the establishment of a financial system based on the British model. In his mind the adoption of the U.S.Constitution was merely the first step toward a truly national government.

Madison’s assumptions were very different and in them lay the seeds of their falling out in 1791 and 1792.The Virginian was never a nationalist in the Hamiltonian mold. As a revolutionary, the British system was repugnant to him for its grinding taxes, its swollen corruption and financial speculation, and its punishing debt. As a Republican, he believed that the only way to safeguard the people’s rights—both property and civil—was by dividing state and federal authority into separate spheres that would be strictly limited to enumerated powers. Given those assumptions, it is not a stretch to find the young Madison of the Revolution in the mature Madison of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798.

The Sacred Fire of Liberty is a work of tremendous erudition; an intellectual biography of James Madison that changes and enriches our understanding of the man, his thought, and the part he played in the Founding. While Banning takes issue with nearly everyone who ever wrote a line about Madison, sometimes to add a small point of emphasis, other times to carry an argument in an entirely new direction, he is never harsh. In fact, Banning’s description of Madison’s approach to intellectual problems might justifiably be applied to his own work: “[he was] inherently respectful of the complications of an issue, deeply conscious of the strengths on every side, [and] insistent on conclusions that took complexities into account.” Those are the qualities that produce rich and satisfying history. It is safe to say that any future study of Madison will begin with this insightful and well-argued reinterpretation of the great Virginian’s intellectual legacy.


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