After more than two centuries, this may be Mr. Madison's year.
Smithsonian, September 1987

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But for reasons both fateful and frivolous, the Father of the Constitution is still a man hard to know, and harder to lionize. One reason for that is Madison's shocking (to the Federalists) change of heart and mind in the late 1790s, from being a powerful and eloquent supporter of strong federal government to becoming Thomas Jefferson's brilliant parliamentary catspaw in the fight to defeat the Federalists (Washington, Adams, Hamilton) in the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson's victory, which he largely owed to Madison, was a triumph for farmers and slave owners in the south over city men in the northeast, as well as for states rights which would eventually pave the way to secession and the Civil War.

Wearing characteristically somber dress and look, Madison sat for 1804 portrait by Gilbert Stuart.


ON THE SHELF of national memory where the early heroes stand, Washington stands tallest. The Father of his Country. The man who almost through an act of personal will kept us from losing the Revolution until we won it. We have a fair sense of him in flesh and blood, too - that careful farmer whose fields sloped to the Potomac, a husband with bad teeth, eternally married to hospitable yet frumpish Martha.

The same is true of Jefferson. The Apostle of Liberty. History's copywriter for the Declaration of Independence. A benign demagogue whose name is still invoked to sanctify almost anything liberals passionately believe in. Tall, freckled, philosophical, attractively feckless in his dress, he loved the fiddle, keeping lists, gardening at Monticello.

This year has dramatized a much-remarked historic irony, though. James Madison, the Virginian known as the Father of the Constitution, the man whom his friend Jefferson once called the "greatest man in the world," remains a comparative stranger to us.

This certainly ought to be Mr. Madison's Year. But the man's life was his politics, and even politically he is a curious figure, easy to admire, hard to lionize. It is clear, however, that Madison is the best one-man history lesson we have on the contrary priorities and passions that tormented the new Republic: how to work out the proper care and feeding of the world's first working democracy; how to preserve a stable Union and the evolving ideal of Liberty in a country angrily divided and full of slaves. Madison was the man who more than any other worked out the basic concept of balanced government that let the Union be born in the first place. Then, his pen practically smoking with pragmatism and political insight, he dashed off 29 of the 85 Federalist Papers to help get the document ratified. Such achievements were only the beginning of a career that would include creating (pretty well single-handed) America's first purely political party, serving eight years as Jefferson's Secretary of State and two trying terms as the President of the United States.

Yet for most Americans today, the best-known fact of James Madison's life was his marriage to a fair, buxom widow named Dolley Payne Todd. 

In a sense Madison wanted it that way. He was an excruciatingly shy man who addressed his father in letters all his life as "Honored Sir," and went to considerable lengths to see that - in life as in death - his private history would stay private. In 1783, at age 32, still a representative in the Continental Congress, he became engaged to pretty, 16-year-old Kitty Floyd, a New York politician's daughter. They exchanged miniature portraits, but just when he was planning a journey to Princeton to get married, Kitty jilted him. Madison tried to scratch out all written record of the event. A surviving brief reference in a letter to his lifelong friend Jefferson bears the mark of Madison's modesty and introverted style. " ... the necessity of my visiting ... New Jersey no longer exists," he wrote. "It would be improper by this communication to send particular explanations, and perhaps needless to trouble you with them at any time."

Madison was, and still is, hopelessly upstaged by the people with whom he has to compete for a place in the hearts of his countrymen. Starting, of course, with Dolley herself. From the moment in 1794 when she enters the pages of history in a girlish note dashed off to her friend Eliza announcing that the "great little Madison has asked to be brought to see me this evening," Dolley was one of those figures who today would keep winding up on the cover of People magazine. She was an ex-Quaker, thrown out of her Meeting for being married to Madison outside the Society of Friends. She was an unabashed lover of parties. She "rouged" and wore amazing hats. If there had been T-shirts labeled BORN TO SHOP in the early 1800s, she would have bought one. In Washington, at a time when the United States was regarded by Europeans as a country of bumpkins, she swiftly became a world-class hostess. Just the sight of Mrs. Madison's stately decolletage at White House gatherings kept some ambassadors from regarding miasmal Washington as a hardship post.

She could even turn a disaster to good account.  Everyone knows how, when the British took Washington in August 1814, at a time when Madison was riding hither and yon trying to find out what was happening, brave Dolley whisked the White House silver and a famous portrait of George Washington right out from under their invading noses. Americans still tend to remember the burning of the nation's capital mainly through Dolley's exploit.

Where image is concerned, vis-à-vis men like stalwart Washington and eloquent Jefferson, the fates were cruel to Madison. At least in the kind of quasi­caricature that usually creates a public image, he bore a striking resemblance to what teenagers now call a nerd. He was frail, and perhaps no more than five feet two. Dolley was five feet six and even in low shoes she seemed to tower over him. On first acquaintance, and always with strangers, Madison struck people as "a small man quite devoid of dignity." One visitor compared him to a country schoolmaster "in mourning for one of his pupils whom he had whipped to death." He dressed in black and he was so highminded, at least early on, that he lost an election because he refused to encourage the "corrupting influence of spirituous liquors" by doing what every other candidate did - serve strong drink at the polls.

Madison's voice could hardly be heard from a podium. Even at his own first Inaugural in 1809, he "trembled excessively" when he started to speak. Though often matchless for logic and lucidity, his prose rarely rose to anything like a verbal cadenza. One of his few quotable quotes was "If men were angels no government would be necessary," and even that lacked music.

Life can be very different for very small men. In 1775, as the Revolution loomed, Madison joined the local militia. But in youth he had suffered some sort of epilepsy, which made him a lifelong hypochondriac, prone to biliousness and fearful that he might die early. During the first military drill, feeling dizzy from the sun, he had to withdraw.

Friends amply attest to Madison's extraordinary warmth and graceful wit in private. A guest at Montpelier, his 3,000-acre family plantation in Virginia, after describing streams of anecdote and epigram with which for hours Madison regaled a party, added sadly, "And this entertaining, interesting and communicative personage, had a single stranger or indifferent person been present, would have been mute, cold and repulsive." Madison never did grow easy in a crowd. On the night of his first Inauguration, March 4, 1809, just before a state supper, as the resplendent Dolley was dealing with well-wishers, Madison confided to a society matron, "I would much rather be in bed."

Yet shyness and all, Madison had qualities that commanded attention. It wasn't just that he'd read everything (if need be in the original French, Greek, Latin or Hebrew). It was not even that he was a demon for work. He churned through Princeton in two years, working himself into a state of near exhaustion. Then, starting in 1772, he spent an extra term as a graduate student. He disdained life as a plantation owner, he told a friend, because of slavery. He was not religious enough for the ministry and he found the law too "coarse and dry." It was typical of him that in 1780, back in Montpelier and preparing to become his state's representative to the debt-ridden Continental Congress, he holed up for weeks, reading history and economics all day. The experts were wrong, he decided. The value of paper money did not, as they said, depend on how much of it was in circulation, but rather on public confidence in the issuing authority. Once in Philadelphia he urged the other state delegates to give Congress the power not just to print paper money but to tax the states to pay for the war.

Nothing useful came of it except that Madison, completely out of patience with states' rights, became an arch-nationalist. By 1787 he had taken the lead in trying to invest power in a refurbished national government under a new constitution. Given his own constitution, heroic may not be too strong a word to describe the months of study, letter writing and lobbying that Madison put into preparation for the Constitutional Convention and the Virginia Plan that provided its main agenda. In actual debate he showed, as another delegate put it, the "most correct knowledge of [the affairs of the United States] of any man in the Union." Always cogent, always to the point, he spoke more than 200 times. For four months of the Convention he took those famous notes of what happened, meticulously copying them each night, often so tired he could hardly make his pen move across the page.

What really set Madison apart, though, was the ability to take a problem in government, no matter how complicated, examine it in the light of history, experience, common sense and some idea of what might justly be done, and then, lucidly, even-handedly explain it better than anyone else could. The most appropriate compliment ever given him was wrung from one of his political enemies, Chief Justice John Marshall. If eloquence included the unadorned power of reasoned persuasion, Marshall wrote, Madison was the "most eloquent man I ever heard."

He was first noticed in 1776 as a 25-year-old delegate to the Virginia convention. When drafting a bill of rights, George Mason proposed the "fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion," but the young man from Orange County disagreed. Disestablishment was not enough, he held. Tolerance was not even enough. It implied that some religion or government was in a position to be tolerant. "All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of [religion] according to the dictates of Conscience," he wrote, and that ideal, clearly stated, and steadily applied, helped make liberty of conscience a substantive right in America. It also led to the Separation of Church and State clause, written by Madison, in the First Amendment.

The notion that there is safety in balanced numbers lay at the heart of Madison's political philosophy, as the dubious delegates at the 1787 Convention heard when Madison explained how a republic based on democratic principles with a strong federal government and a system of checks and balances could work (unlike past republics) in so vast and various a land as America. Today we tend to see democracy as an inevitable winner, virtuous and workable, despite its inefficiency the best system ever conceived to insure order and to provide for the peaceful transfer of power, while keeping tyranny at bay. In 1787 pure democracy was in the doghouse. The few previous attempts at self-government had proved drastically unstable, inclined to give way to the tyranny of the many or the usurping few. Madison offered an alternative.

As a child of the Age of Reason, Madison believed passionately that men - by which he meant property­owning, job-holding men - can govern themselves. He reckoned America was the place to prove it once and for all. As a practical student of history and human nature, Madison knew that men are unreliable. "It is in vain," he wrote, "to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust their interests. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm." Political man is given to forming factions. But why not build a stable government out of the very forces that threaten stability? In his celebrated phrase: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

Given enough free play among the conflicting political factions, the forces of self-interest would balance out. Under such a Federal system, though, to get anything done, the government should have a considerable amount of power.

And so, with notable help from Madison, it did. He worked for a central government that would energetically exercise its powers. Levying taxes, creating credit and a sound currency, paying off the war debt, dealing with national defense, it would establish the United States as a legitimate, sovereign nation. "Let the national government be armed with positive and complete authority," he had written, an attitude that frightened the small states half to death. The real danger to the Republic, he said, would be the interference with the Executive by the Congress.

But then an astonishing change took place in Madison. In one of the great political turnabouts in American history, this moderate man, this apostle of federal power, began to attack federal power and the very men who had helped him bring the Constitution into existence, establishing the new government. He began to fight their policies tooth and nail. The government's plans to do such things as create an army and a navy and establish a national bank, he insisted, were contrary to the Constitution, put forward by "monarchists" and "usurpers" merely to get more power for themselves and the "monied interests." To foil their plots, he helped create something he had always said he hated, a purely partisan political organization - America's first honest-to-God political party.

States' rights and strict construction

"The Republican party as it may be termed," Madison said, describing the new opposition, which was originally called "Mr. Madison's Party." Why? Because it would be based on austere republican standards and policies. These Republicans were to be for a largely agrarian economy. Low levels of federal spending. Almost no taxes and therefore almost no army or navy. States' rights. Strict construction as regards the Constitution. A government, in short, that would show itself best by governing least.

Madison apologists insist that he was only being consistent. He had feared that one faction would dominate the government and when, despite all those checks and balances, the city-living merchants, incipient monarchists and stockjobbers swiftly did so, he was duty-bound to create a counterforce. Others say that he read history wrong, that the Union grew strong and the country prospered for the most part because the very machinery of government that Republicans preached against kept on working.

Much of the Republican platform has a familiar Jeffersonian ring to it and wound up as part of what became "Jeffersonian democracy." In setting up the new party Madison was clearly furthering the political ambitions of his lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was the star of the duo, of course. He was also Madison's French connection, something that in the long run proved a source of public woe. From 1785 until 1789, while Madison was wrestling with the Continental Congress and the Constitution, Jefferson was the American Minister in Paris. He sent Madison news, books, new gadgets like phosphorescent matches that had to be kept in a vacuum until they were ignited. Madison filled him in about politics and the Virginia crops, and sometimes measured a weasel or possum, sending the dimensions to Paris so Jefferson could refute theories of the great French naturalist Buffon, who insisted that North American animals were smaller than their French counterparts.

Initially the two men disagreed about federal power. To Madison, power was essential to republican government. But Jefferson had spent time in a repressive, tradition-bound monarchy and then watched the start of a revolution which, characteristically, he judged more on the basis of its words (resounding and egalitarian) than its deeds (often bloody and self­defeating). To him, government power was tyranny.

After Jefferson returned to America he became Washington's Secretary of State. He got into a bitter, losing contest with the gifted Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, over who would be Washington's right-hand man. It was about then that the split between Madison and his former Federalist allies began, and it occurred over Hamilton's extensive plans for strengthening the national government and the nation's credit. Madison called Hamilton's blueprint for a national bank unconstitutional. He attacked a plan for assuming state war debts as unfair.

As the fight went on it was exacerbated by the Republicans, who whipped up a popular frenzy in support of Revolutionary France, as well as by French efforts to meddle in American affairs in hopes of drawing the country into an alliance against England. All through the 1790s charges of treason, calumny and "apostasy from the principles of our Revolution" filled the air and the newspapers. When Washington made neutrality America's policy, Madison swallowed hard. Washington he could not attack, but he lumped the Anglophile Hamilton with the British as an enemy of France, declaring that France's enemies "are in fact the enemies of human nature."

In retrospect, charges that President John Adams and Hamilton were planning to scrap the Constitution, betray the Republic and impose a monarchy do not seem even faintly justified. But a time came in 1798 when Adams, outraged at French intrigue and Republican vituperation, signed into law the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, outlawing "false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government."

Madison and Jefferson, shocked at this threat to freedom of speech, secretly collaborated on a counter­attack, respectively writing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which declared that individual states had the right to reject federal laws they saw as unconstitutional. The Acts soon expired or were repealed.

By 1801 the Republican party had brought Jefferson to power as President, with Madison his Secretary of State. (His staff consisted of eight clerks and a messenger, but at the time the whole United States government numbered only 130 men.) And now, apparently still mesmerized by Jefferson's faiblesse for all things French, and full of anger against the British navy, which was blockading the continent and kidnapping American seamen, Madison's judgment failed him. He got it into his head that England could be controlled through economic sanctions. As Secretary of State, he railed against the British and finally, through the Embargo Act of 1807, the whole of American shipping was locked up, partly as economic punishment against Britain, partly to keep the nation out of war. America's economy promptly sank, and in 1812, as President, Madison had to go to war anyway.

He wasn't any kind of a war leader. When he called for conscription, Congress, well drilled in Republican principles, jeered and refused, with shouts of "tyranny." Fortunately, the British were fighting a far­flung war with Napoleon, a real tyrant, and when they beat him in 1814, they had no need to stop American ships - or fight the Americans a moment longer.

Madison was never much for admitting mistakes, but what politician is? He now gave some evidence, though, of having absorbed some highly unrepublican truths. "The pacific character of political institutions [cannot] exempt them from strife," he announced, backtracking to urge that Congress create an adequate regular navy and army. After all, he noted "a certain degree of preparation for war ... affords also the best security, for the continuance of peace." He also recommended a national bank.

When Madison finally laid down the burden of the Presidency, he was 66. He had spent some 36 years as a public servant. One likes to think of him back at Montpelier, settling into his book- and statue-filled living room, surrounded by Gilbert Stuart portraits. Or outside, engulfed by Virginia tobacco fields and horses, trying out different strains of wheat, perhaps measuring weasels again, riding over to talk with Jefferson, entertaining friends and foreign visitors.

Montpelier was off the beaten track, and after his death it went out of the family, to be rebuilt almost beyond recognition. But for now, guests kept turning up. Men of the world commented on the fineness of the wine cellar as well as Madison's flow of anecdote, for age and retirement seemed to have softened the edge of his reserve, and Dolley loved company. Sometimes there were 90 for dinner. Once, when a guest remarked that they must be eating him out of house and home, the frugal Madison allowed that the human guests' horses were eating him out of house and hay.

As President, Madison made $25,000 a year. He had never been able to save anything, at least in part because he kept having to settle the gambling debts of Dolley's scapegrace son, Payne, whom she referred to as "precious Payne," though Madison tried to keep things secret to spare her anguish. In all, it turned out, precious Payne had cost him $40,000 in bad debts. (In 1987 currency, that is close to $400,000.)

Much of Madison's living had always come from Montpelier. In 1818, recently retired, he found tobacco prices down and like many a farmer then and now, he watched himself getting further and further in the hole. Toward the end of his life Madison was barely keeping afloat by selling off bits of his plantation - and more than a few slaves.

He claimed he always asked the slaves' permission, but such niceties were not much help. For Madison, slavery had to be a source of appalling political irony. At the Constitutional Convention he had not minced words with fellow delegates about what issue really divided them - it was not shipping versus agriculture, or North versus South, or even the federal government versus states' rights - it was slavery.

As early as 1783, with characteristic clarity, he had stated the cruel contradiction implicit in his and the American position. He was about to quit Philadelphia when he realized that he would have to sell his slave Billey, who had been with him in the North for years. "I am persuaded," he wrote his father back at Montpelier, "his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virginia .... I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty ... which we ... have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy the pursuit, of every human being."

Then and later, though, his political priorities were clear. If America was to become the living proof that men could govern themselves, the Union came first. Once it was soundly established, he persuaded himself - or said he had, anyway - slavery might be made to wither away, gradually and peaceably.

To help keep the Union stable, at least through its first years, the Convention had declared (Article I, Section 9) that the federal government would have no power to prohibit the slave trade until 1808. When that date came around, Madison was about to be President, but a national abolition movement hardly existed. Protection of private property continued to be one of the sacred guarantees of individual liberty.

Once back in Virginia, however, the ex-President began to ponder some highly Madisonian theories. If it were not to ruin the country, or sunder the Union, he said, emancipation would have to involve adequate recompense to the freed slaves' owners and the consent of both slave and master. Madison's idea for purchasing their freedom was to sell off by Act of Congress 200 million acres of the nation's undeveloped western land at $3 per acre. This would be legal, fair and probably constitutional, he thought.

He did not think for a minute that most of the emancipated slaves would be able to settle in the states where they had once been enslaved or, for that matter, anywhere in the United States. Even if freed, he said, they would suffer from a "degrading privation of equal rights political or social," and must therefore "be always dissatisfied with their condition."

He joined, and gave financial support to, the new American Colonization Society, whose aim was to train freed slaves in educational camps in Maryland, and settle them on land the society had bought on the west coast of Africa and given the hopeful name Liberia.

Gradualism led him to curious and unfortunate policies. Seeing that the economic and political disruption would be great (if not insurmountable) in areas of heavy slave concentration, he preached the need to plant crops that were not as slave-intensive as tobacco, especially cotton. At Montpelier he tried switching to wheat or corn, but bugs and frost and fluctuations of the market kept him from finding a steady cash crop. Ultimately, the Father of the Constitution had to face the fact that he could not free even his own slaves, as he had planned to do at his death, without leaving Dolley in penury.

Nullification as a "rightful remedy"

By the 1830s, Southerners were hotly insisting that individual states had the right of nullification. Madison and Jefferson's memorable phrases from the 1798 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions came back to haunt Madison, especially the words "where powers are assumed [by the federal government] which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is a rightful remedy."

Something of Madison's state of mind was apparent to the pro-abolitionist journalist Harriet Martineau when she visited Madison in 1835, the year before his death. She left an indelible portrait of him at 84, "his little person wrapped in a black, silk gown," crippled by rheumatism (Dolley had to serve as his editor and secretary), deaf in one ear and going blind. Though their conversation ranged widely, it turned again and again to slavery, about which Madison seemed "to be in despair." Officially, to be sure, he clung to the hope of the African colonization plan. "How such a mind as his could derive any alleviation to its anxiety from that source," Martineau noted in her journal, "is surprising." According to her estimate, the facts were that in 18 years the Colonization Society had succeeded in resettling just 3,000 ex-slaves as freemen in Africa, at a time when the slave population in America was growing by 60,000 per year.

Still, unless one looks at Madison with the self­righteous outrage that the present generation uses to judge the past, it is hard to blame him in his old age for not being more openly hardheaded about a problem for which there was no peaceful or reasonable solution. The very thing that Madison had originally feared - had, indeed, fine-tuned the Constitution to avoid - now seemed unavoidable: shattering confrontation between two major factions, each ready to rend the Union to achieve its aims. Before he died, in "Advice to my Country," Madison did speak out. His words seem equivocal, though. The Union of the states, he wrote, must be cherished and perpetuated:

"Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise."

All this makes for a rather melancholy last act. It also tends to revive a mean suspicion, memorably asserted in a dismissive remark by economic historian Charles A. Beard: "Jeffersonian Democracy simply meant the possession of the federal government by the agrarian masses led by an aristocracy of slave-owning planters." Thomas Jefferson had once boasted that the "cultivators of the earth" are the chosen of God, "whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." By contrast, the wage slaves of the city were mobs who "add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body."

By 1835, from any point of view, both these judgments were loaded with almost limitless, and unattractive, irony. In the perspective of the approaching Civil War, Madison as an acolyte to Jeffersonian virtue - strict construction, disarmament and a weak federal government - does not stir much admiration. But the Madison of the early days, the Madison who realistically sought, pretty much at any cost, a strong, stable Union, is still some kind of hero.

In the 1850s, abolitionists, savagely attacking Madison's handiwork, blamed the continued existence of slavery on that "most cunningly-devised and wicked compact," the Constitution. On the Fourth of July, 1854, having called it "A Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell," William Lloyd Garrison actually set fire to a copy of the Constitution, shouting "So perish all compromises with tyranny!"

Yet if hope lay anywhere, it lay precisely in the Constitution, without which there would have been no Union, and no force to command change in the name of the nation. It was not until the 1860s that the federal government, backed by the industrial power Jefferson and Madison deplored so long, had the strength to try the issue and prevail. This was what Madison had wanted - not war, of course, but a Union that would grow strong and do the work of democracy.

Neither Dolley nor Madison lived to see it happen, though Dolley lived on until 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush.

The last survivor of the Constitutional Convention died on June 28, 1836. He was taking breakfast in bed, attended by his niece. Noticing that he had trouble swallowing, she asked "What's wrong, Uncle?"

"Nothing more than a change of mind," the old man replied, gracefully creating a kind of political epitaph. Then he died "as quietly," it was said, "as the snuff of a candle goes out."


Additional reading:

  • James Madison: A  Biography by Ralph Ketcham  Macmillan, 1971
  • James Madison: The Founding Father by Robert Allen Rutland, Macmillan, 1987
  • Dolley and the "great little Madison" by Conover Hunt-Jones, American Institute of Architects Foundation (Washington, D.C.), 1977