Today we celebrate the birthday of James Madison (1751-1836), fourth president of the United States. He is remembered primarily as a systematic political theorist, but this bookish and unassuming man was also a practical politician who strove for balance in an age of revolution. In the following interview, Jeff Broadwater, author of James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, discusses James Madison’s character, policies, and his lasting influence on today’s government.
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Q: One of your goals in writing James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, was to introduce readers to “the essential Madison.” How does your biography characterize his essence?
A: I was thinking of the essential Madison for modern readers. I wanted to concentrate on those parts of Madison’s life that would be of most interest today. They add up to a Madison who typically sought a middle way between unchecked democracy and anything close to monarchical rule.
Q: There have been numerous James Madison biographies. How does this one fill in the gaps?
A: Dolley Madison gets relatively more attention, as do Madison’s views on slavery. Mainly I’ve tried to balance the prevailing view of Madison as a brilliant political theorist with an appreciation of his success as a professional politician.
Q: Although Madison remained scandal-free throughout his life, what might surprise readers about him?
A: They will be surprised by the depth of his commitment to the separation of church and state. Madison worried about paying military chaplains out of public funds, and he thought if members of Congress wanted a chaplain, they should pay him with their own money. In Madison’s day, mail was delivered on Sunday so the federal government would not have to recognize any religion’s holy day. In retirement, he thought limits might be placed on the amount of property a church could acquire. He believed in freedom of religion, but he also feared ecclesiastical power.
Q: James Madison struggled for balance in the government and, as you note, separation of church and state. Where did Madison draw his largely liberal (for his time) standards and ideals from?
A: To an extent, they were in the air in colonial Virginia. Madison also studied the classics, ancient history, and European philosophy. David Hume apparently influenced his thinking about “factions.” A French writer, Brissot de Warville, influenced his thinking about the importance of educated public opinion. Princeton, Madison’s alma mater, and its president John Witherspoon reinforced and encouraged his liberal tendencies. But almost all of his political writings were produced in response to specific controversies. His Federalist essays, obviously, were written to sell the Constitution to voters. I think he began to temper his views on the scope of federal power in the late 1780s when he saw many voters did not want a powerful national government. In other words, he was influenced by political reality.
Q: You describe Madison’s mental gifts as being more “conceptual” rather than “pragmatic.” What do you mean by this?
A: He was a creative and indefatigable theorist, but he was not very good at backroom deals, and he was not a particularly adroit administrator. Ironically, given his essential moderation, he was not adept at compromise. At the Constitutional Convention he bitterly opposed the Great Compromise on congressional representation, and if his views had prevailed, the convention likely would have broken up. Fortunately for his place in history, however, he could accept the inevitable.
Q: You mention a phenomenon historians have termed “the Madison problem” regarding Madison’s political shifts. Why is this important to Madison’s story?
A: Historians have disagreed over whether his apparent shifts were motivated by political expediency or whether they simply obscured a fundamental consistency. The question is important because it goes to how seriously we should take Madison. I think he was about as consistent as we can reasonably expect a politician to be given the length of his career and the revolutionary changes he witnessed.
Q: What impact did Madison’s wife, Dolley, have on his political career? What was their relationship like outside of the political realm?
A: She was his most effective lobbyist with Congress while he was president. The socials she hosted allowed her to cultivate members of Congress, who, in her day, selected presidential candidates and probably helped him in the 1808 and 1812 elections. But even Dolley could not overcome the partisan divisions in Washington, and Madison had a hard time with Congress. On a personal level, Madison did not sweep Dolley off her feet before they married, but over time they grew devoted to each other. On one level, it was a case of opposites attracting, but they shared kind, gentle dispositions, and I think that allowed the marriage to flourish.
Q: You describe Madison as “a supposedly mediocre president.” Why has Madison not been held in higher regard, especially since he had similar foundational ideologies as his friend and colleague, Thomas Jefferson?
A: Jefferson was about eight years older, which put him at the right age to play a leading role in the American Revolution. Madison, on the other hand, did not enter Congress until 1780, so in a sense Madison was the junior partner in the relationship. The War of 1812 has damaged Madison’s standing among historians, and for all the problems he experienced as president, Jefferson at least avoided a major war. Most important perhaps, Jefferson wrote better. Madison thought Jefferson had a tendency toward overstatement, and he did, but Jefferson produced more compelling sound bytes. Madison, by contrast, wrote careful, precise, and sometimes overly technical prose.
Q: You characterize the debate on slavery as perplexing to Madison. What do you think were Madison’s core values regarding the issue, and what may have kept him from fully realizing them?
A: Madison believed that white prejudice was so great that African Americans would not benefit significantly from the abolition of slavery unless they could be colonized outside of the United States. Madison seemed to think that the benefits of emancipation without colonization did not outweigh the costs to white society. He supported colonization all his life and could never admit it was wholly unrealistic. Madison’s thoughts about slavery were about as muddled as they could be, but they represented the enlightened “moderate” opinion of his day.
Q: Madison was commander in chief for the War of 1812. How did his leadership affect the war, especially since he had no military honors?
A: He tolerated incompetent commanders, which led to repeated reversals along the Canadian border and to the burning of Washington, D.C. On the local level, the raid on Washington and the Battle of New Orleans illustrate the difference leaders can make because otherwise the military situations were not all that different. With the energetic Andrew Jackson in charge, the Americans won a spectacular victory at New Orleans. With Madison more or less in command in Washington, the result was disaster. The larger problem may have been the weakness of the federal government in almost every area, especially in its finances, but even in its ability to command popular respect. On the other hand, by tolerating dissent in New England, Madison probably avoided a civil war. He also showed a great respect for civil liberties. As messy as the war was, when it was over most people thought that Madison had done fairly well. It helped that the war ended on a positive note with the victory at New Orleans. I think in Madison’s era, character counted for relatively more, and results for relatively less, than they do today. Madison got good marks for character.
Q: You observe that Madison believed that “the country should be governed by Virginia values.” What were these values, and can they still be seen in the government today?
A: Madison envisioned a government appropriate for a fairly hierarchical, mainly agricultural, society, but one with a high level of citizen participation. The central government would be relatively small, but it would need to be strong enough to keep foreign markets open, and Madison wanted to ensure that contracts could be enforced and debts could be collected. An educated elite would monopolize elective office, but they would reflect public opinion, at least where something like a consensus existed. In the 1780s, Madison worried the state governments had become too sensitive to popular passions. In the 1790s, he worried the federal government might become so large it could not be managed as the Founders had intended. His generation saw commercial interests as sources of political corruption, and he distrusted banks, although he was eventually reconciled to the Bank of the United States. Clearly, his suspicion of government has persisted. Our attitudes toward business seem more ambiguous.
Q: Did James Madison ever try to benefit financially from public service?
A: No. In fact, he said he tried to avoid investments that would create conflicts of interest. Public service did not pay well in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and he was often strapped for cash. He struggled financially near the end of his life. Dolley died in virtual poverty. Downward mobility was common in early American history. I think it is a story historians have neglected.
Q: In The Federalist, Madison writes that “It is the reason, alone, of the public that ought to control and regulate the government. . . . The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.” How do you think that Madison might see this ideal upheld, or not upheld, in today’s society?
A: The quote sounds like an enigma. Madison certainly did not support censorship or propaganda, so one might wonder how he meant to regulate popular passions. He had some hope that public education would promote good citizenship; I don’t see much evidence of that today. He likely meant that the government should incorporate sufficient checks and balances to prevent momentary passions from controlling policy. He was a realist. He said once Americans were not “a race of philosophers,” but he hoped the Constitution’s checks and balances would produce compromise, not gridlock. He argued during the debate over ratification of the Constitution that federal office should attract the most able men in the country. The differences between his world and ours are so vast that I really don’t feel comfortable channeling Madison. One of his predictions, however, seems on point. Madison wrote in the 1790s that if the federal government grew too much, Congress would be overwhelmed by its responsibilities, power would flow to the president, and presidential elections would become unseemly spectacles.
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