Excerpt: James Madison, by Jeff Broadwater

James Madison 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 James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, Jeff Broadwater focuses on Madison’s role in the battle for religious freedom in Virginia, his contributions to the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, his place in the evolution of the party system, his relationship with Dolley Madison, his performance as a wartime commander in chief, and his views on slavery. From Broadwater’s perspective, no single figure can tell us more about the origins of the American republic than our fourth president.

To learn more, read our interview with Broadwater and check out his recent guest blog post, “James Madison, Secular Humanist.”

In the following excerpt from James Madison, Broadwater discusses the origins of the party system in early America and Madison’s opinion of the parties taking shape. (from pp. 85-87):


“If I could not go to heaven but with a Party,” Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would not go there at all.”  Jefferson was given to hyperbole, but the framers generally took a dim view of political parties. “Party spirit,” Abigail Adams said, “sees not that wisdom dwells with moderation.” Madison believed parties were at best a necessary evil. The Constitution made no provision for them, and Madison hoped its elaborate system of checks and balances would mitigate their unwholesome tendencies.[1]

To Madison’s dismay, a new Federalist clique soon gained control of the national government. Convinced that the Federalists, despite their electoral successes, represented a minority of the population, Madison justified the creation of his own Republican Party as a way to preserve popular government, and, in fact, fewer than one eligible voter in four may have voted in the national elections of the 1790s. The Federalist ascendancy forced Madison to confront an issue he had never squarely addressed: the problem of minority tyranny within a republican state.[2]

Members of Congress split initially over the fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury. The partisan divide widened during the debate over the Jay Treaty with Great Britain and became unbridgeable after the XYZ Affair with France. A common theme ran through all the contests: How friendly should the United States be to Great Britain, and how closely should American society resemble British society?[3] The debates were bitter because the issues were fundamental and because neither side accepted the idea of a loyal opposition. “My imagination will not attempt to set bounds to the daring depravity of the times,” Madison wrote to Jefferson in August 1791. He typically referred to his Federalist rivals as “anti-republicans,” or as “the British party.” He thought many of them wanted to transform the United states into a monarchy.[4] The paranoia ran high. By November 1791, Edmund Randolph was warning Madison that George Washington had joined the Federalist conspiracy “to destroy the republican force in the U.S.” In turn, the Federalist Rufus King suspected Madison of “some deep and mischievous design,” perhaps an independent southern confederacy.[5]

A party system developed gradually and from the top down. Most elections, especially in the South, were local affairs dominated by local issues and personalities, making organization from the grass roots to a broader arena difficult. Party development reached a certain milestone in 1792 when Republicans nominated George Clinton, the governor of New York, for vice president; the incumbent John Adams was clearly identified with the Federalists. Party organizations remained embryonic however, until the presidential campaign of 1800.[6]

No single variable explains party loyalties. The historian David Hackett Fischer found the best predictor of voting behavior in 1800 to be rates of population growth, with the fastest-growing regions most likely to be Republican. Motives, of course, could vary from voter to voter. One Washington barber held Madison’s hairstyle against him. “Little Jim Madison, with a queue no bigger than a pipe stem,” he complained, lacked the presence required for national office. Sectional differences explained the most; the South and West became Republican strongholds. New England was a bastion of Federalism.[7] Historians have debated the degree of continuity between the Federalist supporters of the Constitution and the Federalist party on one hand, and between Anti-Federalists and Republicans on the other. Recent scholarship has tended to minimize the connections, but in Virginia many of the Federalists of 1787-88 were Federalists in the 1790s. Most Anti-Federalists became Republicans. On balance, changes of allegiances from the 1780s to the 1790s favored the Republicans. Madison, nevertheless, feared being linked to the Anti-Federalists.[8]

Nor did Madison care to be identified with the Democratic-Republican societies that sprang up around the country in the 1790s, even though he shared many of their views. Elite factions were bad enough; popular factions enjoyed even less legitimacy. Madison chafed in late 1794 when President Washington publicly condemned the societies. He believed they had helped incite the Whiskey Rebellion, a short-lived uprising against a federal tax on distilled liquor. Few of the societies survived beyond 1796.[9]

Madison’s more eloquent and charismatic friend Thomas Jefferson would come to overshadow him as a party leader, and later historians would write of Jeffersonian, not Madisonian, Republicans. Yet as a member of the first federal Congress, Madison laid the foundation for a new party and was initially a more aggressive partisan than Jefferson. In the interim between Jefferson’s resignation as secretary of state in 1793 and his return to politics as vice president in 1797, Madison was the undisputed leader of Republican opposition.[10]


From James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, by Jeff Broadwater. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Jeff Broadwater is professor of history at Barton College. He is author of James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation as well as George Mason, Forgotten Founder. Visit his author page for upcoming events in Virginia and Kansas.

  1. [1]Jefferson quoted in Hofstadter, The Idea of a party System, 122-23. See also ibid., 11-24. Abigail Adams quoted in Burstein and Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, 418.
  2. [2]Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System, 80-85, 118-19; Elkins and McKitrick, The Age of Federalism, 484-88; Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, 52-53.
  3. [3]Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System, 88-89; Rakove, James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic, 107-21; Rutland, James Madison, the Founding Father, 140; Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans, 54-55; Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic, 72-74, 90-91.
  4. [4]James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 8 August 1791, William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachel, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 17 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1962-91), 14:69-70; Memorandum on a Discussion of the President’s Retirement, circa 5 May 1792, ibid., 14:299-303; National Gazette, 20 December 1792, ibid., 14:426-27; Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans, 75-76; Elkins and McKitrick, The Age of Federalism, 263-68; Sharp, American Politics in the Early republic, 1-12.
  5. [5]Memorandum from John Taylor, 11 May 1794, PJM, 15L328-31; Edmund Randolph to James Madison, 1 November 1795, ibid., 16:117-18.
  6. [6]Bell, Party and Faction in American Politics, 98; Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, 50-51; Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic, 58-60; Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans, 256. Party labels remained in flux. Although historians usually refer to Madison’s faction as the Republican Party, which should not be confused with its modern namesake, the terms Republican, Democrat, and Democratic-Republican were sometimes used interchangeable. See Jonathan Dayton to James Madison, circa 17 September 1812, Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, 5 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984- ), 5:325-28; and James Madison to William Eustis, 22 May 1823, Gaillard Hunt, ed., The Writings of James Madison, 9 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900-1910), 9:135-37.
  7. [7]Fischer, “Patterns of Partisan Allegiance”; Henderson, “The Continental Congress and the Genesis of Parties”; Charles, The Origins of the American Party System, 21-31; Nichols, The Invention of American Political Parties, 167-69.
  8. [8]Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans, 22-23; Buel, Securing the Revolution, 1-6; Risjord and DenBoer, “The Evolution of Political Parties in Virginia”; Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic, 44-47.
  9. [9]Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, 41-42; Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic, 100-104.
  10. [10]Cunningham, The Jeffersonian Republicans, 9-19, 63-87; Charles, The Origins of the American Party System, 81-84; Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System, 54.