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Making Sense of James Madison

12:00 AM, Jul 26, 1999 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Modern political analysis tends to transform principles to ideologies and to reduce subtle acts of prudence to mere political calculations. What gets shoved aside in the process is the possibility of statesmanship -- the possibility of applying genuine principle to new times, new peoples, and new places. In its place, we seem left with unattractive alternatives: either the hardheaded ideologue incapable of adapting to changed circumstances, or the unprincipled Machiavellian who can reverse course at the drop of a hat.

Embarrassingly, James Madison, the celebrated "father of the Constitution," seems to fall into the Machiavellian category. Before the Constitution's ratification, Madison was co-leader of the Federalists; after the new government was up and running, Madison became co-founder of the Republican Party, dedicated to reversing the Federalism of the Washington and Adams administrations.

And that was only one of many reversals. A decade after being the chief architect of a powerful federal government, Madison wrote the Virginia Resolutions, one of the principal documents asserting states rights. Originally consumed with the problem of majority tyranny, he later advocated the creation of a national majority coalition. Initially willing to read the Constitution's grant of enumerated powers in relatively broad fashion, Madison later demanded "strict construction" to brake the government's claim to a seemingly unlimited repository of implied powers. On the practical questions of whether the federal government could legitimately establish a national bank, whether it was within its rights to fund internal improvements, and whether it was constitutionally empowered to deviate from free-market principles and actively support the growth of American industry, Madison took, at different times, positions that contradict one another.

Given this record, historians have to climb a steep hill if they want to rescue Madison from the charges of inconsistency and political sophistry. Nevertheless, there have been two notable efforts in recent years to make that climb. Back in 1995, Lance Banning published his The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, and now Gary Rosen, the associate editor of Commentary magazine, has given us American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding.

Banning's work showed the virtues of a professional historian. He carefully dissected Madison's earliest positions in an attempt to explain the origins of Madison's later disagreements with the Federalists. The alliance he shared with Hamilton in writing the Federalist Papers was temporary and possible because it was focused on the shared but tactical goal of getting a new federal government ratified. More fundamental disagreements were obscured or ignored in the process.

But by focusing on the differences between Madison and Hamilton, Banning underestimated the degree to which both men shared a deep and principled commitment to modern, natural-rights liberalism. As a result, he paid less attention than he might have to the question of how the two, once allies in a campaign to establish a new government capable of securing those rights, could so quickly be at odds when it actually came time to govern.

It is this more difficult and complex question that Gary Rosen picks up in his new and thoughtful study of Madison, and the answer Rosen provides is found in Madison's own thinking about a cornerstone of natural-rights liberalism: the social compact.

According to Rosen, Madison was able to find in Hobbes and Locke an account of the egalitarian origins and ends of the social compact. But what Madison couldn't find in them was an explanation of how a government "of the people" and "for the people" could be established "by the people." Neither Hobbes nor Locke "wrote at any length on the problem of founding or, for that matter, seemed to consider it a problem." Yet, as Madison and others of his generation discovered by trying to craft sound constitutions in the decade following independence, it was an enormously difficult problem.

Liberalism's paradox is that the people do have a right to devise constitutional forms, but only a few actually have the capacity to do so effectively. Madison's answer, according to Rosen, was the invention of the constitutional convention. Brought into being by a sense of crisis, the convention provided the capable few with the conditions necessary for prudent political deliberation. Its product could then be ratified by representatives of the population at large.