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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.

Rosen's claim is that Madison's thought on the role of the prudential few in America's founding is the key to understanding the difference between Madison's constitutional politics and those of his Republican ally, Thomas Jefferson -- just as it is the key to understanding Madison's break with his one-time Federalist collaborator, Alexander Hamilton. By Madison's lights, Jefferson did not appreciate the role of the few in designing a proper republican government, while Hamilton wanted to extend the role the few had played in founding into actual governing. The former was too sanguine about the politics of foundings, and the latter too pessimistic about normal republican governance. If Jefferson's views dominated, stable and effective government was unlikely to last; and if Hamilton's prevailed, a regime dedicated to equality of rights would be undermined over time.

Madison recognized, Rosen suggests, how rare an event was the American founding: both in placing the prudence of the few in service of popular liberty and in preventing that service from establishing a precedent in day-to-day governance. His "third way" depended on a strict, constructionist reading of the Constitution that could tame popular sovereignty within the forms of republican government. At the same time, strict constructionism would check the ambitions of the few to use creative and broad readings of the Constitution in order to increase government's reach and their own influence.

Rosen's American Compact is a thoughtful and often insightful attempt to come to terms with Madison's political thought. It advances our understanding of Madison's reflections on the liberal foundations of government and, in particular, the place of the Constitutional Convention. And it provides new insight into how Madison himself came to understand the broad differences between himself and Jefferson and Hamilton. But Rosen's wish to find that "Madison the theorist vindicates Madison the practitioner" at last stretches his thesis beyond its limits.

There is no question that Madison came to believe that Hamilton had a plan not simply to "perfect" what the Convention had produced but to overturn it with his programs as treasury secretary and with his claim of broad powers for the federal government. (Whether Madison was right, of course, is a different matter.) But Rosen's study does not take us far in explaining why Madison wound up choosing the particular course he did.

For instance, while making much of the differences between Jefferson and Madison on the issue of perpetual refoundings, Rosen takes little substantive note of the equally salient fact that Madison was a full and active partner in Jefferson's efforts to form a political party that (in Harry Jaffa's words) "deliberately recreated the spirit of 1776, with the rhetoric of 1776, and employed the organizational techniques of 1776." Madison certainly did not have to go as far as he did: There were more moderate Federalist positions -- like those held by his fellow Virginian, John Marshall -- that could conceivably have satisfied Madison's desire for a political platform more solidly republican than Hamiltonian. But instead, on almost every major division of his day, Madison substantially changed course.

Paradoxically, Madison could do so without flatly contradicting his past positions. As Madison had explained while he was still a Federalist, the American Constitution was a mix of principles: It was partly national and partly federal; it had enumerated powers and yet implied powers; it was a representative government but not simply so; it encouraged a multiplicity of factions and yet ultimately promised majority rule. It was a form of republican government whose stability and energy were rooted in elements that were not fully democratic.

Given this mixture, the later Madison could, as a Republican, challenge Hamilton and the Federalists by reversing the emphasis he had previously given each. So, if the new government had become too nationalist in his mind, then its federal aspect could be emphasized. Or, if he thought the current problem was the machinations of a minority, then the majoritarian aspects of the government's rule could be stressed instead.

But the fact that Madison did not flatly contradict himself should not obscure the real and significant reversal in the direction of his politics. This was not a subtle change of emphasis on Madison's part. The question thus remains, why did Madison undertake such a significant shift? For all its insights into Madison's political thought, Rosen's American Compact still leaves us wondering about the character of Madison and his statesmanship.




American Compact James Madison and the Problem of Founding

Univ. Press of Kansas, 237 pp., $ 30

Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century.