The Blog


Making Sense of James Madison

12:00 AM, Jul 26, 1999 • By GARY SCHMITT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.