Joseph J. Ellis: James Madison's Radical Constitutional Agenda

[Joseph J. Ellis, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in History for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Knopf 2000), is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College.]

On May 5, 1787, James Madison arrived in Philadelphia. He was a diminutive young Virginian—about five feet three inches tall, 130 pounds, 36 years old—who, it so happened, had thought more deeply about the political problems posed by the current government under the Articles of Confederation than any other American.

Madison had concluded that the loose confederation of states was about to collapse, that the full promise of the American Revolution—liberty and order in an independent American nation—was about to be lost, and that only the wholesale replacement of the feeble authority of the Articles by a central government of vastly expanded, truly national powers could rescue the infant republic from anarchy, possible civil and petty interstate war, and the likely return of predatory European powers to American soil. He was poised to make that case to the other delegates gathering in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, most of whom were moderates who presumed they were there to reform the Articles, whereas Madison was one of the radical minority that regarded the Articles as beyond repair and wished to replace them altogether....

There are no records of the many conversations that occurred in the boarding houses and taverns between May 5 and May 29, when the Constitutional Congress officially assembled. But going by the document that emerged from these deliberations—known as the Virginia Plan—Madison most probably conducted a nonstop seminar. He had all the information at his fingertips: the sorry history of all European confederacies; the abject failure of the state governments to maintain fiscal discipline; the inability of the Confederation Congress to raise revenue to pay off debts incurred during the war; the lack of any coherent foreign policy....

In retrospect, the most important conversations that occurred during that sweltering summer took place before the delegates convened. This was “little Jemmy Madison’s” most influential and consequential moment, because it defined the terms of the debate in collective terms that made the federal government a supportive embodiment of “us,” or “We the People,” rather than an alien embodiment of “them.”

Madison had almost 50 years of public service before him, to include the secretaryship of state under Thomas Jefferson and the presidency in his own right. His constitutional posture shifted on several occasions over those years, and he had the misfortune to be the only sitting president to have the national capital laid waste by invaders’ fire during his tenure. Life during the most formative phase of a nation’s identity, especially political life at the highest level, is always hard. But looking back, with all the advantages of hindsight, we can say without much doubt that May 1787 was Madison’s finest hour.

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