James Madison, by John Vanderlyn (1816)
During the “Critical Period” following the birth of these United States after Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation were failing on multiple levels. America was falling apart and something had to be done quickly.
James Madison recognized the problem, did his homework, had a vision, and made a bold plan.
The principal historic events and key issues that led to the formation the American system of government are as fascinating and as spectacular as the Constitution itself. With the foundation for a just government in America established by the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation attempted to unite the States to protect their mutual interests in commerce and defense. The weaknesses in the new system consequences of subsequent events highlighted the need for strengthening and amending the Articles. Widely known as the “Architect of the Constitution”, the very capable James Madison was an instrumental force for handling this monumental task. As a scholarly master of public affairs, he organized a convention of delegates together at Philadelphia. He came prepared. As seemingly polished as the much celebrated final document is in outward appearance, which can be attributed in part to Madison’s well thought-out and articulated points, it was also the product of some truly remarkable fireworks in heated debates at the convention that directly reflected the tumultuous events of the “Critical Period”, and ultimately a testament to Madison’s leadership alongside the coordinated responses of an outstanding galaxy of brilliant men who conceived this new republic in the age of monarchies.
Drafted primarily by John Dickinson in 1776, and formally ratified in 1781 by all the States, The Articles of Confederation were principally a “league of friendship” between thirteen sovereign and independent states. The Articles featured a unicameral legislature, no executive or judicial branch, and a loose confederation of independent States, (More Perfect Union: Creation). Each state was authorized two to seven representatives but only had only one vote The Congress could not tax the people directly or regulate trade. The Congress had to make formal requests to the states to raise troops or fund the treasury. Furthermore, Congress could appropriate and borrow money and handle foreign relations, but those powers were limited
As a consequence, James Madison saw the Articles as woefully inadequate because the United States could not tax directly, was impotent in setting or regulating commercial policy or settle disputes between the states. Additionally, there was no effective way to support a war effort. On the brink of economic disaster due to states printing and inflating their money supply, businesses were in a state of depression and farmers were losing their lands. The farmers in Massachusetts were in revolt and the state government had to put it down. Known as Shays’s Rebellion, the 1787 revolt exacerbated fears that anarchy was around the corner. The delegate from Virginia, James Madison, had a rescue plan. (More Perfect Union: Creation).
This plan would not only amend the Articles of Confederation, it would amend them entirely out of existence (More Perfect Union: America). Later, in Madison’s tenth essay, he would explain his reasons. Article III contained a “general welfare” clause (Articles). Providing for the common defense and supporting the general welfare as enumerated in the Articles of Confederation, as justification for the departure and the establishment of a new constitution (Rossiter 259-260) and eventually the phrases were lifted directly from the Articles of Confederation and transplanted to the Constitution (Constitution).
The first step was already in progress and had taken place in 1785 as a meeting at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate between delegates of Maryland and Virginia to foster alliances and commercial relations in spite of the Articles (McClanahan 143). The next year, when all the states were invited to a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, Madison and Hamilton made plans for a Philadelphia Convention. (144). Madison embarked on a scholarly research project that would run through 1787. Knowing of Madison’s prior accomplishments and service in Congress from 1780-1783, Georgia’s William Pierce added, “The affairs of the States, he perhaps, has the most correct knowledge of, of any man in the Union” (Gutzman 49).
James Madison’s deep research into the history of successful and failed federations added a whole new dimension to the debates which would manifest through some of his most profound writings and speeches. Together with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison contributed to a series of letters totaling eighty five, published in New York newspapers under the pseudonym Publius, known as the Federalist (Morris 13-15). These Federalist Papers shared a national vision and were lauded by Thomas Jefferson as an outstanding work of advocacy as, “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written” (19).
Continuing on the subject of Hamilton’s Letter known as Federalist # 15, titled “Insufficiency of the Present Confederacy to Preserve the Union” (Rossiter 100), Madison expounds on the same subject by citing Demosthenes account of the failures in ancient Greece of the Amphictyonic Council (118) as the center of power in the federation shifted from Athens for seventy-three years, to the Lacedaemonians for twenty-nine years, and ultimately to the Thebans after Battle of Leuctra (119). After war with Xerxes, the inefficiency of the union surfaced with the jealousy and ambition as the members grew more powerful while the less powerful members became more dependent and degraded (119). Athens and Sparta were inflated from victories and became rivals and bitter enemies and inflicted upon each other greater damage than they suffered under the Persians. Peloponnesian War resulted in ruin and slavery to the Athenians who had launched the war (120).
Madison laid out systematically what went wrong in Greece, noting that, historically, when governments are weak at home and have many dissensions, they are quick to foment external crises. Such was the case as strife between the Amphictyonic Council, aligned with the Thebans, brought charges against the Phocians who were aided by Athens and Sparta. When the Amphictyons invited Phillip of Macedonia to come to their aid, he quickly capitalized on the situation, which he secretly influenced from the beginning, to dominate and subjugate all parties involved. Indeed, inciting domestic insurrection was listed in the grievances against England, in the Declaration of Independence, as an effective tool for despotism (Declaration). Disharmony from the very onset, exacerbated by a divide-and-conquer strategy from a foreign infiltrator, in Madison’s view, prevented them from withstanding Macedonia and the imposition of the Romans and their vicissitudes (Rossiter 120).
Having much praise for the Achean League of Grecian republics for retaining their municipalities and equality, their ability to send ministers and ambassadors abroad, make treaties, alliances and war through their senate, and the establishment of praetors to command the armies and enforce the uniform laws, Madison lamented the inclusion of Lacedaemon to the league. Unwilling to bring their existing laws into conformity with the union they were joining allowed for the Macedonian arts of disruption to enter and destroy their entire Union (121).
Upon Arrival in Philadelphia, Madison outlined twelve “Vices of the Political System of the United States” (Gutzman 50-52). The vices were classified into two groups, addressing deficiencies of the state governments and the federal system itself. In his first four vices, Madison elaborated on the state issues, charging that they constantly failed to comply with Congress’s requisitions , frequently encroached upon the federal authority, performed “Violations of the Laws of nations and of treaties”, and committed infractions on each other’s rights. In vice number five, the absence of interstate cooperation was highlighted and a lack of federal guarantee against anti-republican revolution in the states was expounded upon in his sixth (Gutzman 50-52).
The seventh, which was structural in nature, stated, a “want of sanction to the laws and coercion in the Government of the Confederation”. Madison argued that the Articles were not really a constitution without coercion when dealing with the issue of state non-compliance. Furthermore, his strong advocacy for popular ratification was reflected by the “want of ratification by the people of the Articles of Confederation” as listed in his eight vice. The ninth and tenth dealt with the “mutability” of an overwhelming influx in the number of state laws, making it difficult to impossible for citizens of other states and even residents to keep up, adversely impacting the economies of the individual states (53).
The eleventh vice was an entire essay dedicated to the “injustice of the Laws of the States”. Madison laid out his theory concerning why bad men are elected to office and surmises the pool of candidates in smaller spheres may be found wanting. Three motives for political aspiration in three categories, ambition, personal interest, and the public good, are presented. As an argument against mob rule in a republic, he stated that the people acting unjustly is more damaging to a republic than legislative misconduct (53). Continuing Hamilton’s argument for a Union as a safeguard against domestic faction and insurrection as outlined in Federalist # 9, Madison writes about the differences between democracies and republics in Federalist # 10, claiming that a republican “extension of the sphere” is the best cure for the ailments of the confederacy and protects minorities from the greed and passion of the majority because factions are unavoidable and means should be taken to minimize their effects (Rossiter 77-79).
In his final “Vices” expressed the desirability of an electoral process that would promote the most capable people to obtain office as they were honorably impelled to public service for the public good.
In a letter to George Washington, an outspoken critic of the Articles of Confederation, James Madison worked very hard to lay out the Virginia Plan and persuade Washington to come to the Philadelphia Convention (Ketchum 31). Madison also coached Edmund Randolph prior to the event and prompted to submit the Virginia Plan which was drafted mostly with his vision, before others could submit their plans on the floor. Originally sold as to be “corrected and enlarged”, this bold plan shocked Randolph, as it was set not only to be a departure from the Articles, but to scrap them entirely (Morris 219). The Virginia Plan featured a national Executive to enforce the laws with veto powers to be chosen by congress and serve seven years, a judicial branch with a system of federal courts, and popular vote for representatives (224).
The Virginia Plan drew fierce opposition from Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Elbridge Gerry took an anti-democratic position warned that republicans should remember “the dangers of a leveling spirit” bringing the issue of classes into the debate (224) while George Mason warned of working to avoid too much democracy would go too far in the other direction (224). James Wilson wanted to “raise the federal pyramid as high as possible” which would require a widest possible base. John Dickenson argued that the states would be devoured by the national government. Fierce debate over the selection process for senators ensued. Dickenson won (227) Senators to be chosen by state legislators. Opposition by William Paterson of New Jersey claiming “We have no power to go beyond the federal scheme” as outlined in the Articles of Confederation (Morris 228).
During the Conference, a rule of absolute secrecy was in effect which Jefferson confessed to Adams as being “abominable” in his opinion. Madison revealed, “no Constitution would ever had been adopted by the convention had the debates been public” (Morris 221-222).
The convention was not smooth sailing for Madison. He spoke almost every day during the Convention to defend practically every alteration or correction to his original plan and often found himself at odds with the more conservative elements in the Convention. Outright fierce opposition to the Constitution as a whole was in full-swing by members such as George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who declared their intention not to sign the document. Mason declared the Vice-Presidency as an infringement to the Senate and the Executive as downright dangerous (Ketchum 171). His notes were not published until after his death, notes which he confessed in life to their meticulous undertaking almost killing him (Morris 210). Madison wrights of his research project:
The curiosity I had felt during my researches into the History of the most distinguished Confederacies, particularly those of antiquity, and the deficiency I found in the means of satisfying it more especially in what related to the process, the principles, the reasons, & the anticipations, which prevailed in the formation of them, determined me to preserve as far as I could an exact account of what might pass in the Convention whilst executing its trust, with the magnitude of which I was duly impressed, as I was with the gratification promised to future curiosity by an authentic exhibition of the objects, the opinions & the reasoning’s from which the new System of Govt was to receive its peculiar structure & organization. Nor was I unaware of the value of such a contribution to the fund of of materials for the History of a Constitution on which would be staked the happiness of a people great even in its infancy, and possibly the cause of Liberty through the world. (Madison)
In spite of heated debates on Representation, Executive Power, Executive Salaries, electing Representatives and Senators, veto of state laws, the nature of federalism, judiciary, separation of powers, State equality in the Senate, majority rule and basic republican principles, lengths of terms for senators, citizenship, immigration, appointment of judges, the practice of slavery, qualifications for suffrage, the New Jersey Plan, and Hamilton’s National Plan, James Madison’s Virginia plan endured with some important changes (McClanahan 145).
In the end Mr. Madison was overruled for many of his arguments, however, he was successful in getting a simple majority vote for the regulation of interstate commerce through a successful argument. Slavery concessions were made. More often than not Madison was disappointed at the direction of the Convention and in many respects he was forced to openly support a document he had not envisioned in the beginning of the conference. History shows that Madison would convert and become a leader within the Anti-Federalists. To his continued credit, he did keep his word and work to install a Bill of Rights into the Constitution after it was ratified.
Additionally, by personally and repeatedly calling on prominent figures like George Washington to preside over the Convention , Madison demonstrated keen political insight while giving credit to all that were present for the contents of the end product. Thanks to his vision and tireless efforts, persistence through planning, coordination with like-minded individuals to publish numerous essays, conducting extensive research, coaching key delegates, and enduring the firestorm of harsh criticism and debate until the end, James Madison will be seen as a public benefactor for Americans throughout the ages as an essential Founding Father and the true “Architect of the Constitution”.
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