James Madison

At a time when only 12% of the American people possess a positive attitude towards the current job that our representatives in Congress are doing, it would behoove those who believe that government is completely out of touch with the needs of its people and that nothing good ever came out of government. In American history, there are hundreds of examples to the contrary. Out of these many examples comes one of the most underrated of them all: James Madison. Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, instrumental in the passage of the Louisiana Purchase, the renewal of the charter for the national bank,  a two term President and intrigue part of the founding of the country, James Madison is one of the most important figures in American history.

James Madison became involved in the formation of a new nation; the United States of America at an early age. At only the age of 24, Madison served in the Virginia state legislature from 1776, until 1779.[1] It was then that Madison became a protégé for Thomas Jefferson and the two would work very close together until Jefferson’s death fifty years later. The two shared similar beliefs on government. Madison was instrumental, along with the help of Jefferson, in drafting the Declaration of Religious Freedom which disestablished the Church of England and broke up any claims towards power that the church attempted to have in state matters.

One of these was Patrick Henry’s push for an involuntary tithe to be paid to the congregation of one’s own choice. Madison and Jefferson believed this to be a violation of the separation of church and state; an idea that is not found in the Constitution but because of the efforts of Madison and Jefferson, many believe to this day is actually in the founding of this country. It was and is a belief that many Americans hold very dear to their hearts.

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A Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified by all thirteen states in the immediately following years.[2] Although seen as a foregone conclusion by the casual contemporary observer, our current government’s formation was not written in stone. Although a shy man in private, Madison pushed exceedingly hard for the views and beliefs that he felt in his heart, was in the best interest of the country. Madison was a loud and strong advocate for a three branch government as we have today as well as a strong federal government who, if needed, could overrule the actions of the states if it was deemed to be a mistake and contrary to the good of the country as a whole.

Madison made his opinions known in one of his most famous writings, who with Thomas Jefferson advocated their beliefs about where the government should be headed. In doing so, not only was Madison instrumental in forming a new political party with Jefferson: The Republicans, who would later be known as the Democrat Republicans, but his writings would cement him as one of the most important of the Founding Fathers. Madison stated:

“In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.”[3]

Madison was stating how a large country and its many different interests and factions could till represent the people and their needs to a greater degree and support republican values better  than a small country that was dominated by special interests. It would not be until the 20th century that Americans finally got around to recognizing the wisdom of Madison and adapted to a greater degree than ever before, this sentiment within the American government.

Madison would fight hard for the ratification of the new Constitution but was not in favor of a Bill of Rights as he believed that it was not necessary and included roles that, he felt, were not in the best interest of the federal government. Nevertheless, it was Madison who was the author of the Bill of Rights and as a result, forever cemented his legacy in American History. Madison originally advocated the need for twelve amendments but it was later agreed on ten. Despite his initial reluctance towards a Bill of Rights, Madison was tireless in advocating the need for the passage of the amendments once he partook in the task of forming a Bill of Rights.

Such a career would have been more than enough for one man and had Madison’s career ended there, he would still have been talked about to this day. However, when Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president in 1800 and served from 1801 until 1809, he took Madison with him and made him the Secretary of State. As a result, Madison was instrumental in constructing one of the most lopsided international agreements in world history.

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase, who’s 830,000 square miles of land which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and which cost $15 million, Madison was also instrumental in that coming to pass.[4] In doing so, America doubled the size of its land overnight.

Never in human history had so much land been acquired in so little time. Jefferson had only expected to purchase the city of New Orleans but when Napoleon offered all of Louisiana, Madison jumped on the opportunity and despite the scoffing of the price tag by many members of Congress, made sure to broker the deal. The implications for the country were huge and every day, from then until the end of time, America has and will continue to benefit from the Louisiana Purchase.

After Thomas Jefferson walked away from the Presidency in 1809, Madison won the Presidency and would spend two terms in the White House. During his presidency, Madison would deal with two events which would come to define his presidency. The first was the renewal of the national bank’s charter which was scheduled to expire after twenty years in 1811. Since Madison fought the passage of the first national bank, he again was in opposition to it again in 1811 and fought its renewal in 1811.[5]

This would help to affect Madison’s second mistake; the allowance of another war with Britain. The absence of a national bank made it increasingly difficult to finance a war. Throughout Jefferson’s presidency, America’s Armed Forces, especially the Navy, was dismantled to such a size, that it became a non entity and was not considered a force in the opinion of any of the world’s leaders. When it was recognized that Madison’s impotence during the months leading up to the war and its consequences could not now be avoided, Madison did all that he could to incite as much public support as possible.

Also, in all of American history, no president has lost his bid for reelection during a war; neither did Madison who won reelection. The War of 1812 ended in another American victory and the signing of the treaty of Ghent in 1815; officially put an end to the war. Upon learning his lesson, Madison pushed for the formation of a national bank, although one that was stronger than the previous one. With the help of such nationalist opinion from men such as John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, a second national bank was formed in 1816.[6]

In the last years of the Madison presidency, James Madison continued to push for a strong central government and against state’s rights. In his last act before leaving office, Madison vetoed a bill for internal improvements because it was formed on the grounds of state’s rights. In his veto, Madison commented: “Having considered the bill… I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States.

The powers vested in Congress are specified and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”[7]  Madison denied that such legislation was supported by the General Welfare Clause in the Construction when he responded: “Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them.”[8]

This would highlight a continued debate which rages today: What is the role of the federal government in the daily lives of its people? The answer continues to change and will most likely change again with the result of the next presidential election.

Madison would retire to Montpelier, his home in Virginia. Madison was sixty five then and would spend the rest of his life, incited by his anxiousness regarding his legacy, began to change the details in his various writings and other forms of evidence which he later began to feel, portrayed a contrary message to the one which he hoped would be judged by history. Madison died on June 28, 1836, anxious about his ability to justify his actions to both himself and to historians.[9] Historians in general have been kind to Madison. Madison was there when the country needed him the most and as a result, contemporary Americans are still enjoying the fruits of his labor and wisdom.

WORKS CITED

Burns, Ken   Thomas Jefferson Los Angeles: Time Warner & PBS Productions 1997

Commanger, Henry Steele Documents of American History New York: Century Publications 1947

Ellis, Joseph  Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation New York: Alfred Knopf Publishers 2000

Kuralt, Charles On the Road: American Heritage New York: CBS Productions 1989

Wills, Gary  James Madison: The American President Series New York: Times Books 2002

[1] Kuralt, Charles On the Road: American Heritage New York: CBS Productions 1989
[2] Ellis, Joseph  Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation New York: Alfred Knopf Publishers 2000 pg. 156
[3] Commanger, Henry Steele Documents of American History New York: Century Publications 1947 section ii. Pg 55
[4] Kuralt, Charles On the Road: American Heritage New York: CBS Productions 1989
[5] Burns, Ken   Thomas Jefferson Los Angeles: Time Warner & PBS Productions 1997
[6] Burns, Ken   Thomas Jefferson Los Angeles: Time Warner & PBS Productions 1997
[7] Commanger, Henry Steele Documents of American History New York: Century Publications 1947 section iii. Pg 57
[8] Kuralt, Charles On the Road: American Heritage New York: CBS Productions 1989
[9] Wills, Gary  James Madison: The American President Series New York: Times Books 2002 pg. 277

 

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