James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, generally acknowledged as ‘‘father of the Constitution,’’ and one of the authors of The Federalist. He was important in the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and was the main author of the Bill of Rights.
Madison was born in Port Conway, King George, Virginia, son of James Madison, Sr. and Nelly Conway Madison. He graduated from Princeton (College of New Jersey). A patriot during the Revolution, he became a member of the Virginia Convention of 1776, represented Orange County in the Virginia legislature, 1776–1777 and 1784–1786, served in the governor’s council, 1777–1780, and represented Virginia in the Confederation Congress, 1780–1783 and 1786– 1788. He attended the Annapolis Convention, the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the Virginia Ratifying Convention, served in Congress again, in the House of Representatives, 1789–1797, and again in the Virginia legislature, 1799–1800. He married Dolley Payne Todd. He served as secretary of state during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, 1801– 1809, and was president 1809–1817. James and Dolley Madison then moved back to their home, Montpelier, in Virginia. He came out of retirement to attend the Virginia Convention of 1829–1830, and he arranged for the posthumous publication of his book, The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.
The young Madison’s first public contribution was in the area of religious freedom. In the convention that drafted the Virginia Constitution of 1776, he presented a motion, which was adopted, to revise the section in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the state bill of rights, on religious toleration by adding that ‘‘all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.’’
On the issue of religious freedom, Madison waged a political battle in the state legislature with the supporters of the popular leader and governor, Patrick Henry. During the Revolution, there was discussion of disestablishing the Anglican Church in Virginia. Henry supported a bill in which the government would give support to all the churches in the state. Madison worked for a separation of church and state. He, and other opponents of Henry’s bill, appealed to the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, and even some Anglicans in the state. Petitions, with thousands of signatures, were sent to the legislature.
In Madison’s remonstrance, a pamphlet entitled ‘‘Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,’’ he argued that neither government nor religion needed the support of the other, and that the connection of the two had only led to tyranny, servility, bigotry, and persecution. He said religious freedom was a natural right that must be protected from government power or from a majority trespassing on the rights of a minority. He concluded that, because of the threat to religious freedom, the act violated Virginia’s bill of rights. In 1785, the bill was defeated, and Madison used the occasion to promote a bill on religious freedom that had been drafted earlier by his friend, Jefferson. Madison always remembered the defeat of Henry’s bill and the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom as major accomplishments of his public career.
With the exception of the statute of religious freedom, Madison, like others who became Federalists in the 1780s, was frustrated by policies pursued at the state level and looked for remedies at the federal level. In Vices of the Political System of the United States, he asserted that most of the problems or vices in the system were the result of the states. He believed that minorities suffered from popular leaders and their factions in state governments. Granted, one should remember that the minorities he had in mind included wealthy property owners, merchants, and creditors, but the system he would advocate worked to protect any minority. Madison rejected the view ascribed to Montesquieu that liberty and rights were most secure in a small republic. Madison believed that individual and minority rights could be easily abused by a tyranny of the majority in a small republic.
In Vices, Madison advanced the idea that an extended federal republic would better safeguard liberty and rights. He stated that ‘‘[a]ll civilized societies are divided into different interests and factions, as they happen to be creditors or debtors—rich or poor— [farmers], merchants or manufacturers—members of different religious sects—followers of different political leaders—inhabitants of different districts—owners of different kinds of property.’’ In a large society, such as the whole of America, it would be difficult for a common interest to be predominant in a majority. Instead, the variety of interests would check each other.
Madison played an active role in the calling of the Annapolis Convention and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. He was the main author of the Virginia Plan, which gave the Philadelphia Convention a plan to use in drafting the Constitution of 1787. He was one of the most active participants in the convention, and was a key player in the ratification process. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he contributed essays to The Federalist. Madison’s essays emphasized the division and separation of power, checks and balances, and the value of diversity and pluralism in protecting individual and minority rights.
As he had in Vices, in The Federalist essay 10, Madison, the pluralist, again analyzed American society into differing political, religious, and economic interests and advocated the idea of the ‘‘extended republic’’ that the larger the area, more interests would be represented and could check each other. He believed that the best security for religious freedom and civil rights was through the multiplicity of interests and religious sects.
In essays in The Federalist (particularly 10 and 51) and later in The National Gazette (particularly ‘‘Government of the United States’’), Madison set forth a theory of checks and balances being the best constraint on power. In America, first, government was divided between federal and state. Second, each government was divided into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Then each legislature was divided into two houses. Madison explained how the interest of the office or the division of government would incline politicians to defend their power and check the expansion of power by another government division.
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself (The Federalist, essay 51).
In the winter and spring of 1788, with ratification uncertain, a compromise was worked out in several state ratifying conventions, including Virginia’s, to address the main weakness of the Constitution, long stressed by its opponents: its lack of a bill of rights. The Constitution would be ratified with the agreement that through the Article V amendment process the first Congress would send out a bill of rights to be ratified by the states. Although he questioned the value of a bill of rights, Madison supported the compromise.
In the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and later in the First Congress, Madison pointed out his reservations about a bill of rights. First, it was not needed because the federal government only had an enumerated grant of powers, described in the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, rather than power in general, and, in America’s federal system, state governments were already in place that could check the federal government. Second, he believed that history and recent experience showed that a bill of rights was only an ineffective paper or ‘‘parchment barrier’’ against power. He concluded from his study of American politics that every state had violated its bill of rights. They did not protect individuals or minorities against governments that were the instruments of the power of majorities. Madison noted, for example, that religious freedom in America came from the multiplicity of religious sects, not from being protected by state bills of rights, and it would not be guaranteed by a bill of rights being added to the Constitution. If a majority sought to persecute a minority, he warned, a bill of rights would be a poor protection.
In the First Congress, however, believing that the compromise agreed to in state ratifying conventions should be carried out, Madison drew up and presented a list of amendments. He considered the rights in what became the First Amendment to be the most important, calling them the ‘‘essential rights.’’ He also believed it was essential that these rights should not be violated by the states as well as by the federal government. He still hoped the Constitution could check the ‘‘vices’’ of the states. Madison’s proposal regarding the states failed, however. The proposed amendments would only apply to the federal government. After a process of revision by both houses, ten amendments, generally known as the Bill of Rights, were sent out and ratified by the states.
While serving in the House of Representatives during the 1790s, Madison founded the Republican Party and, in the National Gazette, explained the need for political parties as an extension of checks and balances. Parties could check each other so that government would not favor one interest or combination of interests at the expense of another.
Because of continuous criticism by the Republicans, during the quasiwar with France, President John Adams and the Federalist majority in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act made criticism of government officials a crime. (Federalists said in their defense that the act was a modification of common-law libel and slander, but this did not resolve the problem because there was no federal common law.) Republicans and lawyers for defendants being tried under the Sedition Act argued that it violated the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, but Federalist federal judges refused to engage in judicial review. Republicans were afraid that the act would hamper their ability to defeat Federalist candidates in upcoming elections.
Madison saw that another application of checks and balances was needed, this time to check a wrongful act by the federal government. Using the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures, where they had strong majorities, Republicans passed the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves, which declared that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. According to the Virginia resolutions, written by Madison, the Sedition Act exercises ‘‘a power not delegated by the constitution, but on the contrary expressly and positively forbidden by [the First Amendment] . . . a power which more than any other ought to produce universal alarm, because it is leveled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.’’
After retiring from Congress and drafting the Virginia Resolves, Madison served again as a member of the Virginia legislature and drafted the Virginia Report, which explained the state’s action. Madison’s Virginia resolutions and report have been important for advancing (1) the doctrine of interposition, the right of a state to give an opinion on the constitutionality of an act of the federal government; (2) the compact theory that the federal government and the states derive their power from the people of the states, who, in state conventions, ratified the Constitution; and (3) the interpretation of the First Amendment that the federal government is prohibited from prior constraint of publication, such as censoring the press, and subsequent constraint of publication, such as punishing an author or press for publications. Madison declared that the federal government had no authority to protect itself by restraining negative criticism and abuse from speech and the press.
In the late 1790s, the Federalists were popular and, as a result, no great opposition arose through America to the Alien and Sedition Acts. No broad support arose for the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves as well. The Sedition Act demonstrated the weakness of ‘‘parchment barriers.’’ Madison knew that against a tyranny of the majority a bill of rights was useless. Only through an appeal to political interests could the Republicans prevail over the Federalists, which they did in the election of 1800.
Madison did not believe that the actions of the Federalists demonstrated that the grant of power to the federal government was too extensive. He did not join other Republicans in calling for constitutional amendments to weaken the government structure. Rather, he thought that the Federalists had badly administered the federal government, and the election of 1800 gave the Republicans the opportunity to run it correctly.
After eight years of service as Jefferson’s secretary of state, Madison followed as president. As president, he vetoed several measures by Congress, including an act incorporating an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia and another reserving land for a Baptist church. In his veto messages he made it clear that, if an act by the United States supported a ‘‘religious society’’ in any way, he considered it in violation of the First Amendment establishment clause. He had begun his political career in Virginia working for the separation of church and state and was still serving the cause as president. Of course, if he had had his way, the First Amendment would have applied to the states as well as to the federal government.
Madison’s presidency was dominated by foreign affairs, specifically the War of 1812. He was proud that he showed that a wartime president need not violate the Constitution by expanding executive powers or compromising First Amendment rights. He did not restrict the press despite criticism, opposition to the war effort, and calls for the secession of New England states. This was in great contrast to the Federalist Sedition Act during the quasiwar. Madison considered this to be one of the great precedents he had set. Of course, future presidents would not follow his example and Americans have not remembered him as he had hoped. Instead of being seen as an exemplary model of a constitutional president during war, he has been seen as weak.
Madison made significant contributions to civil liberties, but he can be accused of inconsistency or hypocrisy. He was part of the slave-owning Virginia elite. Holding a pessimistic view of humanity, he was no champion of democracy or social reform. Indeed, he was a reluctant supporter of the Bill of Rights. As secretary of state and president, he was an imperialistic expansionist; as president, he administered a process of defeating the Indians and acquiring land from them. He did continuously support, however, the separation of church and state. He saw how social diversity, or the multiplicity of interests and religious sects represented in a governmental structure with checks and balances, could protect the civil liberties of individuals and minorities from government tyranny or the tyranny of the majority.
References and Further Reading
See also Alien and Sedition Acts (1798); Baptists in Early America; Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833); Bill of Rights: Structure; Constitutional Convention of 1787; Constitution of 1787; Disestablishment of State Churches in the Late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century; Establishment Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; Freedom of Speech: Modern Period (1917–Present); Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Kentucky and Virginia Resolves; Madison’s Remonstrance (1785); Montesquieu; Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)