James Madison: Master of Compromise

James Madison justifiably earned the titles of “Father of the Constitution” and “Father of the Bill of Rights.” He was a true statesman. He always put the interests of the country first and foremost. He demonstrated, time and time again, that nothing is accomplished in government without compromise.

The Constitution was the product of compromises

The Constitution was created because of compromises. The shy soft-spoken James Madison reluctantly spoke at the Constitutional Convention over 200 times in attempts to find common ground and forge compromises. (Some delegates complained they couldn’t hear him when he spoke.)

The Bill of Rights was the product of compromises

The Bill of Rights was created via dozens of compromises.

Statesmen versus Stubborn Political Ideologues

James Madison proved that stubborn ideologues are a roadblock to good government. Uncompromising politically-pure politicians are “full or sound and fury” accomplishing nothing. Without Madison, and the willingness of the representatives to compromise, we would not have a Constitution or Bill of Rights.

James Madison is “The Great Compromiser” and “The Master of Compromise.”  He was a genius at creating compromises, some of which are not very pretty. But, he believed that “half a loaf is better than no loaf.”

One of the key problems with leaders today is that there are too many uncompromising politicians and not enough statesman. “Politicians are people who will say or do anything to get elected or to gain power.”  “A statesman is someone who does everything for the common good of the people he represents.”  “A politician thinks about the next election while a statesman think about the next generation.”  

Like a divorcing couple, Democrats and Republicans today seem more interested in hurting the other party, than helping the country. They are unwilling to do the hard work necessary to find common ground and forge compromises acceptable to both sides.

Here are a some of Madison’s famous compromises which laid the foundation for our great country.

The Two Houses of Congress: The Great Compromise of 1787  

At the Constitutional Convention, states with larger populations wanted congressional representation based on population. (“Virginia Plan”) Smaller states demanded equal representation. (“New Jersey Plan”) The “Great Compromise of 1787” combined both plans. (“Connecticut Compromise.”)

With Madison’s encouragement and Washington’s blessing, it was decided that there would be two chambers of Congress. Each state would have two Senators. The number of Representatives in the House would be based on population. It worked.

Counting Slaves: The Yucky Three-Fifths Compromise

Once it was decided that representation in the House of Representatives was to be based on population, another issue arose: “How should slaves be counted?”

Ironically, delegates from anti-slavery northern states felt that slaves should not be counted at all. That would give the southern states too many representatives. Ironically, the pro-slavery southern states fought for slaves to be counted fully.

These were diametrically opposed positions. Again, Madison created a compromise. Every five slaves would be counted as three individuals for purposes of representation. In other words, each slave would be “worth” 3/5 of a free person. This became known as the famous, and yucky, “Three-fifths Compromise.” (The Civil War Amendments wiped out this compromise.)

Tariffs on Imports and Exports: The Commerce Clause Compromises

At this time, the North was industrialized and the South had an agricultural economy. Additionally, the South imported finished goods from Britain after exporting tobacco and cotton.

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Madison’s Handwritten Notes of the Constitutional Convention – Our Only Record

Northern states wanted the governments to be able to impose import tariffs on finished products to protect against foreign competition and encourage the South to buy northern products. The North also wanted export tariffs on raw goods in order to increase federal revenue. The southern states feared that export tariffs on their raw goods would hurt their trade. These positions were diametrically opposed.

Again, Madison forged a compromise. Tariffs were only to be allowed on imports from foreign countries and not exports. Interstate commerce would be regulated by the federal government. (Commerce Clause) All commerce legislation would require two-thirds, a super-majority, of the Senate, instead of a simple majority.

The Slave Trade Compromise

The issue of slavery ultimately tore the country apart during the Civil War. At the time of the Constitutional Convention those who opposed slavery in the northern states wanted to bring an immediate end to the importation and sale of slaves. This was in direct opposition to southern states, where slavery was vital to their economy. The South did not want the federal government interfering in the slave trade. These positions were irreconcilable. 

Links to slave trade evident across Ireland

Again, Madison, the great statesman, forged a compromise. Northern states, in their desire to keep the country intact, agreed to wait until 1808 before Congress could ban the importation of slaves.  Also, part of this compromise was the fugitive slave law, which required northern states to capture and return runaway slaves. Interestingly, Madison became president in 1808, and quickly banned the importation of slaves.

Election of the President: The Electoral College Compromise

The Articles of Confederation did not provide for a chief executive of the United States. Therefore, when delegates decided that a president was necessary, there was disagreement over how he should be elected. Some delegates felt that the president should be elected by majority vote. Others feared that the electorate would not be informed and rational enough to make a wise unemotional logical decision.

In the end, the two sides compromised. They created the Electoral College, which is made up of electors roughly proportional to population. The president is not directly elected by popular vote. Instead, citizens actually vote for representative electors who are must vote for the presidential candidate they represent. There have been times when the elected president did not receive the majority of the popular vote. (In July, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that delegates are cannot switch their vote to other presidential candidates.)

The National Debt and the U.S. Capital: The Great Compromise of 1790

After the Revolutionary War, many of the northern states were heavily in debt. This was a catastrophic situation. It affected just about everything, including: banking, taxation, domestic commerce, and international trade. Without solving this problem, the new nation could end up financially stillborn.   

Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, proposed that the national government assume the states’ debts. The Revolutionary War was a national one, and the nation should pay for it. Hamilton’s proposal was known as the Assumption Act.  However, the southern states repeatedly blocked the national assumption of state debts.

Separately, the southern states proposed that the capital of the new nation be more centrally located in the South. It should be along the Potomac River instead of in Philadelphia or New York City. This proposal was known as the Residency Act.  The northern states repeatedly rejected moving the capital south.

Alexander Hamilton's Timeline

These stalemates created an intolerable crisis for the new country.  On June 20, 1790, after dining alone in Thomas Jefferson’s New York residence, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton reached a “dinner table bargain.”

Hamilton agreed to convince the northern states to move the U.S. capital to the South. Madison agreed to convince the southern states to have the federal government assume the war debts

It worked.  The Assumption Act and the Residency Act were linked together. The combined acts were passed by Congress and signed by President Washington. This became known as the famous “Great Compromise of 1790.”

 The impact of this compromise was enormous. It established Washington D.C. as the nation’s capital. It allowed Hamilton to create the first national bank. This allowed the Treasury to issue bonds. It stimulated the economy domestically and internationally. It allowed America to borrow European money for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and for the War of 1812.

Type of Government:  Direct Democracy vs. Representative Republic

The brilliant and studious James Madison spent thousands of hours in his second story study library in an intense study of government and political philosophy, both ancient and modern. The ultimate question he faced was: “Should the new government be a direct democracy, like ancient Greece, or should it be a representative republic, like ancient Rome?” Both democracies and republics have advantages and disadvantages.

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Madison’s Study Library

Madison advocated a compromise structure. The United States should be based on a “democratic republic.” The country would be governed by representatives, like the Roman republic, but the representatives would be elected democratically, like the Greek democracy. Hence, a “democratic republic.” (In ancient Rome, the representatives were elected by the nobility, not the general population, and often served for life.)

(Even today, I hear people arguing whether our government is a “democracy” or a “republic.” That debate should not exist. The U.S. is neither a direct democracy nor a representative republic. That debate was settled over 200 years ago by James Madison’s compromise creation of a “democratic republic.” )

The Great James Madison

 James Madison should be remembered and revered.  By finding common ground and forging compromises with his political opponents he earned and deserved the titles “Father of the Constitution” and “Father of the Bill of Rights.” 

Today, we desperately need fewer “politicians” and more “statesmen” like James Madison. We need fewer ideologues who are unwilling, or unable, to find common ground and forge compromises. We need more selfless patriotic leaders who are willing to put the welfare of the country above partisan politics.

(For other articles go to: http://www.londonedition.net)

2 thoughts on “James Madison: Master of Compromise

  1. This is so inspirational and instructional. Key players of our founding fathers seem to have had willingness and vision to really listen to their constitutional convention brethren, to at times consider their vinegar (slavery) and other thoughts wrought. It sounds like egos were tamed, and selflessness used. I makes me wonder if I act like an ideologue when I oppose Church Liberals/Secularists online. I want to be watchful of myself, to remember meekness, to be mild instead of wild. To be strong against wrong does not mean one can step on people’s faces. This is a valuable post to me. Thanks mammothly much. 🙂


  2. Abraham Lincoln said he eliminated his enemies by making them friends. Reagan and Clinton made friends, wherever they went, even across the political aisle. Reagan worked well with a Democrat majority in Congress and Clinton worked well with a Republican majority. Like Madison, they searched for common ground and forged compromises. Certainly less divisiveness and hate.


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