There is a serious lack of education and understanding about the inspiring founding of the United States. Most American’s don’t even know that James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution” and “Father of the Bill of Rights.”
Thomas Jefferson, the “Father of the Declaration of Independence,” proclaimed: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”
James Embarked on an Intensive Study of Government
Throughout the spring and summer of 1786, James Madison “barricaded” himself in his second story library in Montpellier. There, he devoted countless hours, to an exhaustive study of government and political philosophy, ancient and modern.
Thomas Jefferson had shipped hundreds of books to his colleague. The books were written in Latin, French, and English. These were the histories of governments spanning thousands of years from ancient Greece and Rome to modern Europe. Madison devoured the collection.
As he studied and pondered, he wedded his theoretical scholarship with his practical experience. He emerged with several brilliant conclusions.
One: Separation of Powers
One, the American government should be based on a separation of powers. The legislative, executive, and judicial functions should be divided into three separate co-equal branches.
Two: Checks and Balances
Two, the U.S. government should have system of checks and balances. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power must be kept in check. The three branches of government “check” each other. The federal government and states “check” each other.
Three: A Strong Central Government
Three, the new nation should have a strong central government that can unify and unite the squabbling states with their parochial interests. The governing Articles of Confederation was lacking in this respect.
Four: A Democratic Republic
Four, American government should be a democratic republic.
A monarchy, dictatorship, or oligarchy was out of the question. That’s what the American Revolution fought against.
Madison was worried about direct democracy where everything is decided by the vote of the majority like in ancient Greece. He called this “excessive democracy.” Public opinion is easily swayed. It is fickle and ebbs and flows. Plus, the majority often tramples on the rights of the minority. Moreover, the majority of citizens are not well informed.
Madison was also concerned about a republic, like ancient Rome, where the representatives are appointed by the elite. The common folk had no input and no influence.
Thus, he believed that the best form of government is a democratic republic, a representative government where the representatives are democratically elected.
Madison’s Library: “The Most Important Room in America“
Montpellier docents argue that Madison’s second-floor study library is the most important room in America. It was there that our government was conceived, and the blue print was drafted.
The “Philadelphia Convention” Became the “Constitutional Convention“
Many of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention assumed that the objective was to simply revise the Articles of Confederation. The Articles governed the colonial national government. But they were ineffective in uniting the independent colonies. The Articles needed to be replaced, not revised. A new constitution was called for. Madison started preparing and maneuvering.
As delegates gathered for the famous Philadelphia Convention, the 36-year-old Madison introduced his outline for an entirely new constitution. This became known as The Virginia Plan.
Many of the delegates were caught off guard when Madison proposed a new constitution. But Madison had done his homework. He had already gained the support of the two most respected founding fathers, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. As Madison wrote to Washington: “having formed in my mind some outlines of a new system, I take the liberty of submitting them without apology, to your eye.”
The delegates agreed to consider a new constitution. Thus, the Philadelphia Convention became the Constitutional Convention.
Madison Brilliantly Guided the Convention, Finding Common Ground and Forging Compromises
During the convention, the shy soft-spoken frail Madison was forced to speak over two hundred times. He was not a public speaker. Madison was so quiet that many of the delegates complained that they couldn’t hear him. But Madison’s political success was his mastery of finding common ground and working out compromises. In fact, some people refer to Madison as “The Great Compromiser.”
One delegate wrote, “. . . everyone seems to acknowledge Madison’s greatness. In the management of every great question he took the lead . . . he always comes forward as the best-informed man of any point in debate.”
Madison Took Copious Notes
Madison painstakingly took detailed notes of the convention. Those priceless notes are the only detailed record of what occurred.
Sovereignty: Power of the States versus the Federal Government
The most difficult question for the delegates was not the design of the federal government, but whether the states should remain sovereign or whether sovereignty should be transferred to the national government. Madison maneuvered the delegates to a compromise of “shared sovereignty” between the national and state governments, with checks and balances. The “Supremacy Clause” gave power to the federal government, and the 9th and 10th Amendments reserved power to the people and states.
During the convention, Madison was able to out maneuver the stubborn ideologues through cooperation, compromise, and reason. Throughout his life, Madison repeatedly demonstrated that cooperation is better than confrontation, compromise is more productive than ideological purity, and reason will prevail over emotion.
Madison also demonstrated that in politics, law, and life, hard work and prior preparation will ultimately win.
The Ratification Campaign and the Federalist Papers
The Constitutional Convention ended in September 1787, and the United States Constitution was presented to each state for ratification. Ratification was not guaranteed.
Alexander Hamilton recruited James Madison and John Jay to write a series of newspaper articles that explained and defended the proposed Constitution. They published 85 essays in the span of six months. Madison wrote 29. The essays were combined and printed as the Federalist Papers. This became the handbook for the supporters of the Constitution.
The ratification vote by the Virginia legislature was crucial. The popular orator Patrick Henry, “the Anti-Madison,” opposed the constitution. When Madison realized that the ratification vote was in jeopardy, he got elected to the ratifying convention so he could counter Patrick Henry and his allies. The deliberate soft-spoken Madison, with his well-prepared rational arguments, persuaded several key delegates to change their votes. Thus, Virginia became the 10th state to ratify the constitution.
The Constitution was ratified and went into effect in 1789.
“The Father of the Constitution”
James Madison was the “youngest” and “last” of the Founding Fathers. For his hard work, dedication, and brilliance, James Madison earned the title “the Father of the Constitution.” That title is well deserved.
Madison’s blue print for the American government has lasted over two centuries. We have been greatly blessed because of him.
(Sources: Personal tours of Montpellier; “James Madison and the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov>james-madison-papers; “James Madison: Father of the Constitution,” Colleen Sheehan, Heritage Foundation, http://www.heritage.org; “James Madison and the Dilemmas of Democracy: What king of government did the Father of the Constitution envision?”, Myron Magnet, www/city-journal.org, 2011; “James Madison,” History.com; “James Madison,” Wikipedia.)
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