Our Great Little Madison

One of the unsung heroes of the American founding era is, ironically, the father of American independence himself. While it’s true that there would have been no freedom from Britain without George Washington, a free America would not have become an independent and sustainable America without the brilliance, passion, and tireless patriotic fire of James Madison.

Page numbers throughout this post refer to Lynne Cheney’s biography of Madison,  James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.

Though he is misunderstood, perceived not as a great statesman and orator but as a shy and sickly scholar, Madison was a great American—arguably the most influential man in American history. Here are ten reasons why modern Americans should admire and emulate James Madison.

#1: Madison was reserved and unassuming.

No more than five feet, six inches tall, Madison was fondly referred to by his friends as “our great little Madison.” He embodied an enviable mixture of humility and confidence—the ability to slip under the radar mixed with the potential to command center stage. He dressed plainly, conducted himself inconspicuously, and spoke judiciously.

His father had taught him early that modesty is becoming for a man, and humility is the best guardian of virtue. Politically, Madison recognized the wisdom in avoiding strong statements while circumstances were still unfolding, and often put forth proposals anonymously to avoid alienating allies who might not agree on all points. Madison’s The Federalist Papers, written collaboratively with Alexander Hamilton, were published under a pseudonym to avoid just such conflict.

Cheney writes, “If in avoiding center stage Madison missed some of the praise, he also avoided some of the criticism, thus saving his reputation for a future day” (p. 2).

#2: Madison was incredibly gifted with words.

John Witherspoon, who was President of Princeton University while Madison was studying there, advanced the Princeton ideal of “preparing youth for public service in church and state” by insisting that students practice public speaking. He provided them with an oratorical model that was simple, commonsensical, and unadorned with distracting flourishes or gestures (p. 27).

Evidently, Madison found Witherspoon’s instruction and oratory inspiring. Madison has never been named alongside great orators like the dramatic and zealous Patrick Henry, but when he spoke his coolness and clarity made him enormously effective. Virginian John Marshall wrote of him, “If [eloquence] includes persuasion by convincing, Mr. Madison was the most eloquent man I ever heard” (p. 3).

#3: Madison was simply unstoppable.

Madison was tireless. He began his adult life at Princeton University, where he completed his degree in just two years. At the outset, he was well-read enough to test out of his freshman year, and then received permission from the administration to tackle his junior and senior years concurrently. He ventured, as he described it, “an indiscreet experiment of the minimum of sleep and the maximum of application which the constitution could bear” (p. 29). He accomplished the feat, but with devastating impacts to his health: during that year he suffered the first of his “sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy” (p. 29).

From that point on, Madison suffered from what was probably epilepsy: he had frequent and severe seizures, and would remain senseless for some time. While he wrestled with the spiritual implications of his disease for most of his life, he never let it hold him back from his work and study—he was a tireless worker and resolute national servant, and overcame his physical difficulty with intellectual vibrancy.

#4: Madison was willing to stoop in order to conquer.

Though Madison was renown for his work on the Virginia Constitution and later at the Constitutional Convention—Monroe wrote of him, “…everyone knows his capacity for work and for intelligent contributions” (p. 94)—he never presumed upon his reputation as a reason he should be trusted or followed. He incessantly poured himself into his research and writing, and wasn’t too proud to stand corrected if he became truly convinced that he was wrong.

Even more significantly, he fought strategically and was willing to strike deals, but he never compromised on the principles he fought for; he was compelled by a long-term vision rather than a temporary one. At the Constitutional Convention, he agreed to debate the Constitution clause-by-clause, petty though the demand was, because he knew he could triumph in the big picture. Madison was a genius because he was practical.

#5: Madison never burned bridges.

Madison knew how to make and keep friends and alliances, avoid collecting enemies, and deal diplomatically with those who were neither friends nor enemies. If someone was a constant thorn in his side and he couldn’t befriend them, he didn’t go out of his way to spite them—he simply avoided them.

Thomas Jefferson was his closest, most trusted friend; they lived the same lifestyle a mere thirty miles apart, and constantly traded books, letters, and ideas. Though they became political opponents later in life, they maintained their personal friendship—probably the most important political friendship in American history. Madison ignored Jefferson when he had to, like when he intentionally neglected to tell him about his authorship of the Federalist Papers, in order to keep from ruining his relationship with his valuable and beloved but occasionally obnoxious friend.

#6: Madison engaged the opposition.

Madison learned from the religious and idealistic oppression in England and much of Europe, and insisted that a vast republic with a wide variety of competing ideas would be the best way to ensure liberty. Diversity of opinions sustains freedom by checking each idea against the others in a liberated form of ideological competition that upholds popular sovereignty. On the other hand, the absence of diverse interests and competing ideas leads to overreach and corruption.

Per this understanding, he was always willing to talk through issues with those who disagreed with him—whether they be his family and friends, fellow delegates to the Convention, or other representatives in Congress. He used his cool, collected, and credible speaking style to his advantage, and won people over with his persuasiveness.

#7: Madison was never troubled by “foolish consistency.”

Madison has been a controversial figure because he supposedly contradicted himself right and left, but upon closer examination it is evident that this is not the case. Contrary to modern political thought and media bias, Madison changed his specific policy advocacy several times, but he remained true to his principles—he proved that it’s not hypocritical to change your mind when times change or you gain new information—he was just never troubled by what he called “foolish consistency.”

Madison was an ardent supporter of a strong central government in the 1780s, but during ratification he became increasingly intent on limiting the government’s power because of the value he placed on ‘the exact balance or equipoise contemplated by the Constitution’ (p. 221).

Additionally, Madison had initially refused to amend the Constitution and insisted that an enumeration of rights was both unnecessary—because all power was already vested in the people (p. 155)—and potentially dangerous—because it would imply an extensive list of the people’s rights, thus allowing the government to restrict all others (p. 177). Later, Madison came to favor the idea of a declaration of rights, in his words, “provided it be so framed as not to imply powers not meant to be included in the enumeration” (p. 183); he included the 9th and 10th Amendments for just that reason.

#8: Madison understood the nature of man and inherent rights.

That understanding was the foundation of Madison’s earnest quest for limited government and rule of law.

He famously wrote in The Federalist #51:

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.”

He grasped man’s fallen, sinful nature and the tendency of humanity to strive for power over others; he knew that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. He designed the system of checks and balances at every level of government in order to prevent any one person or faction from obtaining absolute power.

Madison also understood the inherent value of human beings, and believed certain rights—those that were later expressed in the Bill of Rights—were self-evident. This is why he insisted so fervently on the creation of a fundamental rule of law under a government that was beholden to the people: a system that would protect the people’s natural rights that were, in Jefferson’s words in the Declaration, endowed by their creator.

#9: Madison was fervently committed to religious liberty.

Madison’s physical attacks were likely a form of epilepsy, and they had caused him the emotional and spiritual trial of being told what to believe: in the 18th-century, epileptics were considered unclean, sinful, even demon-possessed. Madison wrestled with this accusation, and eventually began his crusade for religious liberty on the basis that no individual should be forced to believe what his conscience told him was wrong.

He guarded against government favor of any form of religion. In response to Patrick Henry’s proposition to tax all of Virginia to pay for Christian education, though it would not favor any one denomination of Christianity, Madison objected on the basis that “once you can tax for one denomination, you can tax for every denomination” (p. 109).

Madison did not allow the persecution or ridicule of any creed or religion; in one case, he spoke up against some who were deriding Catholicism. He insisted that there was nothing in Catholicism “inconsistent with the purest Republicanism” (p. 253). Liberty was the goal, and republicanism was the form of government most conducive to liberty; any faith, therefore, that did not pose a threat to republicanism would be protected by the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

#10: Madison is truly the Father of American Liberty.

In many ways, James Madison was the one man who had the largest influence on the foundation of the American Republic. He was not only the Father of the Constitution, but also of the Bill of Rights: he authored the Constitution almost single-handedly, and worded and pushed passage of the Bill of Rights amendments.

He also ghost-wrote Washington’s first inaugural address, and it suited Washington well, but one key moment in the address was quintessentially Madisonian: “the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the Republican model of government is justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” (p. 187). Because he was serving in the House of Representatives, Madison wrote the House’s response to Washington’s speech, and then, per Washington’s request, wrote the President’s replies to both the House and the Senate. Madison’s voice was literally reverberating across the foundations of American independence.

“Our great little Madison,” he was called, but scarcely could his friends or opponents have guessed just how great their little Madison really was. Unassuming though he seemed, he never hesitated to take on enormous projects, not the least of which was building the firm foundation of the greatest nation in the history of the world out of the clay of the Revolution.

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