Madisonís Ambivalent Architecture
Last week marked James Madisonís 250th
birthday, an event commemorated at The New York Times and
National Review Online alike.
Madison is of course an eminent American who made
important contributions to our political thought: the 1785 Memorial
and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, essays in The
Federalist, the 1798 Virginia Resolution against the wretched
Alien and Sedition Acts. At his best, he is a magisterial expositor
of the American creed that cherishes private purview and decentralized
When Madison affirms in the Memorial
and Remonstrance that "The ReligionÖof every man must
be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is
the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate,"
he champions the personal autonomy so contused today; when he observes
No. 54 that "Government is instituted no less for protection
of the property than of the persons of individuals," he articulates
a simple and essential truth from which contemporary America is
radically estranged; when he prescribes interposition in the Virginia
Resolution against "a
deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers [by
the federal government], not granted by the said compact [the Constitution],"
he underscores a crucial attribute of statesí rights.
One would conclude
from these examples that Madison was a paragon of freedom and federalism.
Unfortunately, his legacy is more complex and problematic.
If he were an
ostensible advocate of federal republicanism in The Federalist
and Virginia Resolution, Madison started out spearheading the
ultra-nationalist Virginia Plan that would have converted the then
confederated states into municipalities of a central regime. Madison
scholar Jack Rakove describes his "animus against
Philadelphia, he repeatedly argued that the states should not
be treated as sovereign jurisdictions. He worked mightily to deny
them equal votes in the Senate, and he hoped to give Congress
a veto on all state laws, a measure that would have stripped the
states of any pretension of sovereignty."
the congressional veto paramount: "This prerogative of the
General Govt. is the great pervading principle that must controul
the centrifugal tendency of the States." Decentralist sentiments
these are not. Garry Wills accordingly observes, "Madison did
not go to the Constitutional Convention to defend the states more
nearly to destroy them."
Thus, the Anti-Federalists
(i.e., the true federalists) responded with rational incredulity
to Madisonís assurance in Federalist
No. 45 that "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution
to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to
remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite."
(See especially Brutusís
prescient delineation of the judicial agency by which consolidation
would be effected.)
Madisonís vision of national supremacy prevailed
in the Union-Confederacy War and Reconstruction where the statesí
right of withdrawal met military suppression and the erasure of
their statehood. (The First Reconstruction Act in 1867 divided the
former Confederate states with the exception of Tennessee into five
military districts.) Today, the proposition that the federal government
is an agent of the states is at best popularly perceived as anachronous
romanticism. The Supreme Court exercises a de facto veto
power over state laws it deems unconstitutional (unconstitutional,
ideologically unpalatable to five or more justices it all
blends). The states havenít lost their equal suffrage in the Senate,
that institution will long endure is open to question.
Loconte of the Heritage Foundation writes of Madisonís "role
as the major architect of the Constitution." He was also a
major architect of the unitary Leviathan into which our federal
constitutional republic has degenerated. The Virginia Plan may have
been defeated at Philadelphia, but it reigns in our age.
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.