James Madison's Ambivalent Architecture

by Myles Kantor

Last week marked James Madison's 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 governance.

When Madison affirms in the Memorial and Remonstrance that "The Religion…of 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 in Federalist 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 states' 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 the states":

"At 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."

Madison considered 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 Madison's 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 Brutus's prescient delineation of the judicial agency by which consolidation would be effected.)

Madison's vision of national supremacy prevailed in the Union-Confederacy War and Reconstruction where the states' 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 haven't lost their equal suffrage in the Senate, although whether that institution will long endure is open to question.

Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation writes of Madison's "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.

Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Myles Kantor Archives