The Last Founding Father
Unlike certain former governors I could name, I can name my favorite Founding Father: Thomas Jefferson. Not only do I have a favorite, I have gotten into debates with friends about why he was the best of the Founders.
But not only do I have a favorite, I also have a second favorite: James Madison. And while I have written about Jefferson many times, Madison deserves some praise.
Madison was the son of a tobacco plantation owner in the colony of Virginia. As the eldest son of a wealthy landowner, he had been tutored in the classics, mathematics, geography, and so on. In college he continued his interest in the classics, also studying Hebrew, philosophy, and law.
It was during this time that his letters to friends began to mention his discomfort with the persecution of Baptists. In Virginia at the time it was illegal to preach without a license from the Church of England (a law that continued after independence, when the Church changed its name to the Episcopal Church, and continued as the official church of Virginia). Madison’s family leaned toward Presbyterianism, though several of his cousins were clergymen in the Church of England, and one became a Bishop. Madison never experienced the sting of this religious persecution personally, but he felt that it was wrong for the law to impose one church upon everyone.
Madison was still a young man when he was elected to the Virginia Colonial legislature. It was as a delegate that he met Thomas Jefferson, with whom he formed a friendly working relationship. Madison remained in the legislature through the war of independence.
After the war, Madison became acquainted with Elijah Craig, a wealthy distiller and a Baptist who had been jailed numerous times for preaching without a license. Madison began working with Craig to introduce laws in the Virginia assembly to protect churches other than the official state church. Jefferson was keen on the idea, but thought Madison was going about it too timidly. When Jefferson began to champion the cause of disestablishing an official state church altogether, Madison threw his support behind it, and eventually the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom was passed.
In 1787, when it became clear to everyone that the weak central government that had been established after the revolution was not working, Madison was one of the delegates to what became the Constitutional Convention. Madison arrived at the convention with an outline for a new government, and it became the starting point. Although the final constitution drafted hardly resembled Madison’s outline at all by the time they were finished, the entire debate had consisted of amending and expanding on Madison’s idea, prompting many to start calling him the Father of the Constitution.
Madison was the source of one of the most brilliant ideas in the Constitution: the notion that two sovereigns meant more liberty, not less. Each citizen is answerable to both their state and the federal government, but each state is answerable to its citizens and to the rest of the states through the agency of the federal government. Similarly the federal government is answerable both to the states and the citizens. If a citizen feels wronged by his state, he can appeal to the federal government, for instance.
Madison was one of the key authors of the Federalist Papers, which were a series of essays explaining why the new Constitution was necessary.
After the Constitution was ratified, Madison was elected to the House or Representatives. Many people repeat the myth that several states ratified the Constitution on the condition that a Bill of Rights (listing specific rights that citizens could never be deprived of) would be added. That’s simply not true. Several delegates of the original Constitutional Convention thought there ought to be a Bill of Rights, but not a majority. During the debates throughout the states during ratification, many of the Anti-Federalists raised the lack of a Bill of Rights as an argument against ratification. In several of the states there were attempts to add a requirement for a Bill of Rights, but not one state actually passed such a requirement.
Madison had been of a mixed mind on the matter. He feared that if a specific list was drafted, future generations might argue that those would be the only rights people had (I’m looking at you, Justice Scalia), but he also worried about what would happen without an explicit list. He worried a lot about the “tyranny of the majority”—the fact that people in the majority could force their views on others, such as the laws that made it a crime to preach one’s religion if one wasn’t certified by the official church.
So, he arrived at Congress with a list, and introduced a bill to amend the new constitution.
Eventually, his list, rearranged and revised slightly, became 12 separate clauses that were passed by Congress and sent to the states. Ten of them were adopted within a few years, the First granting freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right of all citizens to petition the government. The second protected the right to keep and bear arms (though not for the reasons most people think). The third guaranteed that citizens could not be compelled to provide free room and board to soldiers (a source of painful memories shortly after the revolution, which seems a bit odd to us now). The fourth protects against unreasonable search and seizure, requiring warrants with probable cause. And so on, until the tenth, which covered Madison’s big worry by explicitly saying that any power not specifically mentioned in the constitution as belonging to the federal government belongs to the states and to individual citizens.
One other of Mr Madison’s original 12 wasn’t ratified until just over 200 years later, becoming the Twenty-seventh Amendment, limiting changes in salary of members of congress (and in certain circumstances, other officials) from taking effect until a new election of the House of Representatives has taken place.
Madison didn’t like it when people referred to him as Father of the Constitution (even his friend, Thomas Jefferson insisted on calling the document itself, “Mr Madison’s Constitution” for the rest of his life), but he was proud when they called him Father of the Bill of Rights.
Madison later served as Secretary of State when Jefferson was President, and was subsequently elected the fourth President of the United States. He was President during the War of 1812, the prosecution of which changed his mind about the need for the country to have a standing army, as well as a national banking system.
After leaving the Presidency, he retired to the family plantation, which had entered into financial difficulties while being managed by Madison’s stepson.
His last work in government was as a delegate, at the age of 78, to a constitutional convention for the State of Virginia. The primary accomplishment of the convention was to remove the requirement that a man had to own property in order to vote (yes, that was still happening in 1829), but the convention failed to resolve the equal apportionment of delegates in the legislature, which Madison had championed.
Madison’s most famous accomplishment may be the Bill of Rights, but what I admired about him was his passion for increasing liberty and improving the ways government served the people. And I love that he always came prepared with a proposal, but was also always ready to accept revisions in service of the greater goal. He had strong opinions, and spoke both eloquently and passionately for them, but he wasn’t afraid to admit when he had been wrong, and to sincerely change course when necessary.
His philosophy might be best summed up by something he wrote in the Federalist Papers:
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part… In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.
By the time he died on June 28, 1836, every other man who is considered a Founding Father of the U.S. had died before him. He was the last Founding Father, but no one could say that he was the least.