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Founding Father: James Madison

Experts discuss the legacy of the nation's fourth president on the occasion of his 250th birthday.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Honoring James Madison, 250 years after his birth.

    Large monuments on Washington's mall honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. But there's no remembrance of the nation's fourth President, James Madison, though his contributions to American democracy may be equally important. At celebrations marking Madison's 250th birthday this year at his home in Montpelier, Virginia, and at the Library of Congress in Washington, he was remembered for his role in the founding of the republic. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist called him "the Father of U.S. Constitutional Government."

  • CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAM REHNQUIST:

    Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and Washington, then, made contributions which none of the others could have. Madison was the most thoughtful and deliberate of the four and perhaps the least charismatic. But it was the very thoughtfulness and deliberateness which enabled him to lead the way to the adoption of the United States Constitution at the convention in Philadelphia in 1787. This remarkable document has endured for more than two centuries, is the envy of many, many countries outside of ours, and it is, in a very real sense, Madison's memorial. It is a fitting and proper one.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Born in 1751, Madison was part of Virginia's landed gentry. As a Virginia legislator, he supported American independence. He served as a delegate from Virginia at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. There he introduced his plan for America's national government. Michael Quinn is President of the Montpelier Foundation.

  • MICHAEL QUINN:

    Madison literally wore himself out at the Constitutional Convention. He was not only one of its most active members, speaking more than almost any other delegate, but he took detailed notes of every speech. He actually developed his own form of shorthand so he could write down verbatim what each delegate said. And then as soon as the day's meeting was over, he'd return to his room and copy it all out in longhand. His notes from the convention fill more than 1,000 pages, and they're held at one of the nation's treasure, at the Library of Congress.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Madison was the Constitution's leading defender for 50 years. He guided it through the ratification process and wrote many of the Federalist Papers to explain the document to his fellow citizens. While serving in the first federal Congress' House of Representatives, Madison sponsored the first ten amendments to the Constitution, what we call the Bill of Rights. And after eight years as Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, Madison was elected President in 1808. His presidency was fraught with political rift at home and disputes with France, Great Britain and Spain. During Madison's second term, the War of 1812 led to the British invasion, the burning of Washington and the White House. Madison eventually retired to Montpelier and died there at 85. In his final days, his last advice to the country was that the union of the states be cherished and perpetuated.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Joining me now to discuss James Madison and his legacy are Hunter Rawlings, President of Cornell University; Jan Lewis, professor of history at Rutgers University and author of "The Pursuit of Happiness: Family Values in Jefferson's Virginia"; and Jack Rakove, professor of history and political science at Stanford, and author of "James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic." Jack Rakove, if there's a sense that James Madison hasn't gotten his due, why don't you start us on a path toward giving it to him? What should we say to place him in his proper historical context?

  • JACK RAKOVE:

    Well, the first thing to say about him of course, as your little snippet suggested, is that he really was the principal framer of the Constitution, the principal statesman who helped to arrange for the calling of the convention, the one who argued most vigorously for its ratification, after… in 1777 and 1778, and then of course, Madison goes off to the first Congress and presides over the adoption of the Bill of Rights. So we always think of him first and foremost as the Constitutional founder, the one man who seemed to have been involved at every key point in the movement to create a stronger national government and to get the thing up and running, and then of course, to preserve the Constitution upon which it rested.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Jan Lewis, what would you like to add to place James Madison among the pantheon?

  • JAN LEWIS:

    I think that what we should remember Madison for, also, is his extraordinary skill as a politician. It was an extraordinary achievement, not simply being able to think up the ideas in the Constitution, but to be able to share them with others at the Constitutional Convention and to know when to compromise, to know just what was necessary to get the Constitution not only written, but then ratified. Throughout his long life, Madison was an exemplary politician, the man who knew how to get things done.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Hunter Rawlings, this was a time in American history when giants walked the earth. How did it happen that James Madison doesn't come rolling off the toning when we discuss Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams?

  • HUNTER RAWLINGS:

    Well, they were big personalities, very flamboyant in some cases, extremely visible and well-known to the American public. Madison was a scholar, he was quiet, he was quite shy, in fact, and it took him quite a bit of time to develop the confidence to appear in the vigorous debates that were to lead to the Constitution. So Madison was a more scholarly type, and it took long way for while for him to have a significant influence. But when he did, everyone knew it.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    So though we may not talk about him as much today, he was respected by his contemporaries?

  • HUNTER RAWLINGS:

    Let me give you an example. When Washington was preparing the first speech to the new Congress for the new American government, he had a 73-page speech prepared by a speechwriter. He asked Madison to look at it. Madison said it wasn't very good. George said, "James, would you write me one?" James said he would be happy to. Washington gave it. The Congress was so pleased with the speech that it decided it needed a response.

    So they looked around for the best person to respond, and they asked James Madison, a member of the House of Representatives, to write the response and to give it, which he did. And then Washington was so pleased with the response, that he felt yet another response would be necessary and he asked James Madison to write one for the Senate and one for the House. James Madison, in other words, conducted the opening dialogue of the American government by himself.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Jack Rakove, here we are 200-plus years later still arguing about what the framers intended, what different parts of the Constitution really mean. In playing such a large role in the drafting of this document, did Madison anticipate that many years on we would be engaged in just that act?

  • JACK RAKOVE:

    I think he did not quite anticipate just how difficult the task of Constitutional interpretation would be. Madison's original hope coming out of the convention was that after a few years of getting the government up and running, a number of useful precedents would be set, things would settle down, and one would know more and more with each passing year exactly how the thing was to operate.

    What he learned very quickly, and certainly no later than 1793, 1795, '96 and continued to think about on through his Secretary of State and presidency and the 20 years of his retirement, was that there would never be any final resolution of what the Constitution meant. And as a result, Madison had to struggle with the question of what kinds of sources… or what kinds of resources could you bring to bear to resolve constitutional disputes.

    You know, everybody knew that he had kept those, the famous notes of debate, the most comprehensive record of the deliberations at Philadelphia. Everyone knew they were in Madison's possession, that he was tinkering with them and probably one day hoped to see them published. But he was adamant down until his death in 1836 that the notes be published only posthumously.

    And so he started to develop a theory of Constitutional interpretation, which we now call originalism, but which had the somewhat perverse quality of saying that, in fact, what the framers had actually said and thought and done at Philadelphia was not proper matter to bring to bear on solving Constitutional disputes. Instead, one had to look at what the people who ratified the Constitution thought that they were doing. And Madison's really the first politician to develop that theory of interpretation that we're still kicking around 200 and… well, 21 decades later in our ongoing debates about Constitutional interpretation.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Jan Lewis, I know it's a mistake to try to look at the past through the likes of our own day, but I was struck, in getting ready to talk to you all today, when looking at the arguments over nullification, the arguments over what a state can do versus what a federal government can do, that Madison was really wrestling with some of the same sort of splits and tears that would lead to events long after his death, like the civil war and arguments over states' rights and states' sovereignty.

  • JAN LEWIS:

    That's true, but I don't think that we can or should look to Madison for the answers. One of the ironies– and it comes out precisely in the debates over nullification– was that Madison thought he had a pretty good idea of what the Constitution should suggest, and there were people in the Congress at the time, Madison's now in retirement, who were debating nullification.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Let's explain what nullification is, first.

  • JAN LEWIS:

    Oh, nullification is when South Carolina wants to nullify an act of Congress, in particular the Tara, and John Calhoun comes up with a whole theory to justify nullification. Madison is opposed, as this… It would be harmful to the union, the union more than anything else. No state should interpose itself in this way.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    So he was saying that the writ of the federal government should run inside states, that state governments can't contradict an act of Congress?

  • JAN LEWIS:

    At this point, he was, as through his whole life, a committed unionist. But other than the Congress, said, "well, this old man doesn't know what he's talking about and we don't have to pay any attention to him."

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    By living such a long life, another remarkable thing is that he was friends with Benjamin Franklin, and also knew such 19th century figures as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. He sort of bridged an amazing span of eras there.

  • JAN LEWIS:

    Well, he did. He even lived long enough to engage in correspondence with Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria. So he bridged an amazing… He lived a very long life and saw the world change phenomenally. And he himself helped bring about the changes.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Hunter Rawlings, you're an educator. How can we reclaim James Madison?

  • HUNTER RAWLINGS:

    Well, the best thing to do to reclaim James Madison is to do exactly what he did; namely, to study. Madison himself was a careful scholar. He studied Greek and Roman antiquity very carefully and drew a lot of lessons from that study, and analysis that led to many of his thoughts at the Federal Convention. In the same way, I hope that we'll begin to study Madison more carefully in order to understand what went into those very thoughtful and thought-provoking aspects of the Constitution that he helped to develop. The best way to study is to read some of the short pieces, for example, from the "Federalist Papers," which he wrote, along with Hamilton and Jay, and the Tenth Federalist Paper is perhaps a great place to start. It's a short document, but it gives you a very good window into Madison's thoughts.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And just so we don't do violence to his own wishes, was this a man who was content not to be named among the brave, content to be in the shadow of some of his better-known contemporaries?

  • HUNTER RAWLINGS:

    I think to an extent he was content in that way. He didn't mind writing Washington's speech, as long as it was a good speech that the President gave. And the fact that no one knew Madison wrote it was fine with him. And the only real monument to him in our nation's capital now is the Library of Congress. That strikes me as especially fitting for James Madison, a scholar, to have a library named after him.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Jack Rakove, just so it's not all sweetness and light, we should also remember that he was a war-time President and the country was under attack. Briefly remind people what they should remember about the War of 1812.

  • JACK RAKOVE:

    Well, Madison carried us into the War of 1812 through his diplomacy with in a Napoleonic France and Britain, and most scholars have felt he may not have done the nation the best service through his diplomacy. But if the historians have not graded Madison very highly, he was not a vigorous wartime leader and didn't really have a moderate conception of executive power. But what he did have, and what I think Madison was consciously trying to do, was to react against the example of vigorous executive powers that had been set back in the 1790s by George Washington and by John Adams.

    Madison had really reacted very sharply against what he saw as the abuse of the prerogatives of the presidency back in the 1790s. And so I think the one thing that might be said in his defense for his conduct of the war against Great Britain is that he wanted to set the right kind of Constitutional precedence. He wanted to lead the government without becoming a wartime dictator. He didn't have a very able group of men around him to help him in that respect, in any case. And the curious thing is that even though the war was not well fought and in many ways very close to disaster on several occasions, and of course, the capital itself was burnt in 1814, that Madison actually comes out of the war with his reputation not only intact but in some ways enhanced.

    And I think in a certain sense, the result was what he would have wanted, that the country had survived– in some ways Andrew Jackson had done his bid at the very end in New Orleans– but that he had set an example of how you would go could go through a second war of independence, perhaps not have the kind of vigorous executive leadership that we associate let's say with Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, but you could also keep the Constitution and with it, the union intact.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Born 250 years ago this month, James Madison. Guests, thank you all.