March 1, 2001 essays

James Madison’s Vision of Liberty

Samples explores James Madison’s life by examining his motivations in drafting and later defending the United States Constitution.

James Madison once remarked that the Constitution of the United States was the work of many minds and many hands. He was being too modest. Madison, more than anyone else at the Constitutional Convention that hot summer of 1787, developed the ideas embodied in our fundamental law and crafted the actual wording of the document. Moreover, James Madison was a persistent and powerful friend of liberty. All friends of freedom have good reason to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth on March 16, 1751.

We are familiar today with intellectuals and politicians. Intellectuals we know frequently as pure theorists, if not irrelevant utopians, cosseted by tenure and politically irresponsible. Politicians are often demagogues with an eye on the polls and a talent for short-term thinking. In contrast, Madison and many of the other Framers of the Constitution were engaged intellectuals, men whose political experience both constrained and ennobled their constitutional thinking. By 1787 Madison was no innocent. He understood that, as we say today, politics is hardball. However, that fact was not an excuse for cynicism but rather a sound foundation upon which to build a constitution that would perdure.

Madison’s life before the Constitutional Convention prepared him well for his great task. At Princeton he was a devoted student who completed his degree in two years and stayed on to study Hebrew and philosophy with the president of the university. (Time did not make him less of a “grind”: an ungenerous critic called the 30- year-old Madison “the most unsociable creature in existence.”) He remained proficient in Latin and Greek throughout his life and returned again and again to ancient authors.

Four years out of Princeton, he began his political career as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776. Thereafter, he twice served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a member of the Continental Congress. During his second stint in the Virginia body, he blocked a proposed tax to support the teaching of Christianity and brought about the passage of a bill that both decriminalized heresy and abolished the religious test for public office.

As flaws in the Articles of Confederation became more evident, Madison believed constitutional reform was inevitable. Two years before the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he repaired to the family estate, Montpelier, and prepared to play a major role in the second founding of the United States. He devoured histories of republics, ancient and modern, and read the most advanced theorists of his day. He importuned his closest friend, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as minister to France, to send him crates of works by European authors. In sum, no man ever came better prepared than Madison to the task of writing a constitution.

At the convention itself, he took notes of all that was said and of the votes taken; his account remains essential to understanding what happened in Philadelphia. During the ratification struggle, he wrote, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the famous Federalist Papers defending the new Constitution. His contributions tell us much about what he had learned from his formal and political education.

Madison once wrote: “It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune.” Men are not angels and will not live together in peace and freedom without some government. Yet government is a double-edged sword. The power to deter and coerce criminals can be transformed into the power to restrict individual liberty, take property, and impose tyrannical government. How to control government? Elections, in the first instance. But Madison did not share the naïve faith so common today that the people can do no wrong. He knew that majority rule, like all unconstrained political power, posed its own dangers for individual freedom.

Madison on Majority Rule

Madison’s justly famous 10th Federalist Paper offers a brilliant practical solution to controlling government. He begins with a tough-minded analysis of the dangers of faction in a republic. People tend, he says, to divide themselves into groups or factions on the basis of wealth, occupation, or religious commitment and seek to dominate others. Protecting against factional domination thus became a central problem for a government founded on majority rule.

If a faction were a majority, it would pose a grave political danger to any republic. Moved by passion or greed or righteous visions, a majority would violate the rights of a minority. The idle might plunder the industrious. Religious sectarians might seek legal privileges or bans on other faiths. Madison and his colleagues wrote the new American Constitution to prevent such abuses of power and to realize the goods of liberty and security.

Madison argued that the sheer size of the new American republic made such injustices less likely. In pure democracies, such as ancient Athens, individuals quickly discovered common interests, formed factions, and oppressed their fellow citizens. The great diversity of interests and groups in the new American republic worked against a mob acting in unison. A farmer in Massachusetts and another in Virginia might not agree that creditors were Satan’s henchmen. Even if they did share that thought, acting on their common hope of renouncing debts would be immensely complicated.

Madison worried about majorities abusing minorities; he did not fear that minorities could exploit “the greater number.” Here Madison erred. Every day in the United States small minorities—for example, those who benefit from owning or working for the sugar industry—extract millions of dollars from the mass of consumers by virtue of trade protection. Striving for such privileges is so common that scholars have given it a name, rent seeking. Madison did not see that minorities could exploit majorities when the benefits of government action to those minorities were huge and the costs to each individual in the majority were small.

Madison emphasized that the United States would have a representative government rather than a pure democracy. He had little sympathy for the “theoretic politicians” who supported the direct rule of the people. In pure democracies nothing would limit the majority’s abuse of a “weaker party, or the obnoxious individual.” Madison’s indictment is stark: “Such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”

The delegation of the people’s power to representatives, on the other hand, would “refine and enlarge the public views” and dampen the vicious passions that had destroyed so many republics of the past. Giving the people an indirect voice in making the laws, Madison concluded, would more likely serve the public good than would direct democracy.

Madison also spoke of the need for “auxiliary precautions” in the Constitution to limit government and protect freedom. The most important one was the division and balancing of powers. Madison and the other Framers of the Constitution feared the gradual concentration of power in one branch of government. His solution to this danger was entirely pragmatic: the leaders of each branch must have “the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachment of the…others. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Madison’s invitation to struggle among the branches has worked imperfectly in recent years. Congress has partially restrained the “imperial presidency” of Kennedy and Nixon; the states have done less well at restraining an “imperial” Washington establishment. Congress has delegated too much of its authority to the executive branch where unaccountable bureaucrats make policy outside the rule of law.

Madison also insisted that the people retained all rights not expressly delegated to the new government of the United States. The powers enumerated in the Constitution thus placed a limit on what government could do legitimately. In Madison’s day, as in our own, some people contended that the federal government had implicit powers to attain the goals stated in the preamble to the Constitution, especially the goal of promoting the general welfare. Madison disagreed strongly. Such a theory would “convert the government from one limited as hitherto supposed, to the enumerated powers, into a government without any limits at all.” We may well wonder whether today we live under a government “without any limits at all.”

In Madison’s opinion, an essential right retained by the people was liberty of conscience in matters of religion. Some of his earliest letters denounce religious intolerance in Virginia. His Christian faith cannot be doubted, nor can his unyielding resistance to mixing politics and religion. For Madison, bringing religion into the public realm corrupted both faith and government.

We might close by recalling Thomas Jefferson’s assessment of his friend: “I can say conscientiously that I do not know in the world a man of purer integrity, more dispassionate, disinterested, and devoted to genuine Republicanism; nor could I in the whole scope of America and Europe point out an abler head.” The passage of time has amply confirmed Jefferson’s judgment. Madison’s ideas, his life, and his great accomplishment should now inspire us to reclaim the American legacy of liberty and limited government.

This essay originally appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of Cato Policy Report.