James Madison is probably best known as the “father of the constitution,” but he also had a distinguished career in politics both before and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As leader of the House of Representatives in the first years under the new U.S. Constitution, he authored and secured the passage of the Bill of Rights; he went on to become Secretary of State in the Jefferson administration, and he succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809. Nonetheless, his fame and lasting importance rest largely on the political analyses and innovations that he developed at the time of the movement for a new constitution and Bill of Rights.
Madison thought of the foundations and ends of politics in the terms captured in the Declaration of Independence. In his role as “father of the Bill of Rights,” he proposed as a first amendment to the Constitution
that there be prefixed to the document a declaration, that all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people. That government is instituted and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.
Madison here invokes a Lockean social contract theory of political authority. Political power traces back to the people, who are thus sovereign. Rulers possess what are, in effect, delegated powers meant to procure the good of the people, not the good of the rulers. The exercise of political power is thus to be judged according to whether it serves the public good. Like Locke, Madison understood that good as consisting of the security of preexisting (i.e., natural) rights or the objects of preexisting rights—“the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property; and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Finally, Madison capped his list of first principles with the “indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government,” which is a close echo of Jefferson’s parallel “right to alter or abolish” governments that fail to secure the end (rights securing) for which they exist.
Madison believed that these principles of political right had clear implications for the organization of political power. He called himself one “of those who [believe] in the doctrine that mankind are capable of governing themselves and [hate] hereditary power as an insult to the reason and an outrage to the rights of man.” The “rights of man,” Madison maintained, imply that only “republican government” is legitimate. If, as the social contract theory says, political authority derives exclusively from the people, then no set of rulers can claim any share or piece of it that does not derive from the people. That disqualified all hereditary and other forms of self‐appointed political authority. Earlier adherents of a social contract did not draw similar conclusions, but accepted as legitimate that a part of government rest in the hands of hereditary ruling groups. When Madison and the other Americans rejected this element of earlier political philosophy, they set the terms for the task to which Madison’s political science was most emphatically directed: to build a wholly republican system, what we would today call a democracy, that successfully achieves the task for which all governments rightly exist—to secure the rights we all possess.
Like Locke, Madison identified all rights as property, which he explains to be a “dominion which one man claims … in exclusion of every other individual.” There are thus two elements to rights: dominion and exclusivity. The rights holder has a kind of control over that to which he has a right, coupled with an immunity from the intrusions of others on that to which he has a right. Madison recognized that the more usual meaning of the term property involves “the external things of the world,” but he also identified a broader meaning: “In its larger and juster meaning, [property] embraces everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right, and which leaves to everyone else the like advantage.” He included in property in this broad sense “safety and liberty of person,” “the free use of … faculties, and free choice of the objects on which to employ them,” the rights Locke, and after him Jefferson, included in the catalog of rights as “life” and “liberty.” In summary, Madison maintained, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
Madison asserted that “government is instituted to protect” this broad kind of property. “That alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.” Just government, in order to secure property in external goods, must not invade property in personal rights, must not seize the property that a man has in “his personal safety and personal liberty,” nor may men be denied “the free use of their faculties and free choice of their occupations” because of “arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies.” Just governments neither “invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich” nor “grind the faces of the poor.” We all equally have rights, and we all have an equal right to have our property secured, but the task of just governance is rendered difficult by the fact that some people have more (sometimes much more) of the external things of the world than do others. Although we all have equal rights (and, therefore, equal property in one sense), we all do not have equal property in the other sense; in one form or another, property tends to translate into political power, and the holders of political power are seldom neutral or fair‐minded in the way they wield it. Rather, they use it to favor their own interests. How then can government act impartially and justly?
Madison’s political philosophy poses three especially difficult problems that must be solved: (1) How can one combine republican government with a system that secures rights? (2) How can one impartially secure property in both the narrow and extended senses of the term? and (3) How can one navigate the narrow passage between a too strong government and too much liberty? Madison’s greatness as a political scientist lay, in part, in his recognition that all previous models, including those most widely accepted in the American colonies, were inadequate to the challenge posed by these three problems. This recognition drove him to a series of political inventions intended to provide a set of novel solutions.
The years immediately following the American victory in the Revolutionary War were economically and politically difficult ones for the new nation. Madison was one of the first to see that the root of the problem was the inadequacy of political arrangements both within the new states and at the level of the union of the states. The government of the union under the Articles of Confederation was built on the model of “government of the states, by the states and for the states.” The citizens of the union were the member states; the congress or assembly of the states made recommendations to its members that did or did not carry out these recommendations (more often not). Madison quickly realized that this system of essentially voluntary cooperation had serious and insoluble problems centering on collective action. He saw that coercive power was needed at the center if the union was ever to become a successful government. However, unlike many other American leaders, he realized that coercion could not be used against the member states as states because, in that case, every effort to enforce the law would be an invitation to civil war. Much better, he realized, would be for the central government to attempt to enforce its laws directly on individuals. Yet if the government of the union is to operate directly on its citizens, then the citizens must have direct involvement in its composition and operation. Thus was born the entirely new kind of federal system that entered the world with the American Constitution.
Madison’s new federalism meant that, for certain purposes (those entrusted to the central government), the United States would constitute one large republic, which was regarded by contemporary political theorists as quite dangerous. Republics, it was held, must be small, and the people must be able to keep their rulers on a “short leash.” Madison’s analysis overturned that judgment. The commitment to small republics, he argued, not only stood in the way of an effective federal union of the states, but also stood behind the sorry record of injustice and instability within the states. Short‐leash republics facilitated the formation of majorities that threatened the rights of minorities and hampered the construction of governments capable of acting effectively to accomplish the tasks for which governments were established. Large and diverse republics, such as would exist in the union, would be less likely to produce oppressive majorities. Moreover, institutions constructed on principles of greater independence for office holders would, paradoxically, secure both more effective and safer governance. Power and liberty, Madison demonstrated, are, within limits, not enemies, but could be mutually supportive.
Madison went on to explain the principles of his new political science in The Federalist, the series of essays he coauthored to further the Constitution’s chances for ratification. These essays, especially the famous Federalist no. 10, remain the best source for understanding Madison’s political innovations.
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Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Charles R. Kesler, ed. New York: Signet Classics, 2003.
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———. “The Political Science of James Madison.” History of American Political Thought. Bryan Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga, eds. Landham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003.