A few weeks ago Professor Kevin Gutzman was the guest on The Forgotten Men radio program to discuss his book James Madison and The Making of America. I mention this because today March 16, 1751 — 261 years ago — James Madison was born. This week’s article is dedicated to James Madison and his life’s work. By no means am I a biographer or a historian nor do I purport this is a complete representation of Madison. There are many books on Madison if you wish to learn more about him and his contributions to the founding of our great union. Of course, I would strongly recommend you start with Professor Gutzman’s book.
Madison was born in 1751 in Port Conway, King George Virginia and made Montpelier Virginia his lifelong home. Madison was educated at the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton). He is most remembered as “the father of the constitution” because Madison drafted the initial proposed constitution presented at the constitutional convention of 1787. Madison’s plan was rejected by the convention but the label is affixed to his legacy.
Throughout his life Madison was involved in politics. The timeline shows Madison’s forty plus years in state and federal politics.
- Member of Virginia Constitutional Convention, 1776
- Member of Continental Congress, 1780-1783
- Member of Virginia Legislature, 1784-1786
- Member of Constitutional Convention, 1787
- Member of U.S. House of Representatives, 1789-1797
- Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809
- President of the United States, 1809 – 1917
There are three specific things about Madison that stand out to me. First, he was instrumental in ensuring religious liberty and freedom. Madison was an opponent of state declared religions but clearly recognized the unalienable right to freedom of conscience. In 1786 Madison gave a speech on the floor of the Virginia General Assembly called A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. What follows are excerpts from the speech.
“The Religion then 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. The right is in its nature an unalienable right… We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance… Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former… The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves…
The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle… If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.”
The second thing that stands out to me is Madison authoring the Virginia Resolution of 1798. Jefferson had anonymously drafted the Kentucky Resolution of 1798 and together they are referred to as the “Principles of 98”. While it is beyond the scope of this article to thoroughly review the Principles of 98 there are a few salient points I’d like to cover. Also, I highly recommend you read the book Reclaiming the American Revolution by William J. Watkins, Jr. to learn more about the subject. The points are from the book and attribution is given to Mr. Watkins.
- The most prominent school of political philosophy held that all government was a compact, which – should it degrade into tyranny – could be dissolved or disregarded by the governed.
- The several states composing the United States of America, are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to the General Government
- No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.
- The Kentucky and Virginia Resolution should remind us that the American Revolution left sovereignty in our hands and that should the federal government exceed its constituted authority, trample on our Bill of Rights, or allow a “monied interest” to corrupt our laws that We the People of the United States provide the ultimate check against it.
- Statutory acts not made in pursuance to delegated constitutional powers are NOT supreme law of the land and are merely acts of usurpation and are to be treated as such.
- Lastly, directly from the Virginia Resolution, Madison said, in case of deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the States who are parties thereto, have the right and are duty bound, to interpose for arresting the purpose of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.
The third thing that stands out to me is Madison’s fair and equitable treatment of the proposed Constitution, his representations at the state ratification conventions, his agreement to propose amendments to the first Congress under the Constitution, and his lifelong commitment to the Constitution as understood by the states at their respective ratification conventions. Even though Madison’s plan was firmly rejected at the constitutional convention he fairly represented what it meant to the states at the ratification conventions. Though he may not have agreed with the final Constitution he acted honorably by fairly representing it to the states.
Moreover, though all thirteen states eventually ratified the Constitution, over 200 amendments were submitted by the states with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be submitted to the states for their consideration. Madison consolidated the 200 amendments into 20 amendments which he proposed to Congress. Congress approved 12 amendments which were sent to the state legislatures for ratification. Of the twelve, only ten were ratified and became the Bill of Rights. Note, nearly 200 years later one of the other two amendments was ratified and is now the 27th amendment to the Constitution.
So, today, reflect upon a man who dedicated much of his life to the principles of federalism and constitutionally limited government.
Happy Birthday James.