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In James Madison and the Making of America, historian Kevin Gutzman looks beyond the way James Madison is traditionally seen -- as "The Father of the Constitution" -- to find a more complex and sometimes contradictory portrait of this influential Founding Father and the ways in which he influenced the spirit of today's United States. Instead of an idealized portrait of Madison, Gutzman treats readers to the flesh-and-blood story of a man who often performed his founding deeds in spite of himself: Madison's fame rests on his participation in the writing of The Federalist Papers and his role in drafting the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Today, his contribution to those documents is largely misunderstood. He thought that the Bill of Rights was unnecessary and insisted that it not be included in the Constitution, a document he found entirely inadequate and predicted would soon fail. Madison helped to create the first American political party, the first party to call itself "Republican", but only after he had argued that political parties, in general, were harmful. Madison served as Secretary of State and then as President during the early years of the United States and the War of 1812; however, the American foreign policy he implemented in 1801-1817 ultimately resulted in the British burning down the Capitol and the White House. In so many ways, the contradictions both in Madison's thinking and in the way he governed foreshadowed the conflicted state of our Union now. His greatest legacy―the disestablishment of Virginia's state church and adoption of the libertarian Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom―is often omitted from discussion of his career. Yet, understanding the way in which Madison saw the relationship between the church and state is key to understanding the real man. Kevin Gutzman's James Madison and the Making of America promises to become the standard biography of our fourth President.
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Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution, of Virginia's American Revolution, and (with Thomas E. Woods, Jr.) of Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush. He is Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University and lives in Bethel, Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From Subject to Citizen,
James Madison Jr. entered the world at midnight of the night of April 16–17, 1751.1 By chance, he was an American prince.
James Madison Sr., the master of Montpelier in Piedmont Virginia’s semifrontier Orange County, was the wealthiest man in the county. His lands were extensive, his slaveholdings were notable, and his family connections were impressive. In a society that privileged the wealthy to a notable degree, James Jr.’s world was his oyster.
Piedmont Virginia lay west of the Tidewater region that had been dominated by Virginia planters for well over a century. Life was cruder there, and tradition less powerful. Social status figured very strongly in a young man’s life, but not to the degree that it did in the coastal counties. If ever a common Virginian doffed his hat as young Madison passed, Madison was not quite so snobbish as a Byrd, Carter, or Harrison. Still, like them, Madison knew his place.
As the scion of a prominent planter family, Madison—unlike most Virginia boys—received an enviable education. First, he attended a small school for sons of the elite in King and Queen County run by Donald Robertson. Next, from 1767 to 1769, his father hired an Episcopal priest tutor to live at Montpelier as Madison’s, and possibly his siblings’, teacher.2 Finally, at age eighteen, Madison went on to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Along the way, Madison read widely in Greek and Latin. He imbibed strong republican sentiments as well as a skeptical attitude toward officeholders.
Opting for Princeton was uncommon among Virginia bluebloods. Madison went there to avoid reputedly unhealthy Williamsburg.3 More commonly, boys of his class went to England’s Inns of Court or Scotland’s University of Edinborough for advanced professional training in law or medicine, or, like Thomas Jefferson, they spent a few years at the colonial college, William and Mary. At William and Mary, nominally Episcopalian, the students were not notably studious and the curriculum was far from rigorous.
Princeton, on the other hand, had a president unlike any in Virginia. The Reverend John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian, a recent immigrant from Scotland.4 As a matter of course, his attitudes about the relationship between church and state, government and religion, the conscience and society were different from those to which Madison would have been exposed at William and Mary. Witherspoon contributed substantially to the course of American philosophy through his devotion to the Scottish Enlightenment, then in full flower, and transmission of Scottish commonsense philosophy to America.
Witherspoon joined leading figures in Scotland’s philosophical establishment in promoting this philosophy. It downplayed the utility of “metaphysical” thought, preferring hardheaded realism, and held that everyone carried the ability to achieve insight into the true and the good by applying his mental faculties to the world around him. Not books, but experience was the best guide.5 In other words, Witherspoon was Aristotelian, not Platonic—with a vengeance, and he believed that the common man could participate in government along with the aristocrat.
Witherspoon taught, as a Presbyterian minister could be expected to do, that man was self-centered and not to be trusted. Among other sources for this teaching was the Scottish philosopher David Hume, with whom Witherspoon was not uniformly in tune. Famously, Madison would turn Hume’s teaching to good account in Federalist No. 10—and, indeed, throughout his career. We can find many points of similarity between Witherspoon’s beliefs and Madison’s, but Madison clearly was not an undiscriminating student. For example, Witherspoon held state support of Christianity to be essential to the health of society and of Christianity, while Madison ultimately rejected that idea, with world-historic significance, as we shall see.6
Although he would later win acclaim for his learnedness, Madison was never a cold, calculating scholar. Rather, he always demonstrated an active sense of humor. Proof of this from his college days is provided by some poetry Madison contributed to an intramural dispute.
Princeton students, it seems, had organized competing literary social clubs, the Whigs and the Cliosophians. Madison took the lead among Whigs in a doggerel war in 1771–1772, contributing several poems to the ongoing conflict.7 The editors of Madison’s papers infer that the Whigs were the socially elite group, while their rivals’ backgrounds often formed the grist for Whig mockery.8 Among the choicest bits was this:
Keep up you[r] minds to humourous themes
And verdant meads & flowing streams
Untill this tribe of dunces find
The baseness of their grovelling mind
And skulk within their dens together
Where each ones stench will kill his brother.
In light of which, you can only imagine how Homeric the quality of the rest must have been. But I will spare you.
While at Princeton, Madison decided to study law on the side. He bought the books he thought he needed for that purpose and, in the fashion of those days, began to read them.9 Very few American legal scholars took classes in law at the time. Instead, they commonly read leading texts and apprenticed to individual members of the bar. Madison’s course, then, was nothing unusual. Nor, I wager, was his experience. Madison’s first flush of tepid enthusiasm (in December 1773) soon gave way before the reality of legal study, which he described (in January 1774) as “coarse and dry.” Fortunately for him and for us, Madison seems to have abandoned his hobby almost instantly.
In 1772, Madison entered upon a very interesting correspondence with one of his Princeton classmates, Philadelphia’s William Bradford. Bradford, who one day would serve briefly as George Washington’s attorney general, broached subjects philosophical and religious with Madison, and the Virginian responded in kind.10
At this point, Madison was still prone, in the fashion of his Princeton instructors, to religious speculations and philosophical diversions. For example, Madison wrote Bradford at one point that, although of course young men would be ambitious, “Nevertheless a watchful eye must be kept on ourselves lest while we are building ideal monuments of Renown and Bliss here we neglect to have our names enrolled in the Annals of Heaven.”11 Warming to the subject, Madison went on to say that, “As to myself I am too dull and infirm now to look out for any extraordinary things in this world for I think my sensations for many months past have intimated to me not to expect a long or healthy life, yet it may be better with me after some time tho I hardly dare expect it and therefore have little spirit and alacrity to set about any thing that is difficult in acquiring and useless in possessing after one has exchanged Time for Eternity.” Madison, aged twenty-one, went on to advise his pal not to be swayed by the allure of “those impertinent fops that abound in every City to divert you,” but to stick to his resolution to study “History and the Science of Morals.” Fortunately, Madison said, his secluded perch in ultrarural Orange County insulated him from such temptations, which “breed in Towns and populous places, as naturally as flies do in the Shambles.”
Bradford replied with an expression of concern for Madison’s health.12 Little could he know that Madison would be fatigued and often on the verge of death for another sixty-four years. In their exchanges, Madison made clear that he respected the ministry and wished his friend would enter upon that profession; the editors of his papers infer that perhaps he would have liked to become a minister, if it were not for his health.13 The twenty-two-year-old Madison also noted that, “I do not meddle with Politicks.” Events would soon bring a change in that sentiment.
In his letter of December 1, 1773, Madison struck out on a new path.14 Since Bradford’s Pennsylvania was, along with New Jersey and Rhode Island, one of three colonies without established churches, Madison asked him to describe the Pennsylvania “fundamental principles of legislation” and “particularly the extent of your religious Toleration.” Bradford had finally decided to become an attorney, and Madison did not want to rush him. Rather, he asked him please to provide this information once he had “obtained sufficient insight.”
Displaying a systematic approach to political and philosophical topics that would soon be commented upon by his colleagues as characteristic of his statesmanship, Madison gave Bradford two specific questions to answer for him: (1) “Is an Ecclesiastical Establishment absolutely necessary to support civil society in a supream Government?” and (2) “How far is it hurtful to a dependant State?” Presumptuously, Madison suggested Bradford might attend to these issues “in the course of your reading and consulting experienced Lawyers & Politicians upon.” He awaited a report on “the Result of your reserches.”
Bradford’s next missive included an enclosure describing the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.15 Madison responded by saying that, “I verily believe the frequent Assaults that have been made on America[,] Boston especially[,] will in the end prove of real advantage.”16
This led Madison directly back to the issue of state churches that he had raised with his friend before: “If the Church of England had been the established and general Religion in all the Northern Colonies as it has been among us here,” he erupted, “and uninterrupted tranquility had prevailed throughout the Continent, It is clear to me ...
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