JAMES MADISON: THE SCHOLAR
James Madison arrived in Philadelphia from New York City aboard a rapid stagecoach, the New York-Philadelphia Flier, on May 3, 1787, eleven days before the Constitutional Convention was due to begin. He had hoped that other members of the Virginia delegation would follow suit. Writing to Virginia's Governor Edmund Randolph the month before, Madison urged him to arrive at least a week before the Convention's start date in order that the Virginia delegates might take the lead in preparing "some materials for the work of the Convention."
Each day for those eleven days Madison watched eagerly for other delegates to join him, but aside from the Pennsylvanians, who were already in town, a canvass of the taverns and boardinghouses in Philadelphia yielded disappointing results. When he appeared at the State House on the morning of the fourteenth his fears were confirmed-only a handful of delegates, not nearly enough for a quorum, had turned up. Madison was by nature punctual and conscientious; moreover, he felt acutely the urgency of the need to get on with the business of constitutional reform. He could not have been happy about the meager turnout.
Thomas Jefferson was in Paris, and although he did not take part in the deliberations that summer, he would serve as a sounding board for his friend Madison's frustrations. Writing Jefferson on Tuesday May 15 (a letter Jefferson would not receive until the middle of July), Madison lamented that "the number yet assembled [was] small." He blamed "the late bad weather" for the tardy arrival of the delegates, and to some extent that was true. Heavy rainstorms up and down the East Coast during the previous two weeks had turned the dirt roads, already soggy and treacherous in the Springtime, into veritable rivers of mud. On a good day a delegate travelling to Philadelphia by horseback might cover fifty miles, and by carriage considerably less, but there were few good days that Spring. Madison feared, however, that it was not muddy roads that were keeping the delegates away, but an obstacle far more serious. He had witnessed first hand the way in which a combination of indolence and apathy among the delegates to the Confederation Congress had caused that increasingly ineffectual body to go for weeks at a time without a quorum. Would the Convention in Philadelphia suffer the same fate?
The only interesting thing that happened in Philadelphia that May 14, as reported in the Pennsylvania Herald, occurred about a block from the Pennsylvania State House. "A young cox-comb who had made too free with the bottle," staggered up to a young "lady of delicate dress and shape," took hold of her hand, and, peeping under the large hat covering her face, exclaimed that he "did not like her so well before as behind, but notwithstanding he would be glad of the favour of a kiss." The young woman, unperturbed, coolly replied," with all my heart, Sir, if you will do me the favour to kiss the part you like best!" Not known for his sense of humor, Madison was probably not amused.
Madison would have to wait eleven more days, until May 25, for the Convention to get underway. He spent much of that time in his lodgings in[t2] Mary House's bustling boardinghouse on the corner of Fifth and Market Streets, just a block's distance from the Pennsylvania State House; he had stayed there previously from March of 1780 until the Fall of 1783 while serving his first term in the Continental Congress. Mary House and her daughter Eliza Trist had operated one of the city's most popular and respectable boarding houses at that location since 1778. Because Eliza was married to a Virginian, it had become particularly popular among the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress when that body was meeting in Philadelphia during the Revolution. It was their home-away-from-home, and they often referred to Mary and Eliza as their "family." Madison would stay at Mary House's during the Summer of 1787 with a cohort of five other delegates, including James McHenry of Maryland, John Dickinson and George Read of Delaware, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, and, for a time, Edmund Randolph of Virginia.
Madison returned to Mrs. House's carrying powerful and bittersweet memories. It was there, in the winter and spring of 1783, that the resolutely cerebral Madison had found himself falling in love with a young woman less than half his age--Catherine, the fifteen year old daughter of the New York congressman William Floyd. Thirty-two years old at the time, Madison was extraordinarily shy in nearly all social situations, particularly ones in which attractive women were involved. Standing only a few inches over five feet tall and, prematurely balding, he frequently brushed the few remaining wisps of hair at the top of his head downward to hide his bald spot. Chronically suffering from a combination of poor physical health and hypochondria, usually dressed in dark, drab colors, and painfully awkward in any form of public speech, he came across as neither a commanding nor a self-confident figure. That lack of self-confidence may well have prevented him from risking rejection from a woman his own age, but Kitty Floyd's girlish spontaneity emboldened his romantic instincts.
Thomas Jefferson had boarded at Mary House's in the winter of 1783 and had seen proof of the mutual attraction between Kitty and Madison. On his way back to Monticello in April of 1783, he wrote his friend a letter urging him to propose marriage. Madison replied to his friend with characteristic earnestness, as if he were writing about a purchase of a house or a carriage rather than an affair of the heart. "Your inference on the subject," he wrote, "was not groundless. Before you left us I had sufficiently ascertained her sentiments. Since your departure the affair has been pursued. Most preliminary arrangements, although definitive, will be postponed until the end of the year in Congress."
Madison's decision to focus his attention on business rather than following his heart was disastrous to his matrimonial hopes. On April 29, Kitty departed for her home in New York. Madison rode with her by carriage for about sixty miles, as far as Brunswick, New Jersey, and said good-bye, never to see her again. By late July he had an inkling that something had gone awry, noting to Edmund Randolph that his return to Virginia would be delayed "by a disappointment in some circumstances."
On August 11, 1783, he broke the bad news in an extraordinary letter (written in code) to his friend Jefferson. Fifty years later, while going through his papers, Madison mutilated the letter so badly than one can barely read it. Kitty Floyd had fallen in love with someone else-a nineteen year old medical student at the College of Philadelphia, whom she married eighteen months later. Jefferson could offer little consolation: "Of all machines," he wrote, "ours is the most complicated and inexplicable."
The trajectory of Madison's romance with Kitty Floyd was perhaps predictable. He was, by temperament, scholarly and introverted. He did not fit the mold of a successful politician. New Englander Fisher Ames, describing him a few years later, found him "a good man and an able man," but a man of "rather too much theory... He is also very timid and seems evidently to want manly firmness and energy of character." Only in the eighteenth century, where intellect and depth of character were at least as highly valued as wit, telegenic good looks, or "manly firmness," could a person like Madison have achieved public prominence.
Born in 1751, Madison was the oldest among the eleven children of James Madison Sr., the wealthiest man in Orange County, Virginia. Even as a child, Madison had been unusually studious. As a young boy, he left his father's plantation to attend an advanced school in a neighbouring county. After five years studying astronomy, French, logic, mathematics and philosophy, he returned to his family's plantation, Montpelier, to be tutored for two more years by a local minister, the Reverend Thomas Martin. At that point, in 1769, Madison moved northward to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).
Madison arrived in Princeton just as Scottish enlightenment ideas were sweeping the university. Under its new president John Witherspoon, students imbibed the moral philosophy of Frances Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and Lord Kames, and the political philosophy of Adam Smith and David Hume. Madison zipped through the College's undergraduate curriculum in two years rather than the usual three or four, and then stayed on for another year to study ethics and Hebrew. While it would be a mistake to draw too direct a linkage between Madison's studies at Princeton and his subsequent ideas about the American Constitution, his experience there was important in introducing him to political philosophers, especially David Hume, whose observations about governance in an "extended republic" would have a profound influence on Madison in later years.
When Madison returned to Virginia in the Fall of 1772, he was only twenty-one years old, but in such poor health that he predicted gloomily to a friend that he would not live either a "long or healthy life." Moreover, the prospect of following in his father's footsteps--becoming a gentleman-farmer in what he derisively called "an obscure corner of land" in the Virginia Piedmont--caused him to sink into a dark depression. But as America's growing conflict with England began to encroach even on the lives of people in Virginia's backcountry counties, Madison found himself drawn into the politics of revolutionary America. He made his first foray into public life in December of 1774, when he was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety, the local agency created by Virginia's legislature to mobilize the county's residents against the British. Madison's service in Orange County led in the Spring of 1776 to a seat in the Virginia Provincial Convention, the body that on May 15 would instruct its delegates to the Continental Congress to propose a declaration of independence. Just a few years out of college, Madison was strictly a back-bencher at that convention, content to allow more established Virginia politicians such as Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, and the fiery orator, Patrick Henry, to dominate the proceedings.
The following year Madison stood for election to Virginia's House of Delegates, the state's lower house of assembly. It was the first time that he had to campaign for public office and, possessed with an instinctive aversion to stooping to what he called "an electioneering appearance," he refused to provide the liberal quantities of food and liquor that Virginia voters had come to expect. His opponent, a tavern keeper as well as a planter, had no such compunctions and soundly defeated him.
Keen of mind but lacking confidence in debate, Madison would bounce back from this initial rejection by his local constituents, as he was elected by the Assembly to serve on the Council of State, an advisory counsel to the Governor. Virginia's political elders quickly recognized his intelligence, judgment, and, most important, his diligence, selecting him as one of the state's delegates to the Continental Congress; at age twenty-eight, he would be the youngest member of the Congress.
Men like Patrick Henry and George Mason came of age at a time when the overbearing exercise of power by a distant, overly-centralized Imperial government was thought to be the greatest threat to liberty. Madison's experience as a delegate to the Continental Congress convinced him that the weakness of America's new central government posed at least an equal threat to liberty. He watched, frustrated, as men like Henry used their influence to defeat attempts by the Confederation government to strengthen itself. In the early Spring of 1786, he began making extensive notes on the history of "ancient and modern confederacies," a project which led him across more than three thousand years of history, from ancient Greece to the cantons of Switzerland. In April of 1787 he composed a private memorandum, but one which he obviously intended to circulate to others, which he titled, "The Vices of the Political System of the United States." An extraordinary glimpse into both the rigor and the conservatism of Madison's mind, "Vices of the Political System" laid out in systematic fashion both his assessment of the weaknesses of the existing American governments-state and confederated-and his thoughts on the best remedies for those weaknesses.
Madison identified a dozen vices which he believed to be fatal to the health of the republic. Several of those vices lay in the ways in which the newly-independent states had over-reacted to prior abuses of power by British royal governors. It was not surprising that state constitution-makers deprived their new governors of the power to dissolve assemblies or to exercise an absolute veto over legislation, but Madison believed that they had gone too far. Most of the new state constitutions vested the legislatures with the power to elect governors and most denied the chief executive even a limited veto. The result, in Madison's view, was that states frequently enacted "vicious legislation," too often prompted by the whims of public opinion rather than sober reflection. He was horrified by the irresponsible actions of the Rhode Island legislature in allowing its citizens to pay off their debts in depreciated state currency and by Patrick Henry's nearly-successful effort in the mid-1780s to derail the passage of Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom.
The problem did not lie with the irresponsibility of state legislatures alone. Much of Madison's analysis focused on weaknesses in the Confederation government that allowed the self-interests of any one state to overwhelm the public interest of the nation. He chronicled the instances in which states had ignored their obligations to the union. Indeed, many states appeared willing to contribute their share of financial support for the revolutionary war effort only when the threat of attack within their borders seemed imminent, and, conversely, to ignore those obligations when the battle moved elsewhere. "This evil," he wrote, has been so fully experienced both during the war and since the peace," that it might well be "fatal" to the very existence of the union. Equally serious, the states frequently encroached on the authority of the continental government, as in the case of Georgia's brutal war against the Creek Indians, waged without the Confederation government's consent, or in the frequency with which individual states violated terms of the Treaty of Peace with England and France whenever it suited their interests.
Madison was even more troubled by the tendency of "courtiers of popularity"-men like Patrick Henry, who possessed all of the oratorical skills which Madison lacked--to please their local constituencies while at the same time pursuing policies harmful to the broader interest of the Confederacy. Madison accepted the inevitability that citizens would work to promote their interests at the expense of others. But, contrary to the widely-accepted view that liberty could best be protected in republics of limited geographic size, Madison argued[t18] that it was only in a large republic, where "society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions, which check each other," that one could prevent the provincialism and attendant injustice that afflicted states like Rhode Island where, Madison believed, a small faction of self-interested politicians had gained control of the legislature and subverted the public good. Only a shift in power from the smaller, state governments to a larger and stronger federal government would "render [government] sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to controul one part of Society from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole society."
Madison's acknowledgment of the existence of "interests" in society and his desire to create a large, energetic government designed to neutralize--but not eliminate-- those interests pointed in an an entirely new direction: in Madison's conception, governments were designed not to embody virtue and the public good, but, rather, to mediate among the various interests in society and, in the process, allow the public good to be served. But in other ways his vision of the virtues of an extended republic was distinctly traditional, reflecting classical republican attitudes about the importance of selecting virtuous political leaders that drew on seventeenth and eighteenth century English traditions. Voters who selected their leaders from larger districts would be choosing from a much wider pool of talent, a circumstance that would encourage the voters to select only "the purest and noblest characters," thereby insuring that their representatives would be more likely to rise above purely provincial concerns and petty self-interest, to represent the concerns of all the people. Madison's treatise on the "Vices of the Political System" ended on that conservative note. Never an optimist about human nature, he nevertheless hoped that he could persuade the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, who, after all, were more likely to resemble the pure and noble characters whom he hoped would govern the extended American republic, that it was time to transform a weak confederation into a strong, unified nation.