A review of James Madison, by Garry Wills
James Madison and the Future of Limited Government, edited by John Samples


There are national memorials or monuments for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. There is none for James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" and fourth President of the United States. Some would say that the existing tributes to Madison—avenues, cities, counties, and colleges—are quite sufficient for his accomplishments, especially given his mediocre performance as chief executive. Others would argue that Madison was the most brilliant of a star-studded slate of founding fathers, that he is the key to understanding America, and that his contributions to the cause of liberty and to our present prosperity are matched by no other American.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills's brief biography for the American Presidents Series, edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the focus is on Madison as president, though Wills does offer a sketch of Madison's pre- and post-presidential years as well. The central question of Wills's study is: Why was Madison—a man of penetrating intellect and a formidable politician, who contributed in theory and practice so significantly to the course of American political history—so "lackluster and ineffectual" in his role as chief executive? Madison may have shown an aptitude for legislative politics and drudge committee work, but he lacked the executive talent to lead the nation, which became painfully clear as the United States became mired in war.

According to Wills, the assets that made Madison a force in framing the Constitution were the very things that brought him down as president. He was simply too cerebral. Add to his braininess, naïveté and provincialism some of the other qualities Wills attributes to Madison—inconsistency, dullness of manner, paranoia, insensitivity, and occasional dishonesty—and the author has the ingredients to provide a fairly uncomplicated portrait of Madison and his failures. Yet Wills claims that Madison's essential greatness is not canceled out by this description of his character. In fact we should realize, he says in the conclusion, that "no man could do everything for his country…. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough."

I am not sure that Madison—or any man of honor in the 18th century—would appreciate Wills' "balanced" praise and sophisticated political-psychological assessment. They would not have considered the charge of dishonesty and inconsistency a mere "cosmetic concern." Madison's own claims to consistency and integrity are simply not considered by Wills. This is not balanced biographical scholarship; it is neglect of the historical materials and lack of scholarly integrity. Indeed, Wills's citation of primary sources is meager, while his over-reliance on a few select secondary sources is manifest throughout the volume. In particular, Wills tends to follow Henry Adams's classic work, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison, published in 1889-91.

Wills's assessment of Madison's presidency repeats Adams's evaluation and reflects the latter's veneration of Federalist (as opposed to Republican) policy. What saved the American republic, according to Wills, were the institutions developed by the Federalist Party, e.g., the bank, the debt, the national military forces. To the extent Madison's Republican administration can be considered successful, it was largely due to his adoption of Federalist policies. Wills gets this from Adams, who got it from John Randolph of Roanoke, a contemporary of Madison and a vocal critic of his administration, who claimed that Madison "out-Hamilton[ed] Alexander Hamilton."

Wills is particularly critical of Madison's personnel and foreign policy decisions. For example, Madison's choice of Robert Smith for Secretary of State was a case of the "clueless" choosing the "tactless." According to the more politically nuanced biographer Ralph Ketcham, however, Madison understood that, on the one hand, to confront the incompetent and disloyal Smith openly would exacerbate already bitter animosities within the party; on the other hand, to keep him in the cabinet was harmful to the administration. Ultimately Madison did dismiss Smith, and did so in a way that strengthened his administration.

In the case of Madison's good faith interpretation of the so-called Cadore letter, in which the French agreed to repeal some bans on neutral trade (but were silent about others), Wills claims that the ingenuous, unworldly Madison was suckered by Napoleon. Ketcham says that it was not so much that Madison had been duped by a clever Frenchman as that Madison knowingly took the dangerous risk involved. He did not underestimate Napoleon; rather, he believed that England's capacity to injure the United States was greater than France's. Unless England withdrew the Orders in Council and American trade benefits were reinstated, Madison saw no possibility of peace with honor. Whether the naïve Madison blundered into war (Wills), or intended to and did bring on the War of 1812 (Wills again), or was reluctant to go to war and declared it with sadness and regret (Ketcham), cannot be answered by the inadequate research that went into this volume.

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To celebrate Madison's 250th birthday in 2001, John Samples, Director for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, gathered together 12 essays on Madison's political thought and its relevance to the 21st century. Though the essays cover a wide range of issues and present diverse views on some of them, all of the contributors to this volume share with Madison a commitment to free government.

Nobel Laureate James Buchanan opens the collection with a short essay on "Madison's Angels," which explores the relationship between politics and ethics in light of the realities of human nature. Because men are not angels, Madison argued in The Federalist, government is necessary. Buchanan interprets Madison's argument to imply further that too much government overtaxes men's moral capacities and results in increased exploitation.

Alex Kozinski and Steven Engel emphasize the importance of federalism to Madison's theory of limited government. With the significant growth of the national government in the 1900s, there has been a reciprocal decline in power at the state level. This in turn deprives Americans of the "benefits of energetic state governments," e.g., checks on national power, competition among governments, and incentives for states to innovate. In the wake of two recent Supreme Court rulings, Kozinski and Engel discover a glimmer of hope for restoring the proper meaning of the "general welfare" clause of the Constitution and the idea of enumerated powers.

Roger Pilon also laments the demise of Madison's plan of constitutionally enumerated powers. He makes a particularly important contribution to this volume by tracing Madison's conception of limited government to its moral foundations. This helps readers to understand better why Madison and his generation found the argument for limiting the power of government and protecting the rights of individuals so compelling. They believed that politics is grounded in morality, not vice versa. Their moral premise was that of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts the truth of human equality and the universality of natural rights, hence requiring that all legitimate governments are "twice limited." They are limited by their purpose, i.e., to secure the natural rights of human beings, and by their means, which must have the people's consent. According to Pilon, the Progressive Era and the New Deal marked the destruction of limited government in the United States; with skewed readings of the general welfare and commerce clauses, government in America "has become a service industry, striving to satisfy the demands of its customers." To restore political legitimacy and the rule of law, it will be necessary not only for the courts to rediscover the proper meaning of the Constitution, but also for the people to rekindle that love of liberty which particularly animated Madison.

Walter Berns and Michael Hayes confront the thorny issue of Madison's view of separation of church and state, producing sharply contrasting analyses. In Berns's perspective, the usually moderate and prudent Madison was a radical when it came to the issue of religious freedom. Berns takes issue with Madison's opposition to Patrick Henry's religious assessment bills, as set forth in Madison's famous Memorial and Remonstrance. According to Berns, Henry's bill, which proposed a tax for the support of the Christian religion, did not have a religious purpose but was rather intended to combat the decline of civic-spiritedness and public morality. Although Madison well understood that republican government depended on virtue in the people, Berns contends, he failed to wonder about how virtue might be transmitted to future generations. Henry and other Anti-Federalists proposed solving this problem by religious education in public schools, recognizing that moral instruction without religious support was insufficient. Moreover, the trend toward the privatization of moral education that has occurred over the years in the United States, Berns claims, was just what Madison wanted to happen. In making the argument in favor of taxation to support Christianity, and contending that this is permissible under the First Amendment, Berns departs from the overall libertarian spirit of Samples's volume. Indeed, Berns's backing of government-supported religion may seem to the reader more radical than Madison's support of the separation of church and state.

Contrary to Berns, Michael Hayes argues that "scrupulous neutrality among religious denominations as well as between believers and nonbelievers does not impose a secular agenda but rather extends to the religious sphere the larger principle of equal treatment under law." Hayes supports Madison's view of the separation between church and state, claiming that it is both anti-rationalist and conservative, though more akin to Michael Oakeshott's "adaptive" conservatism than to Richard Weaver's "nostalgic" conservatism. According to Hayes, an anti-rationalist doubts the existence of objective truth, or at least doubts that we can know it. Thus he "has nothing to do with natural law, a providential order, morality and religion." Hayes places Madison squarely in this category. Although it is true that Madison rejected utopianism and insisted on subjecting power to checks and balances, he was committed (contra Hayes) to the natural law doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, as Roger Pilon demonstrates so well.

John Samples believes that Madison's remedy of territorial size and representation in Federalist 10 is not a panacea for the problem of majority faction. Samples thinks Madison was too optimistic in his idea that representatives would refine and enlarge public opinion. What has actually happened in the United States, Samples claims, is that incumbents came to have significant advantages in elections and special interests tend to have undue influence over incumbent politicians. This results in "the tyranny of minorities." To remedy this problem, Samples promotes the establishment of the initiative, at least at the state level. Whereas Madison argued that a part of the remedy for the problem of tyranny of the majority is representative democracy, Samples takes the reverse tack, arguing that the solution to the problem of tyranny of minorities is pure democracy. He notes, however, that his argument does not necessarily refute Madison's criticisms of direct democracy at the national level. But what is to guarantee, or even encourage, the formation of non-factious majorities at the state level? Given the voting record of Americans in recent years, especially in non-presidential elections, what is to guarantee that a majority will even vote on the initiatives?

James Madison and the Future of Limited Government generally does not break new scholarly ground, and probably was not intended to; instead, the book places Madison's ideas about limited government, free enterprise, and the protection of individual rights in a contemporary perspective, providing a political blueprint for the kinds of changes that must be made if America is to remain a Madisonian republic.