James Madison: Original Political Thinker, or Jefferson’s Bootlick?

In Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Woody Holton offered some theories that might explain James Madison’s mysterious and sudden transformation from Federalist supporter of the Constitution to anti-Federalist critic of the new compact. Holton pointed out that some historians have postulated that Madison grew disgusted with the “grotesque” forms that bond speculation took on after ratification, thus further enriching the elite few at the expense of the struggling many. He described another, “more cynical” explanation that perhaps Madison realized that his support for the Constitution would prevent his being elected to public office in his home state of Virginia, a bastion of anti-Federalist sentiment. Holton admitted that both explanations were plausible, but that a third possibility was suggested by Madison’s political record; namely, that Madison was driven by antiestablishment principles that forced him to oppose the status quo.[1]

After looking at the timeline, I wonder about yet another explanation for Madison’s abandonment of Federalist ideals. Holton dated Madison’s transformation to the winter of 1789-1790, and as I read those dates it occurred to me that Jefferson returned from Paris at about the same time, in December 1789, to be exact. Jefferson had been out of the country during the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, a period that Joseph Ellis described as “Madison’s most singularly creative moment and the only occasion when he acted independently of Jefferson’s influence.”[2] It was during this period that Madison championed Federalist causes, the Constitution chief among them, but within a very short time after Jefferson’s return, Madison began to repudiate much of that for which he had fought. It may be impossible to know with any certainty, but it makes me wonder if perhaps Madison was so utterly under Jefferson’s spell that he changed his political philosophy to suit that of his mentor.

[1] Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 258-59.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 172.


The Constitution and Original Intent

Historians have made a pretty strong case that the framers of the Constitution were more concerned with economic issues than they were with securing individual rights. In fact, the words of many elites in the confederation made plain their fear and disdain of unbridled democracy.[1] Seven of the eighty-five Federalist Papers were concerned with “the General Power of Taxation,” a higher proportion for that subject than for any other single subject in the collection.[2] Furthermore, Federalist No. 84 was clear in its assertion that an “indulgence of an injudicious zeal for bills of rights” was “not only necessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous.”[3] Holton took this idea a step further by asserting that the framers viewed Article I, Sections 8 and 10—the former granting the federal government authority to tax and the latter imposing a “crackdown on private debtors”—as the most important passages in the new Constitution.[4] Holton claimed his thesis was different from Charles Beard’s economic explanation of the framers’ intent; Beard posited that the framers “were cynically trying to advance their own economic interests,” while Holton believed that their motives were “genuine and questionable at the same time.”[5] I admit that I know far less about Beard’s work than I probably should, and I am not finished with Holton’s book, but thus far I remain unconvinced that the latter is doing anything more than splitting hairs.

Regardless of the framers’ motives regarding money, it seems clear that they were certainly interested in diluting the effects of popular movements and unfettered democracy. The House of Representatives contained the only popularly elected officials in the new republic; senators were chosen by state legislatures, and presidential electors were likewise appointed by the states. Judges were appointed and served for life. This final construction was based roughly on Madison’s “Virginia Plan,” and had been developed to prevent “the power of fleeting majorities to ride roughshod over the rights of minorities.”[6]

It is nearly impossible to know fully the framers’ original intent. Historians and scholars can only make conjectures based on the writings of those who were present at the creation. There are still substantial gaps, though, since the convention took place under a cloak of secrecy. The debate about original intent has raged since the ratification of the Constitution, however, and continues even today. One’s opinion on the matter seems to hinge on whether one believes that the framers etched eternal truths onto the tablets of a modern Sinai, or whether they understood that the Constitution was a living document designed to change and grow with the new republic. I tend to believe the latter, but I am confident that the debate will outlive me.

[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 291-92; Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 12-14.

[2] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (reprint, Charleston, SC: Tribeca Books, 2012).

[3] Ibid., 249.

[4] Holton, Unruly Americans, 9.

[5] Ibid., 86-87.

[6] Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 105.

George Washington Was a Lousy General

After all I have read about the American Revolution, I have come to the conclusion that George Washington simply was not a very good general. Ferling was correct in his assertion, of course, that Washington “was neither a professional soldier nor the product of a military academy,” with his only military experience having come from small-scale engagements on the frontier during the French and Indian War.[1] It is also true that Washington displayed admirable administrative talents, and those gifts combined with his commanding presence and personality were perhaps the only things that kept the Continental Army together during some very trying times. Furthermore, as Ferling pointed out, Washington was a superb politician, enjoying “splendid relationships with Congress and state officials,” while his ability to detect talent in others—and put that talent to good use—allowed the Americans to achieve successes they might not otherwise have enjoyed.[2] However, as a combat commander, Washington’s performance was undoubtedly subpar.

Washington achieved early success when Howe departed Boston in March 1776, but even that victory relied heavily on the almost superhuman achievements of another officer. Without the artillery brought down from Ticonderoga under extraordinarily difficult circumstances by Henry Knox, Washington had lacked the heavy firepower necessary to drive the British from Boston.[3] Washington correctly surmised that the British would move on New York City, and he moved his own troops to Long Island and Manhattan to await their arrival. When Howe’s invasion took place in August 1776, Washington made numerous missteps (though, to be fair, many of his subordinate commanders also performed poorly), and it was only the British army’s own lackluster performance that spared the Continental Army from annihilation and allowed it to escape in tatters.[4]

For the next five years, Washington kept his army nearly stationary, hovering between Philadelphia and the Hudson River above New York City. During that time, Washington scored a few notable but relatively small-scale victories against the British and Hessians, but the lion’s share of the war was fought farther upstate in New York by soldiers commanded by Gates and Sullivan, and in the South by Greene and Morgan. All the while, Washington was fixated on New York City, and despite Rochambeau’s advice to the contrary, the American commander was convinced that the capture of New York was essential to an American victory.[5] Indeed, without Rochambeau’s gentle prodding of Washington that a campaign against Cornwallis in Virginia was highly preferable and his secret messages to de Grasse informing the French admiral to sail for the Chesapeake, Washington may have insisted on a disastrous siege of New York.[6]

Despite his stature as perhaps the preeminent founder and his many genuine abilities, Washington’s true talents did not lie in combat command, either on a strategic or tactical level. Without French aid—in men, materiel, and advice to a novice commander—Washington’s legacy may have been one of ignoble defeat.

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 571.

[2] Ibid., 570.

[3] Ibid., 102-06.

[4] Ibid., 130-37.

[5] Ibid., 444-47.

[6] Ibid., 523-24.