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.

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