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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Richard M. Reinsch
Madison’s Gift to America
A new study points to the Virginian’s emphasis on civic virtue.
15 January 2010

James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, by Colleen A. Sheehan (Cambridge University Press, 204pp.)

In her excellent new study, Colleen A. Sheehan argues that James Madison is preeminent among the Founders in his insistence on the civic cultivation of public opinion. Madison’s purposes, seemingly inconsistent at different points of his political career, ultimately cohere, she believes, in his quest to secure republican self-government in the infant nation.

Madison’s record as statesman, polemicist, and intellectual has rarely been adequately understood, even by our most thoughtful historians and scholars. Scholars from Progressive-era thinker Charles Beard to Martin Diamond, J.G.A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood more recently, locate Madison’s political contribution primarily in the mechanics of the Constitution that he shaped. The survival of elected government, under the Madisonian Constitution’s innovative structuralism, famously depends on the interplay between the enlarged sphere of the continental republic, the separation of powers, and institutional self-interest. Free and limited government would find its lasting guarantor in the struggle among the clashing interests of the federal government and civil society. Madison’s equation also placed great weight on the power of the federal government and the elites that would fill its ranks. If the American republic was to avoid the passions that crippled ancient and classical republics, a strong federal government would be necessary to temper the public mood.

Sheehan’s emphasis is different. She begins with a Madison whose faith in self-government had been shaken after American independence, thanks to the states’ majoritarian abuses of property rights, threatened and actual public rebellions, and the near impotence of the government operating under the Articles of Confederation. The young statesman faced the discomfiting reality that majority rule had not remained virtuous—or even lawful—in the young nation. Madison wanted to find the right remedy for this ancient republican disease.

Conventional scholarship generally holds that Madison’s solution was to dull the edge of a fully participatory and democratic politics by “modifying the sovereignty,” as he put it—that is, expanding the realm and territorial extent of federal power over the states, while simultaneously limiting the democratic basis of the Senate (whose members state legislators would choose) and the presidency (whose executives the electoral college would choose). This analysis, however, ignores Madison’s belief in the importance of public opinion in holding the republican center together—and correcting this imbalance is the significance of Sheehan’s contribution.

Republicanism, Madison believed, would find its expression and its reinforcement in an ongoing teaching, cultivating, arguing, and distilling of opinions, which would ultimately bring about a wise and restrained public understanding of constitutional questions, great and small. The true purpose of Madison’s modified sovereignty, Sheehan maintains, was the space and time it would give to citizens both to learn and to set forth opinions about the political good, without being held hostage to the tyrannical effects of faction.

Sheehan’s book usefully describes how and why Madison’s republican faith changed emphasis during the Congress of 1790-91, in which he served. Alexander Hamilton’s successful attempt to establish a national bank had an important influence on this shift in Madison’s thinking. Where the Madison of the 1780s was dismayed at majority faction in the states and conceived the need for a fundamental alteration of the Articles of Confederation, he now saw the dangers of a powerful “minority faction,” operating within the federal government. This minority, Madison feared, intended to rule over the public mind with a new understanding of constitutionalism—one quite different from the political ideas of the framers, he felt.

In arguing for a propertied and political class that would run the federal government for the ends of commercial prosperity, Hamilton made clear that most citizens’ political participation should be anemic at best. As Hamilton saw it, the only public input necessary was a vote of confidence or no-confidence for the government in federal elections. The Hamilton program envisioned a manufacturing-based economy, which would imply a life of acquisitive individualism in the market arena. Citizens would find their measure here, and have little time to devote to the meaning of the Constitution’s terms and provisions or to the tumults of public life. Madison saw Hamilton’s vision as governance by quasi-monarchical rule.

He began his own political education seemingly anew. Sheehan details Madison’s new engagement with French Enlightenment thought. Gliding over the fantastical formulations of Rousseau and the Marquis de Condorcet and their misguided faith in a universal philosophic wisdom rendered by a virtuous polity, Madison sought to understand thoroughly the workings “of enlightened and salutary opinion.” He found guidance instead in the writings of Jacques Necker, Jacques Peuchet, Jean Jacques Barthelemy, and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably. From this immersion, Sheehan shows, emerged what are now known as Madison’s Party Press Essays—19 separate pieces that originally appeared in the National Gazette—and his lesser known but intellectually richer work, the “Notes on Government,” in which he established his primary opposition to the Federalist Party’s vision for the American republic.

In exploring the commitment Madison made to this “empire of reason,” Sheehan also shows how the Virginian Lycurgus drew on the thought of Aristotle, particularly his idea of regime stability. From a close reading of Aristotle’s Politics, Madison discerned lessons strikingly opposed to John Adams’s own classical studies on the stability of regimes, which informed Adams’s program of centralized governance amid balanced interests, infused with a far shallower republicanism. But the Adamsian and Hamiltonian focus on regime structure was incomplete, Madison believed. All regimes, even tyrannies, he argued, ultimately prospered or floundered on public opinion.

In his essay “The Spirit of Governments,” Madison argued that majority rule must be a moral rule that secured persons in their property and their consciences from faction and tyranny. The tutored majority must govern according to natural justice. This could only happen if citizens’ political choices were the product of a civic education that stressed free government through the norms of man’s natural and political being.

The modern political project too easily dismisses the ends and purposes of constitutionalism. Such purposes provide final meaning and compel our admiration and consent to the republican project. While never denying the importance of constitutional structure, Madison understood that such order was not self-executing. A constitution can set political actors and institutions at variance with one another, thus preventing a unity of unlawful power, but these same parties can also decide to collude and drain the system of its life. The order of the American republic—its conservation and, if necessary, reform—was to be found, finally, in the souls of its citizens, who must be formed in the spirit of constitutional liberty. This is Madison’s gift to America.

Richard M. Reinsch is a program officer at Liberty Fund, Inc., and is the author of the forthcoming book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counter-Revolutionary to be published by ISI Books.

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