The sick, short, shy father of the Constitution James Madison was also the determined, ambitious, conniving father of American politics.
People like to think the founding fathers were above the mess of straw polls, caucuses, primaries, conventions, and debates. White guys with white hair powder living in white houses thinking remarkable thoughts. Yes, they should have given more thought to freeing their slaves and empowering their wives and daughters, but at least their minds were on ideals, not focus groups.
Of all those founders, one of the highest-minded was surely James Madison, the little guy just over 5 feet tall with the towering intellect. Even his hair style—a peak in front, receding over each temple, pulled back in a queue—seemed designed to draw attention to his brain. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where genius was common, he stood out. “Ever y person” in Philadelphia that summer, wrote William Pierce, one of his fellow delegates, “acknowledge[d] his greatness.” He was “the best informed man” in any debate, with “the most correct knowledge.” He had prepared for the convention by analyzing constitutions of the ancient world for their shortcomings. He attended every session, took notes on ever y speech and motion. He wanted others to understand “the opinions and the reasonings” behind this Constitution. After the convention adjourned, he wrote the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, extolling the Constitution to his fellow Americans. Later he shepherded the Bill of Rights through the first Congress. For all this he was known, even in his own lifetime, as the Father of the Constitution.
But Madison had another child. The well-read, deep thinker was the Father of American Politics. Political parties, partisan media, hardball attacks, slogans and sound bites—he either invented them or knew they were coming. For better or worse, his fingerprints are all over the institutions and ground rules of politics as we know it. Today there are more voters, more media outlets and more dollars floating around, but those are differences of degree. Were Madison suddenly transported to a 2011 meet-the-candidate coffee, or shown a shocking campaign Twitter feed, he, more than any other founder, would take it all in stride. He saw it coming more than 200 years ago.
Madison’s First Congressional Campaign
MADISON WAS BORN RICH, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter. But he was cursed with disadvantages. Consider his appearance and his temperament—a politician’s basic political skill set. Madison wasn’t just short and slight at a bit over a hundred pounds. He was sickly—a lifelong sufferer of upset stomachs, not to mention “attacks resembling epilepsy.” And he was shy. Among strangers he showed “nothing engaging or even bearable in his manners,” wrote one congressman’s wife—“the most unsociable creature in existence.” His voice was harsh yet weak at the same time; when he spoke to legislative bodies, the keepers of the minutes often left blanks in his remarks because he “could not be distinctly heard.” Could such a man play to the cheap seats, or persuade the boys in the back room?
Time and again Madison showed that he could screw himself up to the task at hand. In his first congressional race, he faced a classic modern campaign moment—a meet-the-candidates debate in a religious/ ethnic community—and he beat a more charismatic rival.
February 1789 saw the first election for the new House of Representatives. Madison’s home state, Virginia, had ratified the Constitution the year before by a thin margin, and the Constitution’s critics were looking for payback. Among them was a neighbor and sometime friend, James Monroe. Monroe, 30 years old to Madison’s 37, was many things Madison was not: tall, handsome, vigorous, a Revolutionary War hero who had been injured at the Battle of Trenton. (Madison had spent the war in political office.) The two men ran against each other for a seat in the First Congress, in a district of eight counties that had been gerrymandered to favor Monroe. Five of those counties had opposed the Constitution.
It was a tough campaign. The winter weather was awful—rain, hail, sleet, snow. The political climate was stormy too, with Monroe’s supporters accusing Madison of being soft on the issue of religious liberty because the Constitution in its original form had no Bill of Rights.
Virginia, which once had an established Anglican Church, was by then home to numerous other denominations. So Madison met with ministers from minority sects and reminded them of his own long record of support for religious liberty in the state. Then he debated Monroe before congregations. When Madison was an old man, he recalled one of their joint appearances at a Lutheran church in the district’s largest county. “There was a nest of Dutchmen [Germans] whose vote might very probably turn the scale….Service was performed, and then they had music with two fiddles. They are remarkably fond of music. When it was all over, we addressed these people and kept them standing in the snow listening to the discussion of constitutional subjects. They stood it out very patiently [and] seemed to consider it a sort of fight, of which they were required to be spectators. I then had to ride in the night twelve miles” to get home “and got my nose frost-bitten.”
Madison told the story of the debate with the humor of reminiscence— when he came to the frostbite, he touched the spot on the left side of his nose, still marked after all those years. But it had been a time of great seriousness. He won over the Lutherans by promising to make a Bill of Rights a top priority in the First Congress—and by making his case in person, head-to-head. The county the Lutherans lived in had opposed the Constitution, but Madison beat Monroe there by more than 2 to 1—and took the district.
The First Political Party
POLITICS IS ABOUT more than individual efforts. A successful politician needs allies. Here Madison showed real creativity—inventing the first modern American political party.
In the Federalist Papers, Madison the constitutional thinker did not like the idea of political parties, which he called “factions.” He thought of them as groups of people banding together out of “passion” or self-interest, and determined to thwart other people’s rights or the general good. The Constitution, he argued, was an elaborate mechanism designed to keep any faction from taking power. Yet early in the new Constitution’s life he found himself organizing a faction of his own.
Madison did it to thwart Alexander Hamilton, his Federalist co-author, who had become treasury secretary. The details of their dispute are not relevant here. (Hamilton, a former merchant’s clerk, thought he was setting America on the road to a modern, diverse economy; Madison, the Virginia planter, thought Hamilton was handing it over to his banker friends.) What matters is how Madison responded.
In the spring of 1791, he left Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, to spend three weeks in New York City, Hamilton’s home base. There he was joined by his best friend, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The two men traveled up the Hudson River to Lake George and Lake Champlain. Their return trip south took them through New England, Long Island and back to the city, where Madison stayed another eight weeks.
They seemed to be tourists. They shot squirrels and rattlesnakes and fished for trout; Jefferson wrote his youngest daughter, Polly, a letter on birch bark from a canoe; they collected natural specimens for the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
But one of Hamilton’s friends, Robert Troup, a New York lawyer, thought they were up to much more than relaxing in nature. “There was every appearance of a passionate courtship,” he warned Hamilton, between the travelers and powerful New York politicians. Two of the most prominent were Governor George Clinton, who had opposed Hamilton during the struggle to ratify the Constitution, and Aaron Burr, who had just beaten Hamilton’s father-in-law for one of New York’s Senate seats. Troup ended his warning with a Latin tag: “Delenda est Carthago.” Every educated person then knew Latin, and the line Troup quoted was famous: “Carthage must be destroyed.”
The trip to New York and New England was indeed an overture to building a national opposition party. Madison did not easily admit, even to himself, what he was doing. But within a year he was calling himself and his allies a “party,” and he had given it a name, and a program. “The Republican party, as it may be termed” would represent “the mass of people” against Hamilton’s “opulent” businessmen. Hamilton and his allies decided to call themselves Federalists. Only a few years after the ratification of the Constitution, America had a two-party system.
The Newspaper War
A PARTY NEEDS more than leaders. People think of the founders like gods on Olympus, but in building the Republican Party, Madison scouted for lower-level talent. One of his most important finds was Philip Freneau, whom he had met before the Revolution when the two attended Princeton. Freneau had pursued a number of careers—poet, teacher, privateer, ship’s captain. Madison tapped him for a new one—attacking Hamilton and Federalists.
America already had a lively print media culture, including newspapers, almanacs and pamphlets. Freneau’s newspaper would be different— a party organ, suited to the new political landscape.
Madison told Jefferson about Freneau early in 1791, and Jefferson offered him a job as a clerk translator in the State Department. That guaranteed Freneau a base salary, access to foreign newspapers and few responsibilities. “So little to do,” Jefferson promised, “as not to interfere with any other calling.”
Madison used the mail to drum up subscriptions to his newspaper. “With Mr. Freneau,” went one pitch letter, “I have been long and intimately acquainted.” The paper would be “a vehicle of intelligence and entertainment to the public.”
Freneau’s first issue of the National Gazette appeared on Halloween, 1791. The message of the National Gazette, continually repeated, was that the republic was in danger from Hamilton and his cronies. Freneau even used poetry:
Columbia!—watch each stretch of power, Nor sleep too soundly at the midnight hour.
One of his contributors was Madison, who wrote more than a dozen anonymous essays for the National Gazette defending “the great body of the people” against “the influence of money.”
Madison’s Federalist essays had been about 2,000 words. Most of the National Gazette essays were much shorter—a few paragraphs. They were also much simpler, more like bumper stickers. The thoughts were simple and crude: Cities are bad, farms are good; war is bad, peace is good; rich people are dangerous, ordinary Americans are virtuous.
Hamilton was not slow to notice. Within months he was writing anonymous attacks on the National Gazette for another Philadelphia newspaper: “The editor of the National Gazette receives a salary from government. [Is this] paid him for translations; or for publications?”
The Newspaper War, as it was called, did not please President George Washington. He wrote Hamilton and Jefferson in August1792, asking them to cool it. (He did not write Madison, probably because, as a congressman, he was not part of the administration.) Hamilton admitted “some instrumentality” in the journalistic back and forth. Jefferson said that “not a syllable” had proceeded from him, but that was only literally true. The Newspaper War raged on.
The National Gazette soon folded because a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 killed too many of its readers. But other Republican editors and newspapers stepped in to fill the role of Republican Party mouthpiece. They were answered by Federalist editors and newspapers: Hamilton himself founded the New-York Evening Post, which, minus the hyphen and the Evening, and after many ideological twists and turns, is still published today.
Madison’s Republican Party lasted longer than its first newspaper. After many ups and downs in the 1790s, the election of 1800 was a bonanza for Republicans: Jefferson was elected president and Aaron Burr vice president; Madison became secretary of state. When Burr was seen as too young and too ambitious, he was replaced by another founding Republican, George Clinton. Clinton, then in his 60s, viewed the vice presidency as a “respectable retirement.” When Jefferson decided to retire after two terms in the White House, he was succeeded by James Madison. The Father of Politics had designed a faction, and it worked.
After two presidential terms, Madison was succeeded by a third Virginian, James Monroe, who had long ago reconciled with his old rival. By the time Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, the Republican Party had begun calling itself the Democratic Party—the name it bears today. (The modern GOP is a different organization, founded in the 1850s.) Madison’s party changed its constituency many times, from slave owning farmers to big government multiculturalists. But suspicion of Hamiltonian rich guys is still woven into its culture.
Madison in the Revolution
MADISON’S MOST important contribution may have been figuring out how to make politics work day in, day out. He was the first founding father to understand the importance of public opinion, and that marked a new stage in his thinking. At the Constitutional Convention, he had argued that the best bulwark of American liberty was the very size of the country: In a truly national electorate it would be harder for factions to take power. In the Federalist Papers, he had noted another bulwark: The complexity of the new federal system, with a Congress of two houses, a president and a judiciary, all coexisting with the states, would be a veritable obstacle course of power centers.
Yet his old co-author, Hamilton, surmounted all these difficulties to erect a strange and threatening financial system. So, in the best of his National Gazette essays of 1791-92, Madison defined how public opinion could rule.
“Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” Therefore, it should be “the patriotic study of all…to erect over the whole [country] one paramount empire of reason, benevolence and brotherly affection.” Then “every good citizen will be…a sentinel over the rights of the people.” Madison invited all Americans —or at least all Republican Americans— to participate in the process.
During the Whiskey Rebellion, Madison got a chance to offer up public opinion as the major ruling force in America. In 1794, one of Hamilton’s revenue streams was an excise tax on distilled spirits, but frontiersmen didn’t like paying it. After the federal revenue collector for western Pennsylvania and the local militia fought a gun battle over the tax, the countryside blazed up. Washington, then in his second term, decided to send an army over the Alleghenies to restore order. Hamilton, still treasury secretary, commanded it. The show of force knocked the wind out of the rebellion.
What most alarmed Madison about the affair was a speech Washington gave to Congress after the Whiskey Rebellion collapsed. The president blamed the trouble on “certain self-created societies.” He was referring to so-called Democratic Societies, which sprang up around the country to support the Republican Party’s candidates and ideals. Most of the Democratic Societies had criticized the Whiskey Rebellion, but two in western Pennsylvania had backed it.
Madison, who was still serving in the House, rebuked Washington’s speech, saying neither the president nor Congress should criticize people’s opinions: “The censorial power is in the people over the government and not in the government over the people.” Those Democratic Societies should “stand or fall by the public opinion.” Madison made public opinion the judge of the Democratic Societies, the Whiskey Rebellion and even George Washington.
This was a new idea. Washington and most other founders believed the people should rule only on Election Day. Then their representatives should govern until the next election, when the people would rule again. Madison said public opinion was an ongoing loop.
Madison’s faith in public opinion has consequences, not all of them attractive. If public opinion is sovereign, leaders will work to manipulate it. Other interested parties like lobbyists will get in on the action. These days lobbyists fill Washington, D.C., and every state capitol, as well as the airwaves. They lobby constantly, not just at election time. They are the din and the detritus of democracy. Madison helped create them.
James Madison, Father of Politics, was as creative and as significant as James Madison, Father of the Constitution. Politics is the spirit that animates the legal blueprint, the grease that makes the machine run. Political argument and electioneering are how Americans express their desires, fears and ideals, and how the hard edges of conflict get resolved, even as new conflicts arise. A world without politics would be a world given over to anarchy, or sheep-like passivity.
Madison helped create both our fundamental law, and the daily hubbub in Washington repeated on millions of TVs, radios and computer screens. We are doubly in his debt.
Richard Brookhiser is the author of James Madison and a columnist for American History