Architect of the Constitution
By Travis Copeland
Madison's learning and values are among the principal shapers of American history.
Although he is known as the Architect of the United States Constitution, James Madison’s fame does not stretch as far as his Revolutionary counterparts. Men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton are recognized and honored in a way Madison is not. Yet James Madison’s brilliant political mind and influence makes him, arguably, the most important of the Founding Fathers.
Born in 1751 to an elite family in the British colony of Virginia, Madison was too young and too feeble a man to take up arms in the American Revolution. Instead, the young Virginian fought the Revolution on the intellectual side, contesting the idea that monarchy and tyranny were fitting ways to rule a nation. While Washington was being prepared militarily for the role he would play in leading the Continental Army, Madison would be intellectually prepared to lead the liberty movement among the young republic’s intellectuals. Madison’s affluent father sent him to study at the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton, under Scottish-American reverend John Witherspoon. The future president studied philosophy and ancient languages, and insisted upon rounding out his studies by spending an additional year after graduation focused on political philosophy and ancient Hebrew. As a result, he earned the unofficial title of Princeton’s first graduate student.
Between Madison’s graduation in 1772 and the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, Madison read law and served in the Virginia state legislature, and ultimately in the Second Continental Congress as a representative of Virginia. His intellect became well-known, and his political connections spread far and wide. But it was after the Peace of Paris in 1783 that Madison would shine through. The Articles of Confederation, which governed the unification of the thirteen liberated colonies, served as a weak political force for unifying a nation. While the young states suffered from debt and a lack of meaningful federal authority, Madison began to call for a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. This convention would meet secretly in Philadelphia in 1787.
For the sweltering summer months of May to September, the delegates of the colonies debated representation, free speech, liberty, slavery, taxes, trade, peace treaties, the military, and many other topics of revolutionary importance. Madison’s depth of political philosophy shone through to all as he spoke. He brought forth the ancient Greek and Roman understandings of democracy—notably, the value of division of power, which balanced office against office and prevented any one person from gaining too much control. He expounded Lockean liberalism, a biblically based framework of mankind’s bent toward evil, and the international dangers of isolated states.
Amongst the enlightenment thinkers, Madison drew heavily on the ideas of the French philosopher Charles Montesquieu and Englishman John Locke. Both thinkers were advocates of liberty. Madison via Montesquieu contested the concentration of power, arguing instead for the separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A companion of Montesquieu, Locke believed strongly in inalienable rights and individual liberty, which Jefferson drew on in writing the Declaration of Independence. Madison integrated this understanding into the Constitution by arguing for the separation of powers, in contrast to people like Alexander Hamilton, who contended for a king-like President. This Lockean liberalism would find itself distinctly embodied in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, popularly known as the Bill of Rights.
For Madison, drawing on his studies under the Calvinist Witherspoon, mankind was sinful at its core. His studies with the Scottish minister and his knowledge of world history accented the naturally sinful state of man. Power, therefore, should not be concentrated in the hands of one individual; this understanding of human nature and the importance of the balance of power and the individual came to fruition in the Constitution. However, they would also be equally represented in the ratification debate.
Madison fleshed out the ideas of individual rights and the separation of powers through his writing of the Federalist Papers. These eighty-five essays were penned by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, to argue for the ratification by nine states of the new Constitution. It is here that Madison fleshes out his ideas, particularly those on political factions in Federalist No. 51 and on human nature Federalist No. 10. Mankind is predisposed to abuse power, so the federal government should not have power heavily concentrated in the hands of any one individual. With the ratification of the Constitution, Madison’s legacy was set in stone. His political astuteness would transform the fledgling republic under the Articles of Confederation into a well-structured young republic.
In the later years of his life, Madison dwelt in the uppermost echelons of politics. He served as Secretary of State under Jefferson from 1801-1809, and was finally elected President of the United States in 1808. As President, he was pulled into the War of 1812 with the British, which led to his fleeing a burning White House. After peace was restored, Madison retired to his Virginia estate, Montpelier, where he died in 1836.
Madison’s silent intellectual influence over the United States even today is remarkable. Hidden as he may be behind the likes of Jefferson and Washington, Madison’s intellectual inheritance has been passed down from generation to generation of Americans. Every subsequent century has inherited his concern for freedom of speech, the press, and the ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances. His intellect and republican convictions echo through the halls of American politics right up to our present day.
Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like this author profile of Fyodor Dostoevsky, this “Great Conversation” post about virtue and vice, or this student essay on the value of studying languages. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, where CLT founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education, policy, and culture.