James Madison remains one of the most important figures in American History. He was not only the 4th president of the United States, having served two terms, but is also the author of The Federalist Papers, a proponent of religious liberties for all citizens, the writer of The Bill of Rights and one of the founding members of the Democratic-Republicans, a political party that he formed with the help of his mentor and best friend, Thomas Jefferson. He supported a strong central government and the separation of powers within the United States government which serves as the basis of the check and balances that is seen even to this day. He is important because he was present at this country’s most critical time, coupled with the fact that his vision of self government and the protecting the rights of the people, was and is still valued in America today.
James Madison first made a name for himself on a national level with the publication of The Federalist Papers. Madison is referred to as the Father of the Constitution because of his staunch defense of the document as well as the importance of The Bill of Rights. The Federalist Papers, eventually came to be regarded as the most important interoperation of the Constitution. “Although it was largely ignored, it came to be regarded as the central part of the pluralist interpretation of American politics.”(Commanger, 1947 p. 65) In this, Madison stressed the importance of a strong central government and believed that it would be advantageous to the cohesion of a country, much more so than what was seen under the Articles of Confederation: a weak government that many times, bowed to the will of small factions which helped to control the states.
James Madison reached the zenith of his political life with his writing of the Bill of Rights. At first, Madison was against such it since he saw the Constitution as a Bill of Rights unto itself but the Anti-Federalists would not ratify the Constitution until such a provision was included. Finally, in 1791, what is now known as The Bill of Rights was written. Contrary to the wishes of Madison and his belief in a strong central government, The Bill of Rights still had to bow to the wishes of the states as it did not apply to the states until the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments. Only in its posterity would it come to be recognized as such an important document as it is today. But in many ways, the Bill of Rights helps to make the Constitution as valued as it really is. The Bill of Rights is in some ways, like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The Bill of Rights could have been excluded. There could have been another way in which our freedom’s could have been protected. But once it has been written, in the same way but to a lesser extent, Beethoven’s 5th, or any other work of art, one could not imagine life without it. If it were not for The Bill of Rights, America might have gone the way of many other countries who not only amend their constitution but do away with it entirely and start anew. The Constitution of the United States is one of the oldest active written constitutions in the world today because it is still seen as relevant. James Madison had a great deal to do with this miracle.
It is at this time that a shift is seen in the ideology of Madison. He became opposed to Alexander Hamilton and his views of a strong central government, surrounded by trade and commerce and becomes a staunch states’ right ally and is opposed to a strong central government by 1795 and as a result, puts himself in direct opposition to Hamilton and The Federalists. Along with his mentor Thomas Jefferson, the two help to form a new political party in American called the Democratic Republicans. In this, Madison stayed very much in line with the political ideology of Thomas Jefferson, a giant in the area of American politics and could not help but be affected by Jefferson and his desire for states’ rights and an agrarian society along with a weak federal government to exist within American. And James Monroe was in full agreement with this ideology until he became president and was faced with The War of 1812.
In following Jefferson’s idea of a weak federal government, he had greatly decreased the size and power of the Federal Navy and armed forces.(Kuralt, 1989) This served as a great impediment during Jefferson’s presidency as he was powerless to enforce the 1807 Embargo Act. But this downsizing of the navy served as an even greater impediment when Madison was facing The War of 1812 and British aggression on the high seas. Only then, did Madison see the need for a strong central government, enforced by a strong navy and army. He would continue these beliefs throughout his presidency.
Even though the War of 1812 went badly for the Americans at the beginning, they eventually were able to win the war and a strong sense of nationalism came over the country. There existed in the country, “an era of good will.” Chief Justice John Marshall upheld broad interpretations of the Constitution which worked against the states and their control of power and the passage of a high tariff in 1816 which President Madison supported, help in the development of manufacturing within the country. “When James Madison left the White House in 1817, the nation and the Constitution were more firmly established than ever before in their history.” (Kuralt, 2007)
Since James Madison drastically changed his political ideals, mostly on the insistence of Thomas Jefferson, his nemesis was for a time, Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasurer of the United States. Hamilton stressed a strong central government along with trade and manufacturing and not farming and the formation of an utopian agrarian society as was so near and dear to the heart of his mentor and best friend, Thomas Jefferson.(Burns, 1999) His other nemesis was John Adams and his passage of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. (Burns, 1997) This act levied fines and/or jail time to anyone found criticizing the government and specifically, the actions of the president. It is curious as to why John Adams, who was present at the Continental Congress in 1776 and who was an ardent patriot as anyone at that time. But Jefferson and Madison were horrified by this act and responded with the now famous Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which helped to enforce the Constitution as well as the rights of every citizen, to still and forever, be protected by the provisions set forth in The Constitution and specifically, the 1st amendment which protected one’s freedom of speech, whether it be in one’s own home or in public ridicule of the government. It is not a single political party or person that served as Madison’s lifelong nemesis but all those who sought to weaken the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
James Madison, is to me, one of the most important and underestimated figures in American history. Coming off the presidency and always in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson, it made it hard for Madison, who for the rest of his life after being president, worried frantically about his legacy as all presidents must do, to be correctly understood.. The Federalist Papers has come to be recognized as the most important interpretation of the strength of the Constitution as well as the need for such a strong central government. The Articles of Confederation must have been seen as a mistake from the beginning when the power of the country resides in the states and not in a strong centralized government. Madison was also correct in his stiff reaction to the 1978 Alien and Sedition Acts which forbade anyone from criticizing the government and the president. Such an act is in direct conflict with the Constitution and the 1st amendment. Along with the help of Thomas Jefferson, Madison gave a stiff response to the Acts and further shed light on the fact that such laws have no place in America.
The Bill of Rights, though not seen as necessary by Madison at the time, was still written by him and its lasting power can be credited to the genius of James Madison. At least some of these amendments are known by every person in this country and are used for their own defense whether in court or in a political argument with a person from another country who does not have the luxury of such rights. Also, the need for a strong army and navy, which was not agreed upon by Jefferson, is absolutely necessary for a government to defend itself and to continue to give protection to its citizens. For when citizens are afraid of attack or invasion from a foreign power, they can never truly be free. Also in this light, Madison oversaw the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the country and would eventually contribute a great deal to the power and prominence of the country. The sum of $15 million, which was twice the amount of the federal budget, was seen as too much and many in Congress scoffed at the idea of the purchase. But Madison and Jefferson did not flinch as they immediately saw the value of 828,000 square miles would have on the country.
Also, a strong sense of nationalism, although not a direct result of Madison but rather an offshoot of the victory that was obtained in the War of 1812. For modern day Republicans who want America to be great in the world, economically, politically and militarily, nationalism: a pride in America and all the great things that come with being a legal citizen of America, is a source of contentment as well as the desire for America’s greatness to continue. For those people, the hope that such nationalism would come back to America with redoubled vigor.
James Madison is often times overlooked among the important figures in American history. But this is unjustified. He had a direct hand in the strength of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolution, the Federalist Papers as well as the successful implementation of the war of 1812 through a strong central government and navy. James Madison spent the last few years of his life, frantic with worry about what his legacy would be and even amending some of his personal writings and letters, not to deceive but rather to clarify and to help avoid future generations from misunderstanding him. He need not worry. James Madison is remembered and revered by those true students of history who appreciate all that he did for not only his generation, but for future generations of Americans.
Burns, K (1997) Thomas Jefferson. Boston: PBS Video
Burns, R. (1999) The History of New York. Boston: PBS Video
Commanger, H. (1947). Documents of American History. New York: Century Publishers.
Kuralt, C. (1989) On the Road: American Heritage. New York: CBS Production.