Economist, From the print edition
James Madison, most cerebral of the Founding Fathers, would have been hopeless on Twitter. As a rising political star, seeking to understand why the infant American republic was so fragile, he took to the library of his Virginia plantation, Montpelier, for several months. He emerged having written a 39-page study of previous attempts at political union, from the Achaean League to the Belgic Confederacy, as well as a memorandum on “Vices of the Political System of the United States”. Amid all that scholarship lurked ideas about government that he would champion throughout his career, as drafter of the constitution, a leader in Congress, his country’s chief diplomat and its fourth president.
Sound-bites were few and far between, reducing his modern-day fame. He was small in stature, soft-spoken and reserved to the point of rudeness, at least among strangers; so his influence often lay in things that did not happen (he was a good dealmaker) or remained unsaid (he repeatedly reined in the fieriest impulses of his friend Thomas Jefferson). Montpelier, at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains, works hard to explain the importance of its former owner. One stately room features a reconstructed dinner party, hosted by a cut-out of Madison in old age. He is dwarfed by his younger guests: politicians seeking advice from the last living founder. School parties may be told, “He’s kind of like Yoda, the last of the Jedi,” says Christian Cotz, a museum official.
Belatedly, the America of catchphrases has caught up with Madison, notably on the right. He is claimed as a conservative prophet, warning of the dangers should America stray from its 18th-century origins as a lightly-taxed, self-reliant, debt-averse union of states. Bumper-stickers may be bought, carrying quotes in which Madison praises America for trusting its citizens to bear arms, or warns that civil liberties are imperilled in times of war. Most startlingly, he is the darling of “Madison Rising”, a rock group that calls itself America’s “most patriotic”, performing songs about such stirring subjects as soldiers, guns, pick-up trucks and Ronald Reagan (sample lyrics: “He was the Gipper, he had the knack. He took a bullet and he still came back”).
Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican senator and putative White House contender, cites Madison when accusing Barack Obama of trampling the law, especially when setting spy agencies on Americans. “Madison wrote that we would not need a constitution to protect us if government were comprised of angels,” Mr Paul says, adding that in this world, alas, “Government unrestrained by law becomes nothing short of tyranny.”
A rival Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is less exercised than Mr Paul about privacy, and more focused on accusing the Feds of itching to grab Americans’ guns, meddle in their health care or bully the religious. But he too reveres the constitution’s architect. Mr Cruz wrote a college thesis about Madison’s Bill of Rights, entitled “Clipping the Wings of Angels”. As a senator, he scoffs: “There’s not a whole lot of angels in Washington.”
Yet sneaky editing is required to recruit Madison as an anti-government firebrand. His views on government changed. Early on, he worried about the selfishness and parochialism of state governments, seeking a strong central executive. Later, he fretted about over-mighty federal authorities. But his concern was always to craft a stable, effective popular government, says Lynn Uzzell, scholar-in-residence at Montpelier. He did write in the Federalist Papers, a series of essays urging the ratification of the constitution, that “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” His preceding thought was that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” For him, properly-regulated government was a vital bulwark against human wickedness. That is not the same as seeing the federal government as a tyranny-in-waiting, straining constantly against chains fixed by the Founding Fathers.
Into this live political argument drops a weighty new work, “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered”, by Lynne Cheney, a conservative scholar and wife of the former vice-president, Dick Cheney. The book is a lovingly researched tribute to an often-underestimated man. It does not explicitly refer to modern controversies. But present-day politics intrudes.
A conservative case for getting government right
At a time when anti-government voices are loud on the right, the book is a reminder that many Republicans believe in making government work. Mrs Cheney recruits Madison to that cause. She cites Virginia’s governor, thundering in 1792 that the federal government’s wisdom and care played no part in the country’s prosperity, which he linked to peace and the people’s “native vigour”. Madison replied “rather sharply”, she writes, pointing to such constitutional boons to economic growth as property rights, contract laws and uniform commercial regulations.
Her book is shrewd in its handling of the fruitless quest for ideological purity, and the temptation for individual states to rebel against federal laws they disliked, or secede from the union. Madison’s great insight—“brilliant and prophetic”, writes Mrs Cheney—was that stability can never be achieved by a retreat to smaller and smaller units, peopled by citizens of common views and virtues. No society can be truly homogeneous, nor any group wholly avoid factions, he saw. Madison’s solution was a large, diverse republic, in which parties and interests check one another, lessening the risk that a majority will find common cause to gang up on others.
Madison rewards study for many reasons. As the first wartime president he defended civil liberties. He had a passion for religious liberty. Montpelier is admirably frank about his ownership of about 100 slaves while despising slavery in theory: the skeletal frames of their rebuilt cabins fill one lawn beside his mansion. Modern Republicans have most to learn from him about the necessary work of governing. Sound-bites are no substitute.