James Madison – All Men Having Power Ought to be Mistrusted

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Should the Federal government be limited to only those powers explicitly granted by the Constitution? Or should it be allowed to take whatever action deemed necessary unless explicitly prohibited by the Constitution? James Madison, known as ‘Father of the Constitution’ and author of the Bill of Rights, felt the former – the Federal government should be limited to its enumerated powers. This was based on his belief that “All Men Having Power Ought to be Mistrusted”. As a result, the U.S. Constitution is based on limited power with checks and balances to keep any person or branch of government from having too much authority.

Early Career

Prior to the Constitutional Convention, Madison served in Virginia politics. He was a serious fellow. At a young age, Madison decided against attending the College of William and Mary because it was a ‘party school’.  Instead he went to the University of New Jersey (future Princeton).  Later, in Madison’s first election, to the Virginia house, he lost because…he did not provide ‘grog’ to the voters.  He did not repeat that mistake. Perhaps we should adopt that convention – improve voter turnout by providing ‘refreshments’ at the polling station.

While serving in the Virginia legislature Madison obtained passage of the Virginia Statute on Religious freedom, the first religious freedom law in the United States. Virginia wanted to pass a tax to support Protestant churches.  Madison argued against the tax stating – “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”. He when on to argue - “Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government”.

Constitutional Convention

In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, Madison was a leader in writing the new Constitution.  Approval was controversial. Benjamin Franklin made a key speech in favor of the proposed new Constitution. He supported the compromises concluding – “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.” Even with Franklin’s support, only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the Constitution.

The States narrowly ratified the Constitution. The largest state at the time, Virginia, approved it by a vote of 89 – 79. Among those in opposition – Patrick Henry (‘Give me Liberty or give me death’), George Mason (Author of Virginia Declaration of Rights, the basis for the Bill of Rights), and Benjamin Harrison V (signer of the Declaration of Independence, father of President William Henry Harrison and Great-Grandfather to President Benjamin Harrison).

Madison won support for ratification by promising to submit a Bill of Rights to Congress in its inaugural session. But, first he had to be elected to Congress. Then Governor Patrick Henry had gerrymandered the district against Madison. His opponent in that election? Future President, and fellow Virginian, James Monroe, the only time two Presidents faced each other in a Congressional election. Monroe had opposed ratification of the new Constitution believing it gave too much power to the Federal Government. Madison won, barely, by 366 votes.

Bill of Rights

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Madison originally argued that a Bill of Rights was not needed. For example, if the Constitution did not allow the government to limit freedom of speech in the first place, why do you need a bill of rights protecting freedom of speech?  However, to win ratification of the Constitution, Madison promised a Bill of Rights and he delivered. Based on his proposals, Congress passed twelve amendments. But the Bill of Rights, as we know, consists of only ten amendments. What happened to the other two amendments? One related to expanding the size of the House of Representatives as the country grew. Had this one been ratified, the House of Representatives would now have over 6,000 members, instead of 438. I think we lucked out.

The other proposed Bill of Rights amendment prevented Congress from raising its own pay without an intervening Congressional election.  In the 1790’s three-quarters of the states never approved it.  End of story?  Nope.  200 years later, in 1982, a student named Gregory Watson at the University of Texas wrote a paper noting that the proposed amendment had no deadline for ratification. He started a campaign to ratify the amendment.  It took ten years, but in 1992 the 38th state ratified the amendment and it became part of our constitution as the 27th amendment.   Officially it took 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days to get Madison’s final amendment passed.  Doesn’t seem right that Watson only got a ‘C’ on his original paper.

Alexander Hamilton

Madison was Speaker of the House in the 1790’s. He strongly disagreed with Alexander Hamilton’s plan for the Federal government to assume the local state debts. Madison felt the plan was unfair to those states that had been fiscally responsible as they would now have to help pay off the debts of the more irresponsible states. Good point. Hamilton also proposed paying off debts at face value (‘Par’).  Madison felt this would reward speculators and was unfair to war veterans.  Many war veterans had sold off their service payment notes at a large discount to raise cash.  If a veteran had sold, for example, a $100 government note for $10, under Hamilton’s plan to pay at ‘Par’, the speculator now gets $100, a huge profit, while the veteran just keeps his reduced $10.  Madison lost the argument and Hamilton’s plan passed. Life’s unfair.

The musical Hamilton explains how the debt assumption bill passed. The story has it that Thomas Jefferson arranged a dinner between Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury at the time) and Madison (Speaker of the House).  A compromise was reached providing for both assumption of the state debts (supported by Northern States) and establishment of the capital on the Potomac river (supported by Southern States). The musical covers these events in the song ‘The Room Where It Happens’.

Later Years

Madison later served as Secretary of State for eight years under President Thomas Jefferson, and then President for two terms. Interesting irony here – it was unclear whether the Constitution granted the right to make the Louisiana purchase, but Jefferson and Madison went ahead anyway. Madison was President during the War of 1812.  I also need to point out, for the trivia experts out there, that Madison holds an important distinction among U.S. Presidents – at 5’ 4” and 100 pounds, he was the smallest to hold the office to-date. The tallest? Abraham Lincoln.

Madison was the last of the Founding Fathers to die, in 1836.  In debt, his wife, Dolley, had to sell their plantation to meet expenses.  Eventually the estate (Montpelier) ended up with the DuPont family, who donated it to back the country in 1984. Madison may have been in debt when he died, but we owe him a debt for creating one of the best systems of government to-date.