James Madison and the Republican Legacy
by Drew R. McCoy; Cambridge University Press; 376 pages.
In 1772, when he was twenty-one, James Madison wrote, “My sensations for many months past have intimated to me not to expect a long or healthy life.” He glumly proclaimed himself “too dull and infirm now to look out for any extraordinary things in this world.” Yet the morbid young man went on to lead an indisputably extraordinary career as a framer of the Constitution, as a co-author of The Federalist Papers , and as a two-term President of the United States. After leaving office in 1817, Madison enjoyed a long and productive retirement until his death in 1836 at the age of eighty-five.
Drew R. McCoy focuses on this final period of Madison’s life, when the last surviving constitutional signer endeavored, in McCoy’s words, “to convey to a new generation the meaning of a Revolutionary past that was fast receding from memory.” The 1787 Constitution represented a bold experiment in government, but lax and self-serving interpretations of the founders’ original intent variously threatened to plunge the young republic into either tyranny or anarchy, as in the nullification crisis, which roused Madison from a long public silence in the late 1820s.
The nullifiers, a group contesting the federal government’s right to impose tariffs on imported goods, asserted the right of states to nullify federal laws they deemed unconstitutional and, if necessary, withdraw from the Union. Madison was horrified by this loose reading of the framers’ legacy, calling it “a preposterous and anarchical pretension” that could render the Constitution as impotent as the Articles of Confederation that had preceded it.
Using this and other issues, McCoy explores the theoretical framework for the elegant contrivance of checks and balances that Madison had helped put in motion. By the 1830s Madison’s undilutedly eighteenth-century political outlook had begun to look a bit antiquated to an industrializing, expanding, railroad-building nation. His non-ideological, somewhat mechanistic view of government occasionally put him into unusual positions: Madison detested slavery, but his unwaveringly strict interpretation of state prerogatives prevented him from advocating federal regulations limiting the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. Nevertheless, in his last years Madison played a crucial role in maintaining, in the midst of a period of growth and reassessment, the efficacy of a document that reflected the singular talent of his political mind, of “snatching order from the jaws of chaos.”