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James Madison, Revolutionary Thinker

Remembering the Founding Father, statesman and president who dared to think way outside the box

founding fathers madison and jefferson


Madison (right) talks, over wine, with Thomas Jefferson.

The revolutionaries we honor as the Founding Fathers may have been the most remarkable generation of leaders in human history. And Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jack Rakove calls James Madison "the most original, creative and penetrating political thinker" of them all.

See also: 5 myths about the American flag.

Madison, the fourth president of the United States, was known in his lifetime as the "Father of the Constitution." He wrote more than a third of the Federalist Papers and is widely regarded as the author of the Bill of Rights and the chief architect of the most daring and important political experiment in human history.

It was Madison who devised and refined the principle of divided power, seeing it as a preventative for majority tyranny. (That's why we have three branches of government.) He was an astute and inquisitive scholar, poring over crates of books that Thomas Jefferson sent him from France on every form of government ever tried.

Madison believed that, as a rule, legislators (like those they represented) could not be relied on to put the national interest — and the protection of minority or individual rights — ahead of their own interests and passions. Madison wisely feared a majority that, while professing to represent the will of the people, actually served itself instead of the public good.

In this excerpt from a wide-ranging interview about his book, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, Rakove, a professor at Stanford University, talks about how Madison's outside-the-box thinking changed the course of history.

Madison represents, in a sense, a second generation of political thinking about the nature of popular government. The best way to put this is that in the mid-1770s, when Americans start writing constitutions, they think of those constitutions as being republican in the lower case.


And republicanism in 1776 meant first and foremost that you believed in the virtue of the citizen, that you felt that when citizens participate in politics, they should have the capacity, the ability, to subordinate private interests to public good. That they would be responsible for checking government, but they would do so not out of their petty, parochial local concerns, but because they would be able to have the proper understanding of what the society as a whole collectively needed.

This is what scholars called the republican theory of virtue, and virtue is a classical concept that goes back to the ancients. So the key point here is virtue was the dominant idea in the mid 1770s.

So when Madison comes back to this question as, in a sense, the leading architect of the federal constitution in 1787, he has radically rethought and challenged and questioned that position. And Madison assumes that Americans, like other peoples, cannot be counted upon to be virtuous all the time in all situations, that most of the time they act out of opinion, they act out of passion, they act out of interest, [that] their decision-making is biased in any of a number of self-interested ways.

What you need to do, therefore, is — you want to assume at the start, because you do believe in republican government, that the people as a whole are capable of being a self-governing people. But you want to improve the quality of deliberation, you want to find ways to take the people's impulses, which are a mixture of the positive and the negative, and in a sense channel them upward so that better deliberation takes place.

So it's a more complicated story. Madison assumes that people are not virtuous in the simpleminded sense of 1776, but he thinks they have virtue enough to be republicans, but to be republicans they have to have good means of deliberation. That's why you want to have balanced government, that's why you want to pay a lot of attention to the quality of lawmaking itself, something that Madison is concerned with a great deal. So this is a way of saying that it wasn't just that they do everything they wanted at their very beginning.

One part of the revolutionary story is to understand how the experience of the revolution refined American ideas about popular government.

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