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The Founding Realist

If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason

by Richard K. Matthews
University Press of Kansas, 297 pp., $25.00

Poor James Madison! Think of who he was and what he achieved. The major architect of the Constitution; the father of the Bill of Rights and one of the strongest proponents of the rights of conscience and religious liberty in American history; co-author of The Federalist, surely the most significant work of political theory in American history; the leader and most important member of the first House of Representatives in 1789; co-founder of the Democratic-Republican party in the 1790s; secretary of state in Jefferson’s administration; and the fourth president of the United States—all this, and still he does not have the popular standing of the other founding fathers, especially that of his closest friend, Thomas Jefferson.

Madison seems unable to escape from the shadow of Jefferson, and seems smaller than his Virginia colleague in every way. He was after all only about five feet six inches tall compared to Jefferson’s six two or three, and somehow that difference in height has carried over into the different degrees of popular esteem that the country has paid to these two founders. Jefferson has a huge temple erected in his honor in the nation’s capital; but until 1980, with the naming of a new Library of Congress building after him, James Madison had no such memorial. Jefferson’s ringing statements on behalf of freedom and democracy are inscribed everywhere but this is so of very few of Madison’s. Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has been restored to Jeffersonian perfection and has become a shrine visited by thousands of people every year. Madison’s home, Montpelier, has only recently been opened to visitors, and it remains dominated by the twentieth-century horsy tastes of the Du Ponts who once owned it.

Although the two men collaborated on many things throughout their careers, especially in passing Virginia’s bill for religious freedom and in organizing the Democratic-Republican party, Jefferson has received all the glory while Madison did much of the work. Indeed, Jefferson has come to symbolize America and America’s ideals to an extent that no other single figure in our history has matched. Certainly Madison has not even come close. Until now, that is.

It is the burden of If Men Were Angels, by Richard K. Matthews, professor of government at Lehigh University, to show us that Madison, not Jefferson, is the more accurate symbol of America. Madison, not Jefferson, says Matthews, stands for the America of the past two hundred years; he, not Jefferson, articulated the beliefs and values that have made us what we are. Matthews contends that Madison is the most influential and most representative thinker among the founders of the United States. Madison is the “quintessential liberal” whose “passionless notion of reasonable liberal politics” has shaped our culture as no one else’s has.

As the term “passionless” and the word “heartless” in the subtitle jarringly suggest, however, Matthews’s book is not meant to enhance Madison’s reputation. For Matthews does not much like the reasonable liberal values and beliefs that Madison articulated; indeed, the picture that Matthews paints of the kind of American people that Madison’s thinking presumably represents is anything but attractive. In fact, it is downright ugly—a picture of a coldhearted, fragmented, and undemocratic people, marked by fear and loneliness, a people engaged in a “war of all against all…with no hope of fraternity, equality, or community.” Madison, it seems, is the symbol of a selfish, individualistic people who have no sense of benevolence and care only for their material wealth and property. For Matthews that is what being “liberal” means.

Few American academics writing today have as despairing a view as Matthews does of what he calls “the political and cultural wasteland” that constitutes present American reality. Despite this despairing view, however, If Men Were Angels is not primarily a work of social criticism. It is not, in other words, a long, hand-wringing jeremiad or lamentation about the sorry state of contemporary American culture. Far from it. For the most part this clearly written and vigorously argued book is a straightforward work of historically grounded political theory; it stays pretty much in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The book tries to do three things: “to construct the complete political theory of James Madison”; to provide “a critical analysis of Madisonian politics”; and to understand Madison’s politics “in comparison with what America has failed to become” by setting his vision of politics alongside Jefferson’s very different vision.

If Men Were Angels is the second volume in a revisionist trilogy of books that Matthews hopes will open “a public debate on the meanings of America’s pasts and thereby initiate a dialogue on the possibilities for alternative, democratic futures.” His first volume, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1984, described “a Jefferson who not only presents a radical critique of American market society but also provides an image for—if not a road map to—a consciously made, legitimately democratic American future.” The trilogy will eventually conclude with Alexander Hamilton and the Creation of the Heroic State. With Jefferson as the radical democratic hero in the trilogy, we can expect an unflattering portrait of Hamilton in the volume to come. What is surprising about this second volume is the harshness of Matthews’s indictment of Madison, who after all has usually been thought to have been the most intimate and loyal of Jeffersonians. Matthews shows us otherwise.

Harsh as the indictment of Madison may be, however, the book is in no way a crude debunking of Madison; in fact, much of the time Matthews seems to admire the energy, design, and intellect that went into Madison’s conception of politics even as he strongly disagrees with its assumptions and values. Given the current scholarly opinion of Madison’s political thinking, Matthews perhaps had little choice.

The general public may now have only begun to glimpse the importance of Madison among the founding fathers, but that is no longer the case with scholars. During the past several decades historians like Ralph Ketcham, Jack Rakove, and Robert Rutland have written excellent biographies of Madison, and Irving Brant’s six-volume work has been completed. The definitive edition of Madison’s papers is now well under way, modeled, however, as all the great publication projects of the Founders’ papers are, on Julian Boyd’s edition of Jefferson’s works and correspondence. And, perhaps most important, several scholars, including Drew McCoy and Neal Riemer, have written excellent studies of various aspects of Madison’s political thought, all more or less contributing to the now widely accepted view that Madison was the most astute, profound, and original political theorist among the founding fathers.1

So widely accepted among scholars is this view of Madison that Matthews makes no effort to dispute it head on. In fact, he spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the various ways Madison with his “brilliant liberal mind” contributed to the making of the liberal American republic. In the process he draws out starkly the pessimistic implications of Madison’s liberal thinking. Madison, he tells us, was no democrat; democracy for Madison was “a fool’s illusion.” And since Madison’s ideas stand for American culture, America is no real democracy either. Madison’s dream, like any “liberal’s dream,” was “life without others,” which, says Matthews more than once, was really a “nightmare.” His politics, which are American politics, were “the politics of sin, cynicism, and suspicion.” A liberal like Madison has an accountant mentality based on rational choice with no place for compassion and caring. All that matters in Madison’s liberalism is the individual and his property, especially his property. And so it goes. Despite his acceptance of Madison’s brilliance, Matthews has written a devastating critique of Madison’s political thought.

James Madison was born in 1751 into that class of Virginia slaveholding planters who dominated their society as few aristocracies have. Although his father was the richest landowner in Orange County, Virginia, he was not far removed from the raw frontier, and young Madison, like most of the founding fathers, became the first of his family to attend college. In Madison’s case it was the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), where he was introduced, through the president, John Witherspoon, to the enlightened ideas of eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and David Hume. In college he revealed an intellectual intensity and earnestness that he never lost. His father’s plantation wealth enabled Madison, who complained endlessly of his poor health, to return home to study and contemplate participating in the provincial politics of colonial Virginia. The Revolution, of course, changed everything.

In 1776 Madison at age twenty-five was elected to Virginia’s provincial convention and became caught up in the revolutionary movement. His first great liberal passion was religious freedom, and through that concern he became friendly with Jefferson who, eight years his senior, was already a major force in Virginia’s revolutionary politics. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship.2

Madison moved up fast in politics, and by age twenty-eight he was elected to the Continental Congress, where he was confronted with national problems. The glaring weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation convinced him, along with many others, that some sort of reform of this first national constitution was needed, and throughout the middle 1780s he wrestled with various schemes for overhauling the Confederation. In the meantime service once again in the Virginia assembly, where many of his and Jefferson’s plans for reform were mangled by factional fighting, persuaded him that popular politics at the state level and majoritarian legislative tyranny were as dangerous to republicanism as executive despotism. Not only Virginia but other states as well were passing various inflationary paper money laws and other debtor relief legislation that were victimizing creditor minorities. All this experience during the 1780s sparked new thoughts, and Madison began working out for himself a new understanding of American politics, a new understanding that involved questioning conventional wisdom concerning majority rule, the proper size for a republic, and the role of factions in society. No American in the 1780s thought so seriously or in such an original way about the problems of constituting republican governments: it was probably the most creative moment in the history of American politics.

Matthews concedes much of Madison’s creativity; he simply does not like the uses to which Madison put that creativity nor does he share Madison’s realistic assumptions about human nature and society. Madison, he says, had a Calvinist and almost Hobbesian conception of human beings. People had little virtue. They were selfish and passionate and had to be watched constantly. It was true that they were rational as individuals, but when collected together in a group they became dangerous. As Madison wrote in The Federalist, and Matthews quotes more than once: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

In such circumstances the best that could be done was to create a strong balanced government to maintain stability and protect individual rights, especially the rights of property, from encroachments by others. The executive branch of government, of course, could abuse its power and threaten people’s rights and liberties, and this possibility of abuse had to be checked. But for Madison the people themselves, either in the mass or in representative legislative majorities, were even more threatening to the rights of minorities than were governors and other executive administrators. What Matthews refers to as “the liberal Prince” had to shift back and forth depending on where the threat to individual rights was greater, and throw his weight onto one or the other side of the seesaw in order to achieve social stability, which, says Matthews, always remained Madison’s “primary political concern.”

  1. 1

    The most recent, thorough, and laudatory account of Madison’s political thought is Lance Banning’s new book, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Cornell University Press, 1995). It stresses the consistency of Madison’s thinking throughout the formative years of the Republic.

  2. 2

    For a review of a new edition of the correspondence of these friends, see Edmund S. Morgan’s article in the March 2, 1995, issue of The New York Review.

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