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An Exchange on James Madison

In response to:

The Founding Realist from the October 19, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

Like Newt Gingrich, I always read Gordon Wood. His writings are insightful, elegant, balanced, and fair. So too his review of my If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason [NYR, October 19, 1995]. Nevertheless, there are a few points in his essay that need additional comment.

As Wood explains, my book tries to construct and critique Madison’s political ideas and compare them to, among others, Jefferson’s. He notes as well that this effort is part of a larger project designed to open a public dialogue on the character of America’s pasts and the possibilities for alternative, democratic futures. A dialogue, however, requires all those involved to understand the arguments and ideas being presented. I suspect that Wood does not appreciate fully my perspective since he predicts an “unflattering portrait of Hamilton” as the final volume in the trilogy. While still in the gestation stage, I anticipate a different Hamilton book than does Wood. Why the differences in perception?

Wood is a historian, arguably one of America’s finest. I am a political theorist. As such, our training, our interests, our concerns are somewhat different. My focus centers on the differences among the founder’s political beliefs—their ideologies—the ideas and ideals they believed in even if they never were manifested in action in the public arena. What they actually wrote and thought, rather than what they did while in office, comprises the primary research material of this endeavor. As a historian, Wood focuses more on the behavior of political actors and on the material record, while I concentrate more on their philosophic ideas.

The differences, in part, may also stem from the style of the Madison book. It is at moments, as one earlier reader observed, an “in-your-face” analysis of Madison. As a reviewer inevitably must, Wood collapses some of the book’s more extended discussions down to the nittiest grit. Consequently, some of the book’s meaning becomes obscured if not lost. Perhaps two examples will suffice: first, his description of what “being ‘liberal’ ” means “for Matthews”; and second, my “deep aversion to a capitalist market society” which, if Wood is correct, leads “into an anachronistic misreading of Madison.” To be sure, Madison is a liberal of the Calvin-to-Locke variety. But liberalism has a history, spanning centuries and including many different voices. I do not collapse liberalism down to the size of Madison, or Hobbes, or Locke, but rather conceive of liberalism spanning a historical and ideological spectrum of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, both Mills, and T.H. Green as well as contemporary figures such as C.B. Macpherson and Isaiah Berlin. To comprehend Madison’s ideas and import, I situate him inside this larger liberal (cum liberal-democratic) tradition and thereby implicitly draw the reader into beginning the dialogue about alternative futures.

Capitalism also has a history. That I am not particularly fond of the present-day manifestations of a cultural system designed to produce ever more efficiently ever greater amounts of capital remains beside the point. Madison never lived to see even the beginning traces of the consequences of monopoly capitalism. Moreover, it remains impossible for me to conceive of him embracing today’s Wall Street ethos. Still, he did accept the cold and inescapable logic of a Malthusian nature trapped inside a Calvinist universe run on market principles and Madisonian politics. Furthermore, rather than presenting Madison as “just another advocate for a ‘bourgeois notion of property’ “—a position Wood declares “wrong”—my fifth chapter, “Property: Rights and Possessions, Democracy and Despair,” presents a lengthy account of a much more complex Madison who, not unlike other liberals, appeared torn between concerns of economic justice and the logic of the emerging market society. Madison cannot be understood simply as an (eighteenth-century) aristocrat. While there certainly is an aristocratic flavor to Madison’s notion of property (hence his nostalgic concerns with economic justice), portions of his 1792 essay “Property” and his 1818 “Agricultural Address” could have come straight from John Locke’s chapter “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government. If this Locke does not contain the seeds of market society, who does?

Lastly, Wood finds a “greatly overdrawn” contrast between Madison and Jefferson. To be sure, I strove to bring as much analytic clarity as possible to the philosophic differences between Madison and Jefferson. After all, the myth of the “great collaboration” between the two of them has been gospel for some time. To soften the differences between these two political giants, Wood reminds readers of Madison’s observation of “a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.” The exact context of those words of Madison that Wood quotes may be at least as supportive of my position as it is of Wood’s. Madison wrote them to N.P. Trist in 1832 when he found himself having considerable difficulty trying to rationalize the significant differences between himself and Jefferson on the political issues of states’ rights and nullification that had been generated by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Since Jefferson was dead, and the reality of the historic record surrounding the resolutions clearly documented their philosophic differences in this collaborative effort, Madison had little choice but to attempt to gloss over them. As political thinkers, Madison and Jefferson held vastly different pictures of the past and the future. And Jefferson’s radically democratic notion that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” was not the “impression of the moment” but rather an ideal he maintained throughout his life.

Richard K. Matthews

Lehigh University

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Gordon S Wood replies:

In his letter Professor Matthews tries to soften some of the harsh, “in-your-face” arguments of his book, and suggests that I did not fully understand those arguments because I am a historian and he is a political theorist. Although it’s certainly true that we come from two different disciplines, and that explains much of our disagreement, I don’t believe he appreciates clearly the difference between the two. He says that the difference is largely one of focus: that political theorists concentrate on the ideas and beliefs of persons in the past, while historians concentrate on their behavior and the material record. This is not where the difference lies. Historians are as interested in the ideas and ideologies of the founders as political theorists like Matthews. What is different about the two disciplines is their purpose. Historians attempt to recover a past world as accurately as possible and try to show how that different world developed into our own. Political theorists who work with the ideas of the past have a different agenda. They are primarily interested in the present or future conditions of political life and see past ideas as merely the sources or seeds for present or future political thinking. They are, as historians like to say, very “whiggish”; they usually see the past simply as an anticipation of our present, and thus they tend to hold people in the past responsible for a future that was in fact inconceivable to them. So if you think modern liberalism is heartless, then go back and blame John Locke or James Madison or any of the other presumed contributors to a modern “bourgeois notion of property.” (242) Or if you want an alternative future for America, then go back and find in Jefferson’s thought some idiosyncratic notions about ward democracy and the earth’s belonging to the living.

There is nothing wrong with this sort of ransacking of the past by political theorists; lawyers and jurists do it all the time. But we should never confuse these manipulations of the past for present purposes with doing history. In his book, for example, Matthews wants to show that Madison was “committed implicitly to the market principle of possessive individualism.” So he is compelled to argue that he understands Madison’s “actual position” on property better than Madison himself, even “in spite of his words.” (165, 166) His book is full of these kinds of distortions and manipulations of Madison’s thought. Whatever Matthews is up to, it is not history, and his book is not an historically accurate account of Madison’s political thinking.

It’s true that I did jump the gun in presuming that Matthews’s portrayal of Hamilton in his final work of his trilogy would be unflattering. Since Jefferson is Matthews’s hero and since Jefferson and Hamilton were so deeply at odds with one another in their lifetimes, I naively assumed that Matthews’s account of Hamilton would inevitably be disparaging. But from the imaginative ways Matthews has misrepresented Madison and grossly separated him from his good friend and collaborator Jefferson, I should have realized that anything might be possible in his forthcoming interpretation of Hamilton.

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