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.”
By the 1780s Madison had worked out a Malthusian view of the future before Malthus. Because population increased faster than the resources available to sustain the increases, the lot of people in time would become ever more vicious, ever more miserable, and ever more poor. This was already happening in Europe, and it would eventually happen even in America, despite its being blessed with so much land. The great populous cities of Europe and the growth of urban manufacturing were to Madison the results of social decay and the desperateness of people without agricultural land. No one in his right mind would ever move to the city and become a manufacturer if he had land to till.
Although the end of America’s frontier might not come for a century or more, Madison had a more immediate fear. The growing numbers of American farmers needed outlets for their produce; if they did not find them, they would stop working and slip into idleness, barbarism, and savagery. To Madison, as to many other thinkers in this premodern world, men were naturally lazy and would not work unless they were driven by necessity. Madison had nothing but contempt for utopians like Robert Owen and William Godwin, who believed that people would work for the love of it and would use positively any increased leisure they got from machinery and technology by cultivating their minds. People were simply not like that, said Madison. Even civilized individuals were only one step removed from savages, he said, and in groups or factions and under the influence of passion they could sometimes behave like savages.
Following his description of Madison’s pessimistic view of human nature and the future, Matthews turns to what he considers to be “the heart and soul of Madisonian politics”—Madison’s obsessive concern for private property. In this discussion Matthews clearly reveals his deep aversion to a capitalist market society, a present-minded aversion that leads him into an anachronistic misreading of Madison. Although Matthews senses at times that Madison’s view of property was different from our own, he eventually concludes that Madison was just another advocate for a “bourgeois notion of property.”
No doubt he wishes Madison were not so property loving. In 1790 Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton proposed to pay off in full the present holders of the Revolutionary War debt, even though many of them were speculators who had bought up the debt at a fraction of its face value. Madison rejected Hamilton’s proposal as unjust because it did nothing for the people who had originally lent the money to the government—an action that Matthews applauds as one of Madison’s “finest public moments.” At long last Madison “specifically attacked the cold calculus of the market.” But alas, this sort of rejection of “the norms of modern market economics” was all too rare for Madison. Most of the time, says Matthews, Madison lived in dread of any popular assault on private property.
There is no question that Madison was centrally concerned with protecting minority property interests from the encroachments of government, particularly from what he called the “majoritarian tyranny” of rampaging state legislatures. But Madison’s conception of property was not quite the kind of modern bourgeois property that Matthews has in mind. Madison was still thinking of property in premodern, almost classical terms—rentier property, proprietary property, property as a source of authority and independence, not as the source of productivity and capitalistic investment. The most traditional kind of proprietary property was of course land; but it could take other rentier forms, such as government bonds or money out on loan. Both Madison and Jefferson wanted as many American white males to have as much of this kind of proprietary property as possible, for such property, particularly in land, would help guarantee the independence of these citizens and help secure republican government.
This kind of fixed property was very vulnerable to inflation, which is why Madison and other gentry were so frightened of the creation of paper money and other debtor relief legislation passed by the state assemblies in the 1780s. Inflation threatened not simply their livelihood but their authority and independence as citizens. Although gentry like Madison could at times regard the advocates of paper money and debtor relief schemes as little better than levelers, those advocates were neither the propertyless masses nor radicals opposed to the private ownership of property. Such debtors believed in the sacredness of property as much as Madison; only it was a different kind of property they were promoting—modern, risk-taking property; dynamic, entrepreneurial property; venture capital; not money out on loan, but money borrowed; in fact, all the paper money that enterprising farmers and proto-businessmen clamored for in these years. Matthews has placed Madison in the wrong Marxian class. Madison is the aristocrat; the paper money advocates that he feared are the bourgeoisie.
To conclude his argument Matthews offers an extensive comparison of Madison’s politics with that of Jefferson, drawing freely on his earlier book on Jefferson. Although historians have generally lumped the two men together as great collaborators, Matthews contends with some cogency that as political theorists they were actually “worlds apart.” Jefferson, says Matthews, was an authentic American democratic radical who believed in permanent revolution, a kind of communitarian anarchism, and widespread political participation by the people. His political theory was based on the moral sense of each individual and on faith in the future and the people. Madison, by contrast, says Matthews, was neither a democrat nor a civic humanist. He was simply a liberal defender of bourgeois property whose political theory was constructed on instrumental reason and fear and the atomization of society. Matthews is not wrong in pointing out these differences between the two men, but his contrast seems greatly overdrawn.
It is true the two men had different temperaments: Jefferson, high-minded, optimistic, visionary, and quick to grab hold of new ideas; Madison, cold-eyed if not pessimistic, analytical, and skeptical of utopian schemes. But Jefferson’s often fanciful and exaggerated opinions were usually curbed or brought down to earth by his very practical and cautious behavior, which is why he was so frequently charged with hypocrisy and inconsistency. As a result, the two men appeared in day-to-day political affairs to be very similar. Certainly they seemed to each other and to contemporaries to be closer and more alike in their thinking than Matthews allows. (Jefferson, for example, despite Matthews’s categorical denial, did sometimes seem to suggest that property was an individual natural right.) Indeed, if the two men differed as much as Matthews says they did, then their entire life together was a long and extraordinary act of bad faith.
Matthews tends not only to exaggerate differences between the two men but to attribute too much originality to Jefferson. Jefferson’s conception of the moral or social sense that presumably adheres in each individual was very important for the development of democracy, but it was scarcely unique to Jefferson. It was a common-place of enlightened thinking in the eighteenth-century English-speaking world, and Madison certainly shared it, though it is true that he did not emphasize it to the extent that Jefferson did.
Matthews is apt to take much of what Jefferson said too seriously and to put more weight on Jefferson’s overcharged language than it will bear. He does not, in other words, heed Madison’s warning of allowing “for a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.” So that Jefferson’s many impetuous opinions expressed in various private letters throughout his career—that the earth belongs to the living and that therefore all laws and constitutions should come to an end every nineteen years; that a little rebellion now and then was a good thing; that the Terror and other French Revolutionary excesses on behalf of liberty, even having half the earth desolated, could not be too extreme; that the only politics was local politics in which people participate in tiny ward republics—these opinions cannot be taken as seriously as one would take them if they had been worked out and published in a treatise. His “earth belongs to the living” letter to Madison, for example, written in the heady atmosphere of Paris in 1789, was never published in his lifetime, and the ideas it contained were known only to a handful of his intimates. Although the ideas set forth in this letter certainly embodied assumptions Jefferson had about the world, he never followed up his specific proposals, most of which were tactfully shot down by Madison. The fact is Jefferson never developed or acted upon half of the opinions he so freely and impulsively expressed in his correspondence.
Nevertheless, there were differences between Jefferson’s and Madison’s political thinking besides Jefferson’s hastiness of expression; but some of those differences do not seem to be quite what Matthews believes them to be. Jefferson could at times be very conventional in his thinking—idealistic and enlightened no doubt, but nonetheless conventionally idealistic and enlightened, always acutely sensitive to what the best people in the cosmopolitan centers of culture believed. In this respect the inquisitive, original, and skeptical Madison was very different.
Take, for example, their different views of the Constitution’s omission of a bill of rights. Matthews, like many other scholars attuned to our exclusively twentieth-century preoccupation with the Bill of Rights, simply assumes that Jefferson had it right when, writing from Paris in 1787-1788, he complained to Madison that the Constitutional Convention had made a mistake in not adding a bill of rights to the Constitution. But Jefferson supported a bill of rights not because he had thought through the issue and related it to a developed understanding of an entirely new political system the way Madison had, but mainly because a bill of rights was what good governments were supposed to have. All his liberal aristocratic French friends said so; indeed, as he told his American correspondents,
The enlightened part of Europe have given us the greatest credit for inventing this instrument of security for the rights of the people, and have been not a little surprised to see us so soon give it up.
One almost has the feeling that Jefferson advocated a bill of rights out of embarrassment over what his liberal French associates like Lafayette might think.
Yet the two friends and founders did differ from each other in some important ways, and Matthews is right to bring home to us those differences. Both men were suspicious of governmental power, including the power of elected representative legislatures. But Jefferson’s suspicion was based on his fear of the unrepresentative character of the elected officials, that they were too apt to drift away from the virtuous people who had elected them. Madison’s suspicion, in contrast, was based on his fear that the elected officials were only too representative, only too expressive of the passions of the people who had elected them. It is true, as Matthews says, that Jefferson always invested much more of himself in the future of popular democracy than Madison did. He was inspired by a vision of how things could and should be; Madison tended much more to accept things as they were.
Yet despite these real differences between the politics of Jefferson and Madison, do we have to choose between them? Surely a country as democratic and as diverse as ours needs the outlooks of both founders, needs both utopian visions of the future as well as realistic assessments of what is possible, needs both the Jeffersonian faith in the popular will of the majority as well as the Madisonian concern for minority rights. Perhaps American history has been a great collaboration between these two founders and their politics after all.
October 19, 1995
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. ↩
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. ↩