James Madison is being subjected to some very hard knocks at the hands of historians these days. Not only has he been pictured as a lifelong apologist for slavery, but he has even been replaced as “the Father of the Constitution” by none other than John Rutledge of South Carolina.1 Much of the general public might not notice these criticisms, especially since most Americans over the past two centuries have not celebrated Madison as much as they ought to have. He has no temple erected to him on the Mall, and only recently did he have a building that is part of the Library of Congress named after him. While Monticello, the home of his friend and older colleague Thomas Jefferson, has been restored to Jeffersonian perfection and for decades has been a shrine visited by tens of thousands of people every year, Madison’s home, Montpelier, is only now being restored to the condition it was in when Madison lived there. To the public he has always seemed smaller than Jefferson in every way. Not only was he merely five feet six or so to Jefferson’s six two or six three, but he never seems to have escaped from Jefferson’s shadow. In their great collaboration throughout their lives he was at all times the subordinate sidekick, ready “always,” as he told Jefferson in 1794, to “receive your commands with pleasure.”
So it is a welcome relief to have Richard Labunski’s book, which puts Madison very much back at the center of the founding era. Labunski believes “that no other person in the nation’s history did so much for which he is appreciated so little.” Of course, over the past half-century scholars have not entirely neglected Madison. They have praised him for his originality, his imagination, and his concrete contributions to the constitutionalism of the founding era. Not only was he a passionate promoter of religious liberty, steering Jefferson’s famous bill for religious freedom through the Virginia legislature in 1785–1786, but no one did more to bring about the Philadelphia Convention that created the Constitution. He was both the author of the Virginia plan that served as the working model for the Convention and the indefatigable note-taker of the debates in the Convention; without his notes we would know very little of what went on in that summer of 1787.
Because the final Constitution deviated from his Virginia plan in fundamental ways (by eliminating the power of Congress to veto all state legislation and doing away with proportional representation in the Senate), Madison initially thought it would be a failure. Consequently, he always denied that he was its “father”; it was, he contended throughout his life, “the work of many heads and many hands.”
Madison was born in 1751 into the 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.