Celebrating James Madison

Two hundred and sixty years ago, James Madison was born in Virginia. His life was long and eventful, comprising the American Revolution, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the founding of political parties, the War of 1812, and the rise of Andrew Jackson. The struggles that would culminate in the Civil War were evident in the last years of his life.

Along with his political career, Madison proved to be one of this nation’s most insightful and certainly its most influential political theorist. He is often accorded the twin titles of Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No doubt those titles claim too much for him or any other mortal. But according him those titles is not far from the truth.

What would surprise Madison about our current constitutional and political arrangements?

He would be surprised and, I think, displeased by the size and scope of the federal government. Madison was a limited government man. He thought the general welfare clause in Article I of the Constitution was simply a shorthand way of mentioning other enumerated powers, not a general grant of power for Congress to pursue whatever it might think served the general welfare. As he wrote, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.” Of course, for some decades now, the courts have permitted Congress broad powers under the general welfare clause.

He would also be taken aback by the all but plenary power accorded to Congress under the Commerce Clause of Article I. How could (can) a limited government be reconciled to such plenary power? Moreover, as he said in Congress, “if industry and labour are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.”

I think Madison would also be surprised by how far the executive has taken on the prerogatives of an English king, in fact if not in law. Like many republicans of the founding era, he worried that the legislature would dominate the executive. We live in a time where Congress happily delegates its power to the executive branch and awaits the executive’s budget agenda. At the same time, Madison worried that executives, presidents and kings, had every reason to declare and make war, the latter being the most dreaded of “all enemies to public liberty.”  As he wrote in 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

In this light, it is perhaps inevitable that the authors of The Executive Unbound dismiss Madison in favor of Carl Schmitt, the author of The Concept of the Political and from 1933 onward, Preußischer Staatsrat and President of the Vereinigung nationalsozialistischer Juristen.

For Madison, the whole point was to bind government through a Constitution, enumerated powers, and ambition pitted against ambition. His was a noble vision of politics in service to individual liberty. Let us hope that we are not living “after the Madisonian Republic.”