James and Dolley Madison at Montpelier
My favorite stop on this year’s presidential tour was Montpelier, home of James and Dolley Madison. Located a few miles outside of Orange, Virginia along Constitution Highway, Montpelier was the ancestral home of the what would be the 4th President of the United States. James Madison’s grandfather built the home in the 1760s.
It was in the second-floor library at Montpelier, that 36-year-old James Jr., a bachelor at the time, poured through mountains of books, some sent from Paris by Thomas Jefferson who at the time, was serving as Minister to France. The objective of Madison’s study was to design a new government based on “small r” republican principles. Decades later, downstairs in their first-floor quarters, Dolley dictated the notes the former President took during the Constitutional Convention, which were published after all 55 delegates had passed away. Without Madison’s published recollections, we would have lost the crucial deliberations and decisions that led to our governing document. His journals, published in the 1820s, helped two centuries of constitutional scholars and historians understand the principles that the founders debated and the competing interests they had to balance.
The Path from the Articles of Confederation to a Self-Governing Republic
Historical sites are meant to inspire visitors to learn more about their subject. A visit to Montpelier or Monticello will not make you an expert on Madison or Jefferson but it should stoke an interest beyond the house tour. Personally, if I do not walk out of the museum shop with at least one book in hand and several more on my phone (I take pictures of the interesting titles so that I can read the overviews later online. If compelling, I’ll download the e-copy. If my entire library contained physical books, I would need to buy another house). But since returning from Virginia, I’ve made it through 20-plus episodes of a constitutional podcast and have secured several books on James Madison and his contemporaries. Given how we are taught American history (American “exceptionalism”), a more objective investigation was in order.
Our constitution was the first of its kind. It established a self-governing republic, with separation of powers intended to address as many risks as the founders conceived in the late 18th century. It’s been amended only 27 times, the first 10, of course, collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Perhaps more critically is the example that America’s constitution has been to nascent republics around the world. When it comes to the establishment of a representative and popularly elected government, our constitution is the model. For generations, democratic movements around the world have looked to the United States for inspiration and guidance to design and implement their own like governments. This has always been a source of pride to Americans, generation after generation.
(I might add that all too often, we acknowledge the pride but neglect the mistakes made in executing our founding principles. America needs to do a much better job of admitting its imperfections and failures in advancing toward a more perfect union. We also need to acknowledge, clearly, that there is a segment of our population that does not accept, nor hold as a shared value, the same republican principles that so many of our founders – Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and others – enshrined in those bedrock documents. If we did, Donald Trump would never have become the Republican Party’s nominee, let alone ascend to the White House. Of course, acknowledging both sides of the same coin require knowledge and an intelligent understanding of American civics, a subject grossly undervalued in the American electorate today. But I digress).
Remember that the republic defined by our Constitution was not our first form of government. The Articles of Confederation bound the 13 states in a firm league of friendship; it established a national government that somehow, miraculously got the Continental Army through the dire years of war to the British surrender at Yorktown. But that “firm league of friendship” quickly broke down. Each state retained absolute sovereignty ceding very few powers to the Continental Congress. Imagine each state, equal to one another, with no higher authority to settle disputes. And there were plenty of disputes, many of which were based on what political philosophers would call ochlocracy, or ‘mob rule.’ Unchecked democracy led to majoritarian rule at the expense of minority rights.
For those who remember Europe before the EU, the Articles created something quite similar; each state maintained it’s own borders, currency, and trade policy. However, unlike the EU, the American colonies had been set up as an integral link in the British mercantile system. No colony, later state, developed a diversified economy, nor had they been allowed to create a modern banking system to support an integrated market with the free flow of goods and services. As a result, tariffs and commerce looked and felt different from state to state. State governments could pass a law to forgive debts (Rhode Island) thus leaving creditors with no recourse. The national government – the Continental Congress – lacked the power to tax, thereby creating the conditions in which the United States, soon after independence, came close to defaulting on its war debt, to national and international creditors (primarily the Dutch). Worse, during the war, the national treasury, such that it existed, was unable to pay, feed, and clothe soldiers fighting with General Washington. The Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, an apparent plot to overthrow the Continental Congress at the war’s conclusion, was stifled only by George Washingon’s emphatic plea to his men that they support the Continental Congress. Soldiers in the Continental Army upset that they had not been paid nor had their pensions funded, only backed down at the behest of General Washington. Soon thereafter, Congress was able to negotiate backpay and pension relief but problems remained.
But the impetus for real reform was armed revolt. Uprisings like Shays’ Rebellion motivated James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, both members of the Continental Congress, to insist that something be done to address the Articles flaws. Daniel Shays was a wounded war veteran, who after helping secure independence, returned to his western Massachusetts farm to find himself near bankruptcy. After the war, and the colonies break with England, European creditors demanded repayment in hard currency from merchants in the eastern cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Colonial merchants on the east coast were then forced to call in loans they had extended to subsistence farmers in the hinterlands of the west. Daniel Shays was one such farmer. Angry that he had not been paid for his war service and furious at the merchant and capital classes that were perceived as “preying” on the indebted, Shays’ led a group of 4,000 rebels and war veterans to the armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, closing courthouses and securing weapons along the way. There, at the capital, they planned to seize weapons to use in overthrowing the government.
The Articles of Confederation were powerless in keeping the peace and securing private property. Congress did not have the power to raise the money and resources necessary to put down uprisings like Shays’. Nor did it have the authority to tax or regulate trade, foreign or domestic. The Articles were impotent in addressing pressing national security or economic policy issues. Shays’ Rebellion was finally put down but only after months of crisis. Massachusetts Governor John Hancock was forced to rely on private funds to raise a short-term militia to end the coup attempt and in fact, in an embarrassing show of political courage, Hancock resigned from office. He just gave up. The state government of Massachusetts, perhaps the colony that started the entire American Revolution, failed.
Concurrent to the start of Shays, in September 1786 Congressional delegates from 5 states met at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland. The intent of the meeting was to try and solve the interstate commerce and tariff issues. But as you may have guessed, 5 is not 13. Eight states failed to send delegates, thus demonstrating not only the impotence of the Articles but the lack of intelligence within the delegations. Eight delegations did not realize the significant crisis happening in plain sight. It was at Annapolis that Madison and Hamilton partnered to convince Congress to call a “Constitutional Convention” in 1787, ostensibly to reform the Articles. Once in Philadelphia, Madison would present the Virginia Plan, an idea of republican representative government derived from his study of republics, monarchies, and democracies throughout history. The Virginia Plan was the result of the research and study that Madison conducted at Montpelier.
Small ‘r’ republican principles we should relearn
What is republicanism? How does it relate to liberalism and democracy? What was Madison’s theory of factions and how did it relate to an extended republic? What was Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit and how did it relate to his Report on a National Bank? What about the Report on Manufactures and how did Hamilton’s views differ from Madison’s? Finally, how did Madison define republican virtue and how does it relate to governing in the national interest?
I am not yet ready to even partially answer these questions for myself, let alone the blog-o-sphere. Some historians have called Madison the most important political philosopher in American history. Since visiting his home, I’ve barely scratched the surface on the scholarly research dedicated to his ideas. As a young student at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Madison was exposed to ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment: reason over superstition, the social contract and self-government over divine right, and liberty and freedom over hereditary states. These and others contributed to his political philosophy, a philosophy that evolved as the nation entered into the 19th century and encountered new challenges.
Americans in the 21st century should be better stewards of our own constitutional heritage and we could start by simply recalling or reading a book or two on the main issues confronting the founders. Moreover, rather than view our early history as magical or proof of American exceptionalism, we should see it for what it was: a relatively short period in which a handful of white men emulated Madison’s ideal “republican virtue.” These men created a working constitution in which the winners (the Federalists) incorporated the losers (the Anti-Federalists) into the new system of government. The men we think of as “The Founders” did not create a government that would benefit themselves; many in the founding generation died deep in debt. Certainly, the sides approached governance and the interpretation of the constitution differently, but most were committed to its basic republican tenants.
Spend some time with Madison. Check out a book at the library or download a podcast from iTunes. There are dozens of free resources available without searching very far. If you are a parent, ask your child’s teacher about their civics curriculum and if it does not exist, figure out what you need to do to fill the gap. If our current politics tell us anything, it is that we are woefully uneducated in civics and American government. Our Constitution is a tremendous document, but how it came to be and the early years of its existence are critical to understanding how our nation evolved in the 19th century. And given that there is an entire movement dedicated to its “original intent,” it would be wise for us all to have a basic understanding of what that actually was.
There was a brief period of American exceptionalism. It occurred in the summer of 1787 when approximately 55 white men hung out in a really hot courthouse in downtown Philadelphia. Not all 55 were equal in stature, and hell – not all showed up on time or stayed for the duration, some came in and out. I highlight their ethnicity to be factually accurate and in no way make a statement. They all had to pay their own way and in the heat of the summer, many wanted to return home. Scholars have theorized several reasons why these men remained in this cramped, hot courthouse but I think that the two most striking are fairly instructive and pragmatic. First, by the time they made it past the initial discussions, it became clear that there was no viable alternative to a stronger central government. The Articles could not be substantially reformed to stabilize and protect the new nation. And second, whenever a delegate thought about leaving or giving up, he looked around the room and saw George Washington, the man who had won the war and the guy everyone knew would be the first president. History records that Washington rarely spoke but his presence that summer was a critical factor in drafting the new Constitution. How do you walk out on that guy?
No more reality tv stars, corrupt politicians, or grifters. Let’s relearn and hold dear what goes into civic virtue. Those are the principles we need to prioritize. Policy will naturally follow.