GLEN COVE, NY — For anyone who wants to understand
the history of the American political system, Richard Broookhiser’s
Madison (Basic Books, hardcover, 304 pages, 2011), a biography
of our nation’s
fourth president, is necessary reading. It is concise and thorough
enough for the beginner, with depths of research that will offer even
seasoned historians new insights.
During his lifetime, Madison was regarded as the father of the Constitution.
He was one of the original proponents of a Constitutional Convention.
When the Convention was held, he was the first to arrive, and he would
turn out to be one of the only two members with perfect attendance.
He was also one of three final draftsmen of the Constitution; one of
three authors of its most important defenses, The
Federalist Papers; and he was the final drafters of the congressionally proposed Bill
Mr. Brookhiser also explains Madison’s central role in laying
out the groundwork for America’s two-party system, and how this
cost him the friendship of Washington, a painful loss to Madison. He
describes Constitutionalism as the living monument all around us to
Madison could be inconsistent. He opposed a bill of rights but then
drafted one, and he opposed a national bank but then supported one.
There were certain issues on which he never deviated, however, including
religious liberty, freedom of the press, and westward expansion.
The first significant political event Mr. Brookhiser describes in
the drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. George
Mason’s draft called for “the fullest toleration in the
exercise of religion.” This was language that recalled America’s
brief experiment with religious liberty in the 1680s. Madison had witnessed
the harsh persecution of Baptists in colonial Virginia and wanted more
than mere “toleration.” He substituted the words “free
exercise of religion” (italics added)—words he would use
again in the Bill of Rights. Persecuted religious minorities always
supported Madison in politics. Indeed almost until our own generation,
the Democratic Party—which Madison co-founded with Thomas Jefferson
under the original name Democratic-Republican Party—had strong
support from religious minorities.
One should not suppose that Madison’s idea of religious freedom
resembled twentieth-century aberrations. He supported freedom for Anglicans,
Presbyterians, Catholics, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Baptists,
Quakers, and Jews—not native African or American Indian religions.
Madison had strongly opposed the Sedition Act—a law that outlawed
the writing, printing, or publishing of “false, malicious, and
scandalous” material against many U.S. government officers—during
John Adams’s administration. The law was largely directed at
the partisan newspapers, another Madison creation.
Upon taking office after Adams and Jefferrson, Madison himself could
have enacted similar repressive measures of his own. He had ample excuses
for doing so. The country was embroiled in the War of 1812, and meanwhile,
most new Englanders actively undermining Madison’s presidency
by conspiring to either change the Constitution or break up the Union,
by engaging in extensive—and criminal—trade with the Canadian
enemy, and allowing enemy British merchant ships into their ports.
Despite all this, Madison remained faithful to his belief in freedom
of speech and religion and refused to allow a sedition act to be passed.
Again, one should not suppose that Madison’s support of a free
press resembled twentieth-century aberrations. He was a very proper
man who would have been horrified by obscene newspapers.
Madison was Secretary of State when the United States purchased the
Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the country. As president,
he seized the Alabama and Mississippi coastal areas, then known as
West Florida. By fighting the War of 1812, he ended the British and
Canadian practice of paying Indians to scalp Americans, and also ended
British hopes of a vast Indian reservation in Indiana, Illinois, and
Michigan (at least).
It would be Madison’s protégé and successor, James
Monroe, who would obtain Florida by treaty, and it would be many decades
later before America got the Southwest. But Madison nonetheless left
America a country that spanned the continent from the Atlantic to Oregon.
Madison’s legacy is thus all around us: a Constitution, a body
of civil liberties, a two-party system, and an America that stretches,
literally, from sea to shining sea. In encapsulating all of this and
more in James Madison, Mr. Brookhiser tells the late president’s
story as well as it can be told.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2012
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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