Thursday, June 21, 2012

The United States Constitution: The Man behind the Quill

Madison, James Madison by Vertazontal
James Madison is often sited as the “Father of the Constitution” though, even in his own words, the constitution was not "the off-spring of a single brain," but "the work of many heads and many hands.” It is largely accepted that Pennsylvania representative Gouverneur Morris wrote the preamble and Jacob Shallus, Assistant Clerk to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, actually pinned the United States Constitution. In truth, there were many great men and patriots responsible for the framework of the Constitution, some of which were not even present at the time of its construction; Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine chiefly among them.

However, James Madison rightly deserves his title as the “Father of the Constitution.” His in-depth and prolific research prior to the Philadelphia Convention, noted by Historian Douglass Adair, as “probably the most fruitful piece of scholarly research ever carried out by an American,” and his authoring of the Virginia Plan, set the groundwork for what was to become the United States Constitution. Even though Madison exhibited tremendous leadership, organizational skills, and heavily participated in the key debates that would define our country’s finest document, his greatest contribution to the creation and acceptance of the Constitution likely had nothing to do with its construction or authorship.

James and Dolly Madison by KDMB
To understand the man behind the proverbial quill, James Madison, or Jemmy, as his family called him to distinguish him from his father, James Madison Senior, one must first understand his background, influences, and ancestry. Madison was the eldest of ten children, born into a wealthy, prominent, and highly influential plantation family in Orange County, Virginia. As the eldest son and benefactor of a prosperous estate, at a young age Madison learned the value of discipline, organization, and leadership, most notably from his father, whom he admired above all men. Part of his duties as a plantation owner, social leader, and protector and provider for more than 150 individuals who depended on him, James Senior was tasked with other responsibilities as well - “fiscal officer, agronomist, director of commissary (so many shoes and shirts to keep supplying), adjudicator of disputes, dispenser of punishments, and minister of health,” all of which were highly impressed upon Jemmy by his father’s skill and proficiency by which he performed such duties.

Madison attended Princeton University, then called College of New Jersey. While there, he was befriended by a man whom would become one of his most influential and respected mentors; president of the college, Scottish scholar John Witherspoon. After graduating from Princeton, Witherspoon “sent [Madison] back to Virginia with an ambitious program for further reading.” Madison proceeded to lock himself away in his studies for several years, a period in his life where he not only gained his skills in research, but also began to champion the cause for human rights, most notably his stance on freedom of religion, or as he phrased it, “that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

Madison’s views on religious freedoms stemmed greatly from his friend and confidant, Philadelphia printer, William Bradford. At the time, Madison’s home state of Virginia did not enjoy the religious freedoms that Bradford’s did, and he would often correspond with him, “pestering him with repeated questions on the way religious disestablishment worked in Pennsylvania,” and requesting “a draft of its original and fundamental principles of legislation, particularly the extent of your religious toleration.” Later in life, Madison would also become close friends with Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, and author of the Declaration of Independence, a man with an impeccable reputation for championing American human rights. These men, and their ideals, undoubtedly contributed to Madison’s other major contribution to the United States Constitution; the authoring of the Bill of Rights. Again, although noble in cause and historically monumental, it’s likely not his greatest contribution to the Constitution.

In the two years following the pinning of the United States Constitution, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, authored the Federalist Papers, which were documents published in newspapers abroad that were designed to explain the need for the Constitution to the common folk as well as encourage states to ratify it. While Madison authored the majority of these papers, namely papers #10 and #51, both perceived as “among the most highly regarded of all American political writings," these notable contributions are likely still not his greatest gifts to the United States Constitution.

Page 1 of the Original United States Constitution
After the American Revolutionary War, it became abundantly clear to many of the “fathers” of our country that the Articles of Confederation, the first Constitution adopted by the United States of America, was sorely lacking in many areas, particularly with regards to domestic and foreign policies, commerce, and an effective Continental Army. In 1786, a meeting was held in Annapolis, Maryland, and at its conclusion the state delegates agreed that amendments to the Articles were in order. A future meeting was agreed upon to be held at a later date to discuss the specifics of the proposed amendments. However, Madison had more ambitious ideas.

Upon leaving the Annapolis summit, Madison paid a visit to General George Washington’s estate. Madison surmised, after much thought and deliberation, that the Articles did not need to be amended, it needed to be scrapped completely, and a new constitution put in its place. This line of thinking was not only radical for the time, but politically suicidal, and above all, treasonous. No one understood this more than Madison. This is why he needed Washington’s backing and presence at the convention that was to take place in Philadelphia the following year.

George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, who led victory over the tyrannical British Empire, securing America’s freedom and establishing itself as a sovereign country, an American iconic hero, could never be mistaken for a traitor. No other man in America, then or now, exuded patriotism more than him. However, initially Washington refused to attend. The “Founding Fathers” had sworn allegiance and fealty to the Articles. Swore to protect and preserve it at all cost. Washington understood the gravity of the precarious situation that Madison was conjuring, and did not want to tread lightly on such a hefty responsibility. Likewise, he also understood the glaring inherent deficiencies of the Articles. He witnessed these intrinsic flaws first hand on the battlefields. According to Historian Bruce Chadwick, “[t]he army had nearly disbanded on several occasions during the winters of the war because of the weaknesses of the Continental Congress” and although “Congress had the right to order the production and purchase of provisions for the soldiers, [they] could not force anyone to supply them, and the army nearly starved in several winters of war.”

Despite Washington’s reluctance, Madison did not give up on his endeavor. If the idea of a new constitution were to be recommended to Congress, without those participating being charged with treason, everything hinged on Washington’s presence and blessings. Madison enlisted the help of Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph to appoint George Washington “as the leader of the Virginia delegation.” Madison knew with Washington’s name leading the delegation, it would undoubtedly draw the attention of the leaders of the other States, and in turn, further highlight the importance of their attendance at the convention.

WE THE PEOPLE by Jim Gintner of Scarred Wolf Photo

Eventually, through persistence, patience, and his smooth skills as a negotiator, Madison convinced Washington to attend the Philadelphia Convention, which he was then appointed President of. While most of the attendees of the convention thought they were gathering to amend the Articles, Madison and handful of others, with George Washington overseeing the proceedings, were setting the state to unleash their plan of proposing a new constitution. Madison had done his homework, drafting the Virginia Plan in an effort to not only to offer up an example of a constitution that made provisions for a more powerful and balanced federal government, but also as a way to ease his constituents into the radical idea. Had Madison not convinced Washington to attend the convention, the United States Constitution as we know it would not exist, and many of our “Founding Fathers” would likely have been indicted and imprisoned on charges of high treason. This would have forever altered the history of our country and likely not afforded us the freedoms we as Americans enjoy today. This act was Madison’s greatest contribution to the United States Constitution.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination

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