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James Madison, Executive Power, and the Question of Consistency
Unformatted Document Text:  One of the great puzzles in American history is how and why James Madison went from a being an arch-nationalist during the 1780s to becoming a staunch advocate of States rights by the end of 1790s. During the 1780s the Virginian consistently advocated augmenting federal power at the expense of the states. Most remarkably, before and during the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia Delegate zealously and persistently called for giving the upper house of the national legislature an absolute veto over all state laws. However, by 1790, Mr. Madison, who had collaborated with the arch-nationalist, Alexander Hamilton, in writing the Federalist papers in support of the proposed Constitution, now led the opposition to Hamilton’s attempts through high finance to strengthen the hand of the central government, and especially the executive branch. According to one of Hamilton’s allies the Secretary of the Treasury considered Madison’s hostility to his plan to restore the public credit as “a perfidious desertion of the principles which Madison was solemnly pledged to defend.” Madison’s movement away from his previous support for a strong national government continued throughout the 1790s and culminated in his authorship of “The Virginia Resolutions of 1798. 1 Recently, a number of scholars have successfully challenged the “Hamiltonian Madison” by identifying, internal consistencies in Madison’s thought, and distinctions between his ideas about government and Hamilton’s. One of the pervasive theme that runs through all these works is that James Madison was obsessed with establishing “balance or equipoise” within the American Republic. This is consistent with my own assessment that James Madison was first and foremost a child of what Henry F. May has dubbed the Moderate Enlightenment. All of his political thought was grounded in the Newtonian paradigm that governed scientific thought during this era. As Newton stressed that the universe was balanced harmonious and stable because God had created gravity and allowed its effects pervade the entire system holding all things in their proper order, Madison longed for a stable balanced and harmonious constitutional republic that would protect individual liberties. 2 1 James Madison, “Motions in Congress,” March-May 1781, Papers of James Madison, hereafter cited as PJM, edited by William T. Hutchinson, et al, Volumes 1- (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-) , 3: 22-25; James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, April 16, 1781, Ibid., 17-19.James Madison, James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, March 19, 1787, Ibid. 9:317-318; James Madison, Speeches in Convention, June 8, 1787, July 17, 1787, Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention (New York: W.W. Norton, Reissued, 1987),88-89, 92, 304-305. James Madison, “Virginia Resolutions,” PJM, 17: 188-191. 2 Alan Gibson, “The Madisonian Madison and the Question of Consistency,” Review of Politics, 64 (2002), 311-338; Lance Banning, “James Madison and the Nationalists, 1780-1783,” WMQ, 40 (1983): 227-255; Lance Banning, “The Hamiltonian Madison: A Reconsideration,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 92 (1984): 3-28; Lance Banning, “The Practicable Sphere of a Republic: James Madison, the Constitutional Convention, and the Emergence of revolutionary federalism,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and the American National Identity, edited by Richard Beeman, et al, (Chapel Hill: of North Carolina Press, 1987); Lance 2

Authors: Edwards, Gregory.
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One of the great puzzles in American history is how and why James Madison went from a being
an arch-nationalist during the 1780s to becoming a staunch advocate of States rights by the end of 1790s. During the
1780s the Virginian consistently advocated augmenting federal power at the expense of the states. Most
remarkably, before and during the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia Delegate zealously and persistently called
for giving the upper house of the national legislature an absolute veto over all state laws. However, by 1790, Mr.
Madison, who had collaborated with the arch-nationalist, Alexander Hamilton, in writing the Federalist papers in
support of the proposed Constitution, now led the opposition to Hamilton’s attempts through high finance to
strengthen the hand of the central government, and especially the executive branch. According to one of Hamilton’s
allies the Secretary of the Treasury considered Madison’s hostility to his plan to restore the public credit as “a
perfidious desertion of the principles which Madison was solemnly pledged to defend.” Madison’s movement away
from his previous support for a strong national government continued throughout the 1790s and culminated in his
authorship of “The Virginia Resolutions of 1798.
Recently, a number of scholars have successfully challenged the “Hamiltonian Madison” by identifying,
internal consistencies in Madison’s thought, and distinctions between his ideas about government and Hamilton’s.
One of the pervasive theme that runs through all these works is that James Madison was obsessed with establishing
“balance or equipoise” within the American Republic. This is consistent with my own assessment that James
Madison was first and foremost a child of what Henry F. May has dubbed the Moderate Enlightenment. All of his
political thought was grounded in the Newtonian paradigm that governed scientific thought during this era. As
Newton stressed that the universe was balanced harmonious and stable because God had created gravity and allowed
its effects pervade the entire system holding all things in their proper order, Madison longed for a stable balanced
and harmonious constitutional republic that would protect individual liberties.
1
James Madison, “Motions in Congress,” March-May 1781, Papers of James Madison, hereafter cited as PJM,
edited by William T. Hutchinson, et al, Volumes 1- (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-) , 3: 22-25; James
Madison to Thomas Jefferson, April 16, 1781, Ibid., 17-19.James Madison, James Madison to Thomas Jefferson,
March 19, 1787, Ibid. 9:317-318; James Madison, Speeches in Convention, June 8, 1787, July 17, 1787, Notes on
Debates in the Federal Convention
(New York: W.W. Norton, Reissued, 1987),88-89, 92, 304-305. James
Madison, “Virginia Resolutions,” PJM, 17: 188-191.
2
Alan Gibson, “The Madisonian Madison and the Question of Consistency,” Review of Politics, 64 (2002),
311-338; Lance Banning, “James Madison and the Nationalists, 1780-1783,” WMQ, 40 (1983): 227-255; Lance
Banning, “The Hamiltonian Madison: A Reconsideration,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 92 (1984):
3-28; Lance Banning, “The Practicable Sphere of a Republic: James Madison, the Constitutional Convention, and
the Emergence of revolutionary federalism,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and the
American National Identity,
edited by Richard Beeman, et al, (Chapel Hill: of North Carolina Press, 1987); Lance
2


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