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James Madison, Executive Power, and the Question of Consistency
Unformatted Document Text:  As one might expect under this definition, declaring war, making treaties, and determining situations of war and peace would be legislative functions. Congress would determine whether war or peace was the best policy to pursue. An executive who attempted to make those decisions would be transgressing the proper Constitutional boundaries. Here is the quintessential Jeffersonian-Republican version of executive power, and of legislative supremacy. And none of it was in anyway inconsistent with Madison’s previous pronouncements and actions concerning the nature of executive power. In fact, once the Republicans gained power, Madison more strictly adhered to this position than his friend Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson successfully played the role of the passive executive while he carefully and masterfully pulled the strings on his puppets in Congress so that his supporters among the citizenry believed his dissimulation. And when Congress granted him almost dictatorial powers to coerce the American people into submitting to his failed embargo policies, Jefferson gladly took them. Madison, on the other hand, as president continued to bow to the majesty of Congress, even when the country needed strong executive leadership, he too easily deferred to Congress with disastrous results. One historian extolled Madison’s unwillingness to violate American civil liberties during the War of 1812. For that historian Madison was a model that all subsequent Presidents should have followed. That scholar neglected to remind his readers that Madison was the only President to allow an enemy to burn down the White House, and the Capitol building. 47 One last and important question remains. Why did Madison during the latter half of the 1790s embrace an extreme version of States Rights. Such a position does not seem consistent with the contention that he believed in Congressional supremacy. By 1798, it would appear he had replaced his support for Congressional Supremacy with State supremacy. The answer to that problem lies in his perception that under the Federalist Presidents, Congress had been corrupted and could no longer be trusted. Once the Republicans gained control of Congress and the Presidency then he again supported and defended legislative supremacy. A close examination of Madison’s perception of Hamilton’s proposal to incorporate a National Bank supports this conclusion. 47 Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 19-24. 28

Authors: Edwards, Gregory.
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As one might expect under this definition, declaring war, making treaties, and determining situations of war
and peace would be legislative functions. Congress would determine whether war or peace was the best policy to
pursue. An executive who attempted to make those decisions would be transgressing the proper Constitutional
boundaries. Here is the quintessential Jeffersonian-Republican version of executive power, and of legislative
supremacy. And none of it was in anyway inconsistent with Madison’s previous pronouncements and actions
concerning the nature of executive power.
In fact, once the Republicans gained power, Madison more strictly adhered to this position than his friend
Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson successfully played the role of the passive executive while he carefully and masterfully
pulled the strings on his puppets in Congress so that his supporters among the citizenry believed his dissimulation.
And when Congress granted him almost dictatorial powers to coerce the American people into submitting to his
failed embargo policies, Jefferson gladly took them.
Madison, on the other hand, as president continued to bow to the majesty of Congress, even when the
country needed strong executive leadership, he too easily deferred to Congress with disastrous results. One historian
extolled Madison’s unwillingness to violate American civil liberties during the War of 1812. For that historian
Madison was a model that all subsequent Presidents should have followed. That scholar neglected to remind his
readers that Madison was the only President to allow an enemy to burn down the White House, and the Capitol
building.
One last and important question remains. Why did Madison during the latter half of the 1790s embrace an
extreme version of States Rights. Such a position does not seem consistent with the contention that he believed in
Congressional supremacy. By 1798, it would appear he had replaced his support for Congressional Supremacy with
State supremacy. The answer to that problem lies in his perception that under the Federalist Presidents, Congress
had been corrupted and could no longer be trusted. Once the Republicans gained control of Congress and the
Presidency then he again supported and defended legislative supremacy. A close examination of Madison’s
perception of Hamilton’s proposal to incorporate a National Bank supports this conclusion.
47
Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989), 19-24.
28


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