A Friendship That Shaped America

Jeff Broadwater, author of a life of James Madison and the best biography of George Mason, here chronicles two of the most important Founding Fathers’ contributions to creating the U.S. Constitution. This book’s 213 pages of text detail not only the roles Jefferson and Madison played, often in tandem, in the creation of the American constitution, but their parallel, sometimes overlapping careers as constitutionalists both prior to and after those events. Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution is part state history, part intellectual biography, and part constitutional history. What Broadwater has in mind to do is to show how each of his protagonists developed his constitutional expertise and views, how he applied them when opportunity arose, how changing circumstances shaded his positions, and what difference his relationship to the other made. Along the way, the reader also learns how their momentous friendship affects the shape of our regime.

Broadwater notes in his preface that since the preeminent Progressive historian, Charles A. Beard, highlighted the equality language in the first section of the Declaration of Independence and insisted that the Constitution, with its pro-slavery provisions and its partly federal apportionment of Congress, marked a kind of retreat from the more idealistic Declaration, there has been a strain of scholarship that found significant distinction between the Declaration and the supposedly less idealistic Constitution. Yet, Jefferson and Madison were the closest of political allies. Broadwater’s mission here, he says, will be “unraveling that paradox.” He might note that a federal constitution, unlike the constitution of a state, does not rest even hypothetically on a social compact, but on the compromises necessary to attract all of the member states to ratify it. We have an awkward beginning.

The book is arranged chronologically, and so since Jefferson was older than Madison, we encounter in the first chapter a description of Jefferson’s education. Born in the Virginia outback, Albemarle County, the older of our protagonists received a provincial education of the type that male members of the Virginia elite commonly enjoyed, first with a regional teacher and then in a small school on the estate of a maternal relative. This meant good introductions to Greek and Latin, more or less. When his father died, young Thomas went off to William & Mary. His classmate John Page, later a Jeffersonian congressman and governor, recalled his college friend Thomas studying fifteen hours per day, a Greek grammar always in hand. Jefferson there encountered Prof. William Small. By all accounts, that sole layman on the Old Dominion’s only college faculty introduced Jefferson to the ongoing European Enlightenment—and thereby transformed his world.

What he took from that part of his education was what we now know as characteristic Jeffersonian optimism, which Broadwater at one point refers to as “Panglossian.” He also came to aspire to join the trans-Atlantic Republic of Letters. One day he would achieve membership in good standing, and Madison along with him.

Madison, when the time came, went off to the College of New Jersey. As his preceptor there, Reformed minister John Witherspoon, was a Calvinist, Madison imbibed a rather gloomier view of human nature than the one Jefferson had adopted in Williamsburg. Madison headed back to Orange County, adjacent to Jefferson’s Albemarle, in time to witness full-fledged religious persecution. In correspondence with a Princeton classmate, Madison gave vent to heartfelt loathing of this, the downside of religious establishments.

Soon enough, Madison took the lead in drafting the religion article, Article XVI, of Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights—the first American Bill of Rights. The following year, he found himself a member of the governor’s Council, and soon, as Broadwater titles his chapter, “A Friendship Was Formed.” That friendship endured until the senior partner’s death on July 4, 1826.

Their devotion to freedom of conscience formed the germ of the two revolutionaries’ bosom relationship, but they quickly recognized they had more in common than that. Each must have gloried in having so confidential a friend and so brilliant a one—a man whose interests and, for the most part, views were in sync with his own, who nearly always was the other smartest guy in the room, and who would over several decades be perfectly placed to aid him in making his dreams for the Old Dominion and the United States come true.

Jefferson endured the wrenching, unhealing loss of his wife soon after the completely disillusioning end of his two-term tenure in the very weak governorship Madison had helped to devise, and so he went into retirement. Madison connived to have him sent to Europe to negotiate the war’s end, but Congress agreed too late for Jefferson to play the intended role. He eventually went to Europe anyway, and there he found himself face-to-face with both the glorious life of the French noblesse and the soul-sucking poverty of the typical Jacques. He learned to love America and to hate the Ancien Régime all the more.

Back in Virginia, Madison took the chance to push Jefferson’s (and two collaborators’) Revisal of the Laws through the General Assembly. For the most part, he failed, but the grand exception—Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom—marked a kind of pinnacle of revolutionary success in the Old Dominion, perhaps in America, in 1785. Madison wrote Jefferson flush with triumph, and Jefferson publicized this capstone of the Revolution among European Enlightenment figures.

While the ocean separated them, there was also divergence. When news reached him of Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, Jefferson’s response was blasé. One rebellion in thirteen states in eleven years was only one per state in each period of 143 years, he quickly calculated. What European state was so placid? A little revolution now and then was a good thing.

Madison, west of the Atlantic, was aghast. Here seemed the fulfillment of European monarchists’ prognostications concerning the career of republicanism in North America. It would never last, they had said. Americans now faced “the crisis of republican government.” So, he recruited a half-willing George Washington, America’s Hero, to participate in a project of continental constitutional reform. Madison took the rudiments of a plan to Philadelphia with him. He persuaded his fellow Virginians (at least, most of them) to help him advocate it. The Pennsylvanians generally joined in.

The U.S. Constitution turned out markedly unlike what Madison wanted, and in fact he broke the news to Jefferson (who already knew all about it) with an extremely lengthy and frequently critical report of the convention’s proceedings and evaluation of the proposed charter. Madison confided it was probably better than the Articles of Confederation, but without what he called his favorite proposal—a federal veto over state laws—would fail within a few years.

Jefferson had written to another correspondent weeks earlier that he was disappointed in the Philadelphia Convention’s work. He did not know whether the bad or the good predominated. Jefferson wanted a bill of rights and a presidential term limit. At first, he dashed off a letter containing a stratagem for obtaining amendments before ratification. He thought better of this idea, though not in time to prevent Antifederalists from putting his prestige to use in a cause he did not support—to Madison’s consternation.

Broadwater mentions Gordon Wood’s “Madison Problem,” which I for one do not see as a problem: though he had proposed a national government in Philadelphia, Madison’s republican ethics led him to insist the system had produced a federal one despite himself ever after. (Other Founders we could name were not so ethical.) Jefferson joined Madison in looking increasingly askance at Alexander Hamilton’s financial program during the Washington Administration, with famous results. Eventually, their arguments on foreign policy, fiscal policy, and the Constitution carried the day: their Republican Party won the elections of 1800.

If it seems that my precis of this book’s argument closely resembles today’s consensus view on these matters, that is no accident. What Broadwater has given us here is a version of his protagonists’ constitution-making lives that hews pretty close to the received wisdom throughout. He captures the differences between their personalities and the shades of difference between their constitutionalisms in a way that will be useful to non-specialists, including in his statement that Madison “agreed with Jefferson that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was understood when it was ratified.” All in all, it is a fitting valedictory from a fine historian.