“The People Themselves” and the Beauty of a Well-Constructed System:James Madison, the Crisis of 1798, and Constitutional Safeguards

Colleen Sheehan is one of our best students of James Madison. Over a span of years, she has produced a series of significant and insightful articles and book chapters that treat the Virginian’s political thought with a special emphasis on his conception of the role of public opinion in politics.  In 2009 she drew together much of her previous scholarship in her book, James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government. [1] With the present essay, which builds on and draws from her book, Sheehan probes further the question of the proper role for state legislatures and the people themselves when confronted, as Madison was himself in 1798, with acts of the national government that appeared tyrannical and abusive.

Sheehan’s essay here speaks for itself quite effectively and I won’t attempt a summary of its main points. Rather, I will dig into some of the major implications it raises for understanding not only Madison but early American politics. The primary purpose of “Sounding the Alarm to the People,” it seems, is to distinguish Madison from his life-long friend and ally Thomas Jefferson by contrasting  their responses to the 1798 Sedition Act that was aimed at silencing Republican newspapers and, by extension, the Republican party itself. Specifically, Sheehan argues that Madison was calm, purposeful, measured, and restrained while Jefferson—in this particular case and in general—was more rash, impulsive,  given to extremes, and prone to call for radical actions even when more moderate ones might suffice. In general, I think this is an accurate and useful distinction, but I would urge a caution in not pushing it too far. There were subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the thought and temperament of the two Virginia leaders that tracked in exactly the ways Sheehan expresses here. But it would be a mistake to make too much of those differences. After all, these two allies worked together across the decades at the very highest levels of government with no fallings out, no jealousies or rivalries coming between them, and with a mutual respect for each other rare in any endeavor, let alone in politics. That the two remained so close through the years underscores the similarity of ideology and mindset and the consistent, broad agreement on principles they shared. This was true as well in the 1798-1801 crisis years when, despite the differences in style and means exemplified in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Madison and Jefferson were dedicated toward the same end: working and organizing to educate and mobilize the public, turn them against the Federalists, and usher the Jeffersonians into power. In that project as in so many others, there was scarcely any daylight between the two men.

In terms of political ideology and the uses to which it was put, the real disjunction in the long run of U.S. history was not between the Madison of the Virginia Resolution and the Jefferson of the Kentucky Resolution, but rather between Madison of 1798 and the later nullifiers who seized Madison’s words, wrenched them out of context, stripped them of the conditionals and qualifiers that he carefully wrote into the text, and put them toward the end of fracturing the union that Madison labored so hard to construct and preserve. As Sheehan concisely elucidates here, in the last years of his life, Madison was frustrated and disillusioned by the debate over nullification. He believed, as Drew McCoy has shown, that the nullifiers were deluded by partisan politics and either a willful or careless ignorance of the past. Furthermore, he feared that by fundamentally misreading the Constitution, they would plunge the nation into the same dire straits it experienced in the 1780s. The nullifiers, Madison believed, were trying to rewrite history to make the Anti-Federalists the victors. And to his horror, they used his and Jefferson’s words from 1798 to buttress their case. Worse, when Madison attempted to correct them and their misreading, they reacted harshly and condescendingly. It is clear that Madison positioned himself and Jefferson side by side in their 1798 Resolutions and saw the nullifiers (as he doubtless would have seen the later secessionists) as the ones with the truly different, irreconcilable views. [2]

That said, there is an undeniable point about the differences between Jefferson and Madison that Sheehan illustrates in her essay. If Jefferson did frequently put things “in strong and round terms” as Madison once said of his friend, Madison’s writing tended toward subtlety, not bluntness. While both men were horrified by the Sedition Act and frightened by its implications, Madison and Jefferson differed in their proposed remedies in ways that reflected the refined points of distinction between them, even if those distinctions did not quite add up to significant differences. As Sheehan nicely shows, Jefferson was ever quick to turn to extraordinary modes “outside of the ordinary processes of law, in the form of constitutional conventions or negations of contractual/compact agreements” (p.7).  For Madison, however ordinary modes would suffice because the established Constitutional machinery was adequate to the task. “Madison’s cure,” Sheehan writes, “was not to pit the extraordinary authority of the people against the ordinary deliberative processes of majority decision-making, but to hold the government dependent on and answerable to the deliberate, sovereign public” (p. 7).

Madison’s sensitive thinking on precisely this issue is addressed by another preeminent Madison scholar, the late Lance Banning (who, as Sheehan notes in the acknowledgements to her book, was both a close friend of hers and someone whose work she admired deeply). [3] In one of the last writings he published before his untimely death in 2006, Banning traced the ways Madison grappled with “the federal problem”: that is, “how might political authority be safely, effectively, and lastingly divided between the central and subordinate governments?” [4] This is the fundamental issue with which Madison wrestled in 1798—and really, for his entire life. It has been at the center of numerous controversies over the years and remains at the root of disputes today. Sheehan does an excellent job in a short piece of raising this issue in the context of the Sedition Act and the Virginia Resolution. For readers interested in a fuller treatment, Banning’s chapter fleshes out many of the themes Sheehan, because of space limitations, can only begin to address. But Sheehan has put her finger on some of the central dilemmas of the age, and on Madison’s responses to them.

What Sheehan excels at here is in showing how, to Madison’s understanding, the kind of extraordinary measures that Jefferson seemed to advocate as a regular and periodic component of American government were wholly unnecessary, even dangerous because they would be destabilizing. For Madison, as Sheehan cogently and concisely notes, the saving grace of the system lay in the Constitution itself and in its mechanism. The “partly federal, partly national” formulation of Madison in Federalist 39 was key to why and how the Constitution would work. The very structure and architecture was key and would eliminate the need for frequent revisions and amendments or deletions. Nor were the kind of extraordinary appeals to the people that Jefferson called for necessary. The Constitution itself was adequate and sufficient. Its “ordinary” operations provided solutions within the system for addressing a wide variety of issues and challenges by giving the people a voice in their state legislatures and those legislatures responsibility for addressing matters not reserved to the national government. Indeed, embedded in the structure of the document and the governing system it created were the “republican remedies for republican maladies” that he mentioned in Federalist 10.  For Madison, in short, the constitutional architecture made all the difference. The beauty and security was in the construction of the system itself, he seems to say. Partly federal, partly national was more than clever phrasemaking. That concept was at the core of successful governance and it provided all the tools necessary for the people to save their Constitution and their government in 1798.

One last factor provided hope for Madison during the crisis years from 1798-1801. While the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions are the most famous of the protests against the Sedition Act, they were far from the only instruments of public opinion. Far more representative and reflective of genuine public opinion because they were so numerous and widespread were the many local petitions and resolutions condemning the Sedition Act and the Federalist government. Douglas Bradburn has lately reminded us of the multitude of local resolutions that surfaced around the country. Some appeared as part of coordinated efforts, others came about as a result of spontaneous public outcry against the measures. It was, Bradburn argues, neither a wholly top-down nor bottom-up process but instead one that involved elites, ordinary citizens, political activists and professionals, and elected officials. Furthermore, “this clamor against the Alien and Sedition Acts was broad, important, and deeply consequential,” and was often given life and momentum by the Republican newspaper network that the Sedition Act hoped to crush. These popular petitions not only provided a good example of an evolving political culture (“a process of politics in motion,” as Bradburn nicely puts its). The groundswell of public opposition also must have warmed Madison’s heart and further convinced he and Jefferson that the public really was on their side, and that with proper mobilization and organization, what became the Revolution of 1800—the triumph of the Jeffersonians over the Federalists in the House, the Senate, and the Presidency that year—was more than simple wishful thinking on their part. It was the harbinger of a huge, and hugely significant, political transformation. [5]

For Madison, then, the news of these popular protests confirmed his belief in the ultimate wisdom and good sense of the people and of their ability to sort through Federalist pretenses and glimpse the danger of their recent legislation. His faith in them was at the root of his belief in the Constitutional system of 1787 and in his conviction that Jefferson’s extraordinary measures were unnecessary because the people were perfectly capable of handling their responsibilities through ordinary means.

Shortly before rushing back to Virginia for the ratifying convention in 1788, Madison penned his final number of The Federalist. It may not be entirely an accident that his last words of that essay (#63) and of his contributions to the series ended with the phrase, “the people themselves.” For Madison, the people themselves were not only the means by which, as he argued at the end of that essay, that the House of Representatives would always be able to restore a republican government even after usurpations of power. The people were, even more fundamentally, at the bedrock and base of Madison’s artfully constructed Constitution.

[1] Colleen Sheehan, James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[2] This paragraph follows Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially chapter four (pp. 119-170). For a shorter analysis in the same vein, see Lance Banning’s discussion of Madison, the Virginia Resolution, and the nullifiers in his The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 393-395.

[3] Sheehan, James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, p. viii.

[4] Lance Banning, “Federalism, Constitutionalism, and Republican Liberty: The First Constructions of the Constitution” in David Womersley (ed.),  Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century  (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006),  388-424, quotation at 389.

[5] Douglas Bradburn, “A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts,” William and Mary Quarterly 65 (2008), 565-600, quotations at 567 and 594.

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