James Madison: Helping make Thomas Jefferson an icon

This is William Bodkin’s fourth post for History is Now.  The first three touched on aspects of the lives of George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), and Thomas Jefferson (link here). Today William discusses the fourth president of the United States, James Madison (president from 1809-1817). Madison was to have a great influence on another Founding Father – or Founding Brother – Thomas Jefferson.


I have always been fascinated by the personal relationships among the American Founders.  As I mentioned in last month’s post on Thomas Jefferson, their friendships, rivalries, alliances and disagreements still shape the country’s political discourse, with Jefferson having the most lasting influence.  However, when reading all of Jefferson’s writings, this influence and reach can come as a surprise, as it often seems that posterity was neither his intent nor his goal. 

James Madison: Helping make Thomas Jefferson an icon

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

Jefferson was, of all the Founders, perhaps the truest revolutionary in spirit.  He expressed it unhesitatingly in his writings and letters when commenting on the events at the time.  One of Jefferson’s more famous expressions of his revolutionary fervor came not in the Declaration of Independence, but in a letter reflecting on Shays’ Rebellion in 1787.  Daniel Shays was a former captain in the Continental Army who took charge of a group of farmers in central and western Massachusetts protesting the Massachusetts’ government’s failure to take steps to alleviate the farmers’ debt burden, which often cost the farmers’ their property and landed them in prison.[1]  In response to a query about the rebellion, Jefferson stated “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.”[2]{cke_protected_1}  Jefferson noted that the United States had been independent eleven years, with only one such rebellion.  He wrote “What county before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?  What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”  It was in this letter he also observed that the “tree of liberty” must be “refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3]

How then, was this literally bloody-minded revolutionary transformed into the guiding philosophical spirit of a nation?  The answer is simple: James Madison.  Madison spent a good portion of his political career serving as a check and balance on Jefferson’s revolutionary spirit.

Madison, the fourth President of the United States, is rightfully celebrated for many of his personal accomplishments, including being the ‘Father of the Constitution’.  He was, if not the document’s primary draftsman, (it is generally agreed that that distinction belongs to New York’s Gouverneur Morris)[4] the driving force behind the “Spirit of 1787”, with its realization that the decentralized government of the Articles of Confederation had failed.  A new, stronger central government was needed if the United States of America was to survive.  This idea, however, seemed incongruous with the revolution that had just passed.  The Spirit of 1776 had at its core an inherent distrust of removed, centralized governments that were unresponsive to the needs of the populace.[5]  The resolution of this tension between the Spirits of 1776 and 1787 can be found in Jefferson’s and Madison’s friendship.  As the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, noted, “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other” was “a phenomenon.”  Future historians, thought Adams, would, upon examining the Jefferson-Madison relationship, “discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.”[6]

Take, for example, Jefferson’s most famous pronouncement on the nature of law, expressed to Madison in a letter from 1789, where he questioned “whether one generation of man had the right to bind another” with its laws.  Jefferson believed that the earth belonged only to the living.  “By law of nature, one generation is to another as independent as one nation is to another.”[7]  Jefferson expressed this idea at a delicate time.  George Washington had just taken office as the new Republic’s first president.  Congress was sitting for the first time.  Questions abounded concerning whether the new nation could last.  Surely the word of Thomas Jefferson that the work being done could or should be undone in a mere twenty years would undermine the new government’s legitimacy.


Setting Jefferson straight

Madison took care to set Jefferson straight.  When he responded to Jefferson, he first hailed the “idea” as a “great one,” that offered “interesting reflections” to legislators.  That said, Madison remarked that he was skeptical of this “great idea” in practice.  Madison wrote that a government “so often revised” could never retain its best features, even if they were the most “rational” ideas of government in an “enlightened age.”  The result, Madison stated, would be anarchy. “All the rights depending on positive laws,” such as to property would be “absolutely defunct.”  The most “violent struggles” would ensue between those interested in maintaining the status quo and those interested in bringing about the new.  All this being said, Madison thought the idea should at least be mentioned in the “proceedings of the United States,” since it might help to prevent legislators “from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors.” [8]

Madison’s argument carried the day.  Jefferson never mentioned this idea to him again, and certainly never attempted to seriously advance the idea during his presidency.  As we know now, the great self-governance experiment envisioned by Madison has indeed carried on, allowing Jefferson, over time and history, to be honored as one of its great architects.  The idea that earth belonged only to the living, though, remained a philosophical theme to which Jefferson would return in his writings.  Indeed, it is perhaps “the single statement in the vast literature by and about Jefferson that provides a clear and deep look into his thinking about the way the world ought to work.”[9]

The relationship between Jefferson and Madison suffered not at all for this fundamental disagreement about the nature of law.  Madison went on to serve as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and then succeed him to the presidency.  Jefferson, always appreciative of Madison’s counsel, wrote toward the end of his life that “the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me.”  Jefferson also recognized Madison’s frequent advocacy on his behalf, writing in the same letter that it was a “great solace” to him that Madison was “engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued.”  Jefferson acknowledged to Madison that “you have been a pillar of support through life,” and asked his old friend to “take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.”[10]

The often warm personal relationships between the Founding Fathers cannot be understated.  Amongst their peers, they were Founding Brothers.  It was these bonds of genuine affection that permitted, despite their conflicts, John Adams’ dying words to be of Thomas Jefferson, and despite the dueling interests of the Spirit of 1776 and the Spirit of 1787 for Jefferson to ask Madison to take care of him when dead.  The founders inspire many things in the American experience.  The nation’s political discourse continues their arguments today.  What often seems to be missing, however, is perhaps the Founders’ most important idea – that friendship can transcend partisan differences when it comes to advancing the interests of the nation.


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A brief note from the author:

The good people who run this website have graciously agreed to let me contribute columns on one of my favorite topics, the presidents of the United States.  My plan is to focus, roughly once a month, on less appreciated aspects of their lives, hopefully some things that most people don’t think about when considering the presidents.  This task is far easier with the Founding Fathers; often their time as president was their least important contribution to the United States.  I anticipate some challenges with the presidents to come.  For example, other than Hawkeye in M*A*S*H being named for him, I am unsure what Franklin Pierce’s contribution to the nation was, prominent or otherwise.  In any event, I will try my best to continue delivering what I think are interesting columns about the presidents, and hope the readers agree.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see www.ushistory.org, Chapter 15 “Drafting the Constitution,” (a) Shays’ Rebellion.

[2] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787.

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966).

[5] See e.g., Ellis, Joseph, “Founding Brothers,” Preface, “The Generation.”

[6] “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” A Discourse Delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society in the City of New York, on Tuesday the 30th of April 1839; being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday the 30th of April 1789 (Samuel Colman, VIII Astor House 1839).

[7] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[8] Letter of James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, February 4, 1790.

[9] Joseph Ellis, “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” 132-133 (Knopf, 1996).

[10] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, February 17, 1826