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The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic
by lance banning
cornell university press, 543 pages, $35

For students of the early American republic, James Madison has long been something of a riddle. No one disputes, of course, his vital contributions to the establishment of the Constitution. A leading critic of the Articles of Confederation, the feckless league under which Americans were governed for much of the 1780s, Madison was among the first to contemplate a more far-reaching union, one that would attend more energetically to national needs while offering a measure of security to those who had suffered at the hands of local majorities. He would go on to become the most influential member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, coauthor of The Federalist, the classic defense of that gathering’s handiwork, and the primary sponsor of the Bill of Rights (which he viewed as a harmless palliative for such foes of the new regime as still remained). Here, then, we have the familiar Madison—nationalist, centralizer, wary observer of the states.

But what of the less familiar Madison, the one who emerged shortly thereafter? As most historians would have it, the Virginian underwent a radical transformation in the early 1790s, renouncing his expansive nationalism and embracing a doctrine of states’ rights and strict constitutional construction. On this account, the caliber of his thought declined as well. The “Father of the Constitution,” the brilliant theorist of the extended republic, became a derivative thinker, a man defined less by his own views than by those of the period’s great political antagonists, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Though once a Hamiltonian, the story goes, Madison fell under Jefferson’s spell, helped along by his own political ambitions and the narrow interests of the Old Dominion.

In his splendid new book, Lance Banning tries to make sense of this apparent reversal. I say “apparent” because he rightfully wonders if the orthodoxy on Madison is correct. Rather than solve the historical problem, Banning wishes to challenge its major premise. As he sees it, Madison’s activities, especially during the decisive years of constitutional reform, have been widely misunderstood—resulting in accounts of the founder’s political thought that would have “pained and puzzled” him. Banning believes that the Madison who helped Jefferson establish the Republican Party was the same one, by and large, who fought for the Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention and who joined with Hamilton (and John Jay) in writing The Federalist. He argues, in short, for what Madison long proclaimed: his own consistency.

Banning chides his fellow historians for allowing Hamilton to set the terms of the debate between himself and Madison. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was taken aback, we know, to find his one-time ally leading the opposition to his financial program and condemning his interpretation of the Constitution. After all, he wrote at the time, their political views had once proceeded from “the same point of departure.” According to Banning, modern analysts have accepted this assumption far too readily and have thus incorporated a Hamiltonian “bias” into their inquiries:

They presuppose that a broad construction of the Constitution had been general among the Federalists of 1788, that Madison’s resistance to Hamilton’s own conception of the scope of federal powers must have meant a change of attitude about the document itself, and that the balance of authority between the central government and the states was unmistakably the most important issue of these years.

On all counts, Banning convincingly argues, the unwitting academic followers of Hamilton have gotten it wrong.

Madison was never a nationalist of the Hamiltonian stripe. Even while decrying the baneful influence of the states on national affairs and their sometimes oppressive internal policies, he assumed that they would retain considerable authority. He had no dreams of empire or national glory, the ends proclaimed by Hamilton in his effort to shift power and allegiance to the political center. For Madison, such designs were dangerously anti-republican, making it far more difficult for the people to maintain a vigilant watch over their governors. As Banning reminds us, Madison’s fear of abusive local majorities was always accompanied by “a profound commitment to effective popular control” and “a lively fear of distant, independent rulers.”

Likewise, Madison was always a stickler for written constitutions. As a member of the Continental Congress, he had repeatedly stopped short when convinced that the legislature lacked a given power under the Articles of Confederation. In Virginia, he had defended religious liberty both as a natural right and as the solemn guarantee of a state constitution that set the “metes and bounds” of public authority. For Madison, the social compact was a serious matter: if government was to be legitimate, it had to respect the limits laid down by the popular sovereign. When Hamilton tried to justify his ambitious economic program through a liberal reading of the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause and by appealing to the transparently rhetorical “general welfare” of the eighth section of Article I, Madison’s resistance might have been predicted. Such rules of interpretation amounted to an unlimited government, and that is not what e people had ratified.

One of the great merits of Banning’s meticulous work is to show the divisions that existed among Federalists even as they came together in the movement for a new Constitution. While all of them wanted to invigorate and extend the powers of the federal government, they differed over the wider aims of the American experiment. Hamilton was no republican, as he openly declared at Philadelphia. An admirer of the British regime, he considered popular rule both a threat to individual rights and an obstacle to imperial greatness. He administered the new government accordingly, much on the model of the British prime ministers whom he so admired. For him, the key to the young nation’s political success lay not in the fickle and uninformed opinion of the many, but rather in the steady and prudent interests of the few, those whose loyalty could be secured by the offices and emoluments made possible by a generous view of the Constitution’s powers.

Madison’s politics indeed had a different “point of departure.” Like Hamilton, he was deeply devoted to the cause of individual rights. He doubted, however, that it was possible to find a more reliable guardian for such rights than the people themselves. Great Britain’s mixed regime, for all of its vaunted moderation, hardly seemed an appropriate model for Americans so recently liberated from its tyrannical rule. To the contrary, as Madison saw it, the Revolution had been fought to defend the then—controversial view that popular government could rise to the standard of good government. Like Martin Diamond before him, Banning stresses Madison’s abiding confidence in this proposition. While republicanism had its vices, the remedies for them must be republican as well.

If Banning’s account has a shortcoming, it is in his effort to explain this two-fold commitment to the “sacred fire of liberty,” the Madisonian phrase that provides the book’s title. For Madison, liberty was both civil and political: it referred, on the one hand, to the basic priorities of liberalism—security, prosperity, peace—and, on the other, to the republican ideal of self-government. As Banning would have it, the liberal dimension of his thought has been emphasized to the neglect of his republicanism. Though undoubtedly a disciple of John Locke and his teaching on the social compact, Madison was also indebted to a much older tradition, one reaching back to ancient Greece and Rome by way of writers like James Harrington and Algernon Sidney. On this view, Madison’s thought was at once both modern and “neoclassical.”

Such arguments are the hallmark of the “ideological” school of early American historiography, of which Banning is a prominent (if sometimes dissenting) member. Now the dominant approach to study of the founding era, its many able advocates—Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, J. G. A. Pocock, Drew McCoy—maintain that the period was profoundly shaped by the long history of republican “civic humanism.” The aim of these scholars is revisionist. By showing the continuing hold of such ideas on the revolutionaries of ‘76, and on figures like Jefferson and Madison, they hope to consign Locke to the margins of American political thought. On this retelling, our eighteenth-century forebears appear in a new light: once considered selfish liberal brutes, intent on their rights and interests, they are transformed into virtuous citizens, single-minded in their dedication to the common good.

Banning is easily the most sober of this group, and he has resisted the (altogether incredible) effort to erase liberalism from our early history. He knows that the fundamentals of the social compact—the state of nature, the motive of self-preservation, the origin of government in consent—are too central to the thought of the period to be ignored. Moreover, he has qualified his republican claims: hence Madison’s support of popular government is only “neoclassical.” As he recognizes, the political science of the founders—with its representatives, checks and balances, and notion of limited government—is hard to reconcile with Spartan gruel and Roman censorship.

Still, Banning does not give serious enough consideration to the possibility that Madison’s republicanism arises from his liberalism, that it is an instrument rather than an end in itself. Recall, for instance, that in Federalist Number 39, Madison matter-of-factly states that “no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America,” as though his attachment to popular government were simply a bow to national prejudice. In Number 51, he goes still farther in suggesting the mere expedience of republicanism, comparing it to hereditary rule as a “method” for preventing injustice. Having rejected the “precarious security” provided by “a will in the community independent of the majority,” America would give the extended republic a try. Perhaps this “method” would work.

Rationales of this sort for Madison’s republicanism are useful reminders of the liberal priorities that he would not allow to be compromised. In the end, though, they cannot fully account for his insistence on popular government. As he goes on to say in Federalist Number 39, the republican form is also demanded by “that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” For Madison, republicanism might not be the only way to secure the rights and interests of compacting individuals, but it was certainly one of unrivaled dignity.

Here Banning is right to detect something of the proud, spirited ethos of the classical republic, but he fails to see how it has been appropriated and changed by liberalism. Like the other historians of his school, he can only conceive of liberalism as a stark world of possessive individuals, utterly indifferent to public things. Thus, when Madison speaks of virtue, he necessarily ceases to be a liberal. The premise is mistaken, however. Though liberalism does not take the cultivation of virtue to be its end—this being its chief departure from premodern political thought—it does not dispense with it altogether. It redefines virtue to serve its own purposes, both private and public.

In an article of his own that he cites at several points in the book, Banning seems to recognize as much. Conceding his “second thoughts” about how virtue has been treated by his colleagues, he rejects their facile equation of the concept with complete self-sacrifice in the name of the public good. Eighteenth-century Americans simply did not think that way. They were people very much aware of their interests and their private concerns. Their standards of public character were considerably more modest, more bourgeois. As Banning reports, they expected a citizen to be “vigilant,” “assertive,” “self-reliant,” “independent.” What are these, one might ask, if not the virtues of a decidedly liberal republican?

Gary Rosen is a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at Harvard University.