We know James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution”. But he also expressed an ingenious afterthought in his Virginia Resolution.
James Madison wrote his Virginia Resolution to address a serious oversight in the Constitution. The issue began with the French Revolution in 1789, just after the nation elected George Washington for his first term as President. That revolution embroiled France in a horrific bloodbath, where for decades many people were beheaded on guillotines.
The French revolutionaries decided to remove all the kings in Europe. And they expected revolutionary America to join them against the King of England. But President George Washington and Vice President John Adams opposed the French because of their violence and disorder. They favored England instead. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison hated all kings, so they sympathized with the French.
Nine years later, John Adams was President. And he and his followers feared there were French spies in America, possibly influencing Jefferson’s followers. So they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Those acts empowered the national government to imprison anyone who disagreed with their administration’s actions.
The Alien and Sedition Acts seriously alarmed both Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
So to fight these acts, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions. Then he convinced Madison to write the Virginia Resolution. In that document, Madison said:
… [T]he General Assembly [of Virginia] doth solemnly appeal to the like dispositions of the other states, in confidence that they will concur with this commonwealth in declaring, as it does hereby declare, that the acts aforesaid, are unconstitutional; and that the necessary and proper measures will be taken by each, for co-operating with this state, in maintaining the Authorities, Rights, and Liberties, referred to the States respectively, or to the people. (Madison, 1798)
In writing the Virginia Resolution, James Madison indicated there was something important missing from the U.S. Constitution.
Madison had more influence on the final form of the U.S. Constitution than any other single person. He also co-wrote the Federalist Papers along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Those papers convinced people to vote for the Constitution. And scholars everywhere consider them to be the most authoritative expression of the intent of America’s founders.
At the time he and others wrote the Constitution, they believed that the balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would prevent tyranny. But he and Jefferson found that their followers were powerless to stop the Alien and Sedition Acts. A single political party could block them because it had gained control of all three of the government branches. That party was controlled by their arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton, and they believed it had destroyed the balance of power established in the Constitution.
Madison realized that the people had to maintain some level of control to prevent tyranny. And he realized that their views had to be expressed through people who represent them.
Madison showed that the states represent the entire nation just as well as the national congress.
Madison was from the beginning an ardent supporter of a national government supreme over the state governments. But he now realized that the states could provide another division of power to prevent tyranny.
But there was a problem that made his idea difficult. In his day, technology was primitive. For the states to work together, their agents would have to do what their congressmen did. They would have to go on long journeys by horseback or carriage over rough roads, just to have a conversation. And even sending letters still meant that someone had to make a long, slow ride over long distances to carry them. So no one implemented his idea in his lifetime.
But we live in a different world today, with modern long-distance communications.
Today we could have regular citizens, not politicians, as the agents of each state, communicating instantaneously over the internet or the telephone system. They would not have to ride anywhere, and they could perform their public duty by rotation, just as we do today when we do jury duty.
And these non-politicians would have another advantage that is not available to Congress. Our representatives in Congress have to ignore issues sometimes in order to bargain with those who don’t want to address those issues. For example, before the Civil War they had to ignore the slavery issue just to get southern votes on other issues.
However, these non-political citizen agents wouldn’t even have a government to run. And they wouldn’t have to worry about their constituents’ opinions because they’re not elected. They could address any issue they considered worthy.
We’re really talking here about state sovereignty. Also, the same concepts could even be extended to community sovereignty. And there are already websites dedicated to these issues. (Convention of States) (Community Rights)
Was James Madison correct in his Virginia Resolution? If we the people decided to follow his idea and give these non-politician citizens real authority, can you imagine how they could solve problems our congressmen cannot?
This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.
Community Rights, US. http://communityrights.us/ (Accessed Apr. 26, 2020).
Convention of States. https://www.conventionofstates.com/solution (Accessed Mar. 6, 2017).
Madison, James. 1798. “The Virginia Resolution of 1798”. Constitution Society. https://www.constitution.org/cons/virg1798.htm (Accessed Feb. 20, 2019).