James Madison had more influence than any other person in creating the form of the U.S. Constitution.
Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution a decade after the Constitution. But both came from his understanding of tyranny. That is, to prevent it, a government must divide power between separate groups of people. If the nation is to be free, the ambition of one group must oppose the ambition of another. So each group must hold its own portion of the overall power.
In the Constitution, Madison struggled with a contradiction. On the one hand, the state governments were closer to the people and more in tune with their local needs. But on the other hand, the national government was farther away from local prejudices. That is, the nation could provide better protection for minorities from the prejudices of local majorities. To balance this contradiction, he believed that the states and the nation should have equal power.
But Madison also knew that America was desperate for stability. That meant he had to make the nation supreme over the states. But to keep the balance, he limited the national government to the powers specifically listed in the Constitution. And in the 10th Amendment, he gave all unspecified powers to the states.
Madison also championed another way of dividing and balancing power. The Separation of Powers doctrine divides national power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. That seemed to work well, but then he watched as that separation faded away.
In 1798 a single group of politicians gained control of all three branches of America’s government. That prompted Madison to write the Virginia Resolution.
Those politicians became the Federalist Party. Under their control, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. They passed them to prevent America from being swept into France’s war against England. The problem was that the Acts allowed the government to imprison anyone who disagreed openly with national policy. That was a horrendous attack on free speech! And they clearly designed them to silence Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others who opposed Federalist policies.
As horrific as that sounds, some historians argue that the danger of French influence in American politics justified those Acts. In addition, there is evidence that Vice President Thomas Jefferson was actively undermining President John Adams’ policies toward France. In fact, Jefferson made no secret of his desire for America to join with France in her war against England. Also, other presidents have sponsored similar overreach when the threat of war seemed to justify it.
Alexander Hamilton was the actual political leader of the Federalists.
President Adams, a Federalist, obviously headed the executive branch. But Adams’ cabinet members secretly went to Hamilton for advise. Therefore, to some extent, Hamilton controlled Adams’ executive branch. Hamilton also controlled the majority of the legislative branch. And the judicial branch was headed by a close Hamilton ally, Oliver Ellsworth. So in effect, Hamilton and the Federalists controlled all three branches of government.
During the writing of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was numbered among the Federalists. At that time, a “Federalist” was someone who wanted national supremacy over the states. But later he moved away from the Federalists and toward Jefferson, who wanted more state power.
Jefferson and Madison began quietly forming what would become the Democratic-Republican Party to fight the Federalists. Jefferson wanted to bring down Hamilton’s power, because he and Hamilton had totally opposite visions of what was best for America.
Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution when he and Jefferson became alarmed by the Alien and Sedition Acts.
They blamed those Acts on the breakdown of the Separation of Powers. So they turned to the only other power that could stand up to the Federalists – the states. Jefferson wrote two Kentucky Resolutions which an ally presented to that state’s legislature, condemning the Acts. He said the Constitution was a compact (contract) between the states, not between the individual national citizens. That implied that a state could nullify a national law within its own borders.
Madison presented a Virginia Resolution to that state’s legislature. But he believed that national supremacy over the states was essential to stability. So he took a different approach from Jefferson. He came up with the ingenious idea that the national government was not the only representation of the nation’s people. The state governments together represented the entire nation’s people as well. And the states standing together could insist that their national representatives repeal unwanted national laws. Madison wrote:
[T]he General Assembly 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 cooperating with this State in maintaining unimpaired the authorities, rights, and liberties, reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. (Madison, 1798)
Today, our national government has taken on many powers not specified in the constitution, opposite to Madison’s intentions.
It has totally swallowed the state governments and made them into mere departments of itself. Do you think that’s a good thing? Is there a way to use Madison’s ingenious insight in the Virginia Resolution to restore the balance between the nation and the states? Can you see how our modern communications technology could make that work better than it could in his day? Could such an approach alone really restore the balance of power? Or is something else needed in addition?
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Madison, James. 1798. “Virginia Resolutions, 21 December 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-17-02-0128 (Accessed 03/18/21) [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 17, 31 March 1797–3 March 1801 and supplement 22 January 1778–9 August 1795, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne K. Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991, pp. 185–191.]