James Madison, Jr., was born in 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. At the age of 18, he entered the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where he studied history, classics, moral philosophy, politics, and law. Called "Jemmy” by some of his friends, he was five feet six inches tall, of slight build, quiet voice, serious demeanor, and scholarly habits. He was also plagued with ill health in his youth and intermittently throughout his life. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion, Madison worked himself to exhaustion despite the protests of his dearest friends.
During the Revolutionary years, Madison served in the General Assembly of Virginia, the Continental Congress, and the Congress under the Articles of Confederation. In the mid-1780s, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates, and in 1786, he attended the Annapolis Convention, the precursor to the Federal Convention. Soon thereafter, he began to prepare for the Federal Convention, to be held in Philadelphia the following summer, by combing ancient and modern texts that might contribute to an understanding of stable and effective federal government and to solutions to the problems faced by popular government over the ages.
Throughout the long, hot summer in Philadelphia, Madison took extensive notes on the proceedings, and it is primarily this record that has provided us with a knowledge of the speeches and debates of that propitious gathering. During the New York ratification debates, he collaborated with Hamilton and Jay on a series of essays in support of the proposed Constitution. Their combined efforts produced the Federalist Papers, generally considered the most definitive exposition of the tenets of American republicanism.
During his twilight years, as "the last of the founders" remaining on the American scene, Madison became increasingly disturbed by the secessionist theories of Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. When Calhoun attempted to use the political thought and writings of Jefferson and Madison to defend his theories, Madison clarified his position that the union of the states was justly founded on the consent of the people of the several states and can be altered only through the prescribed constitutional processes. There is no constitutional basis, he argued, for the right of secession in the compact of a free people. Madison's last public writing-the "advice to my country" nearest to his heart and deepest in his convictions-urged that the American union be cherished and perpetuated.
The size of the territory matters, Madison argued, because in a small republic it is easy for a majority to communicate and unite on the basis of selfish interest or prejudice and thereby oppress the minority. In an extensive republic, however, there will be more people, a greater diversity of interests and views, and a greater distance over which those views must be communicated. This will make it more difficult for a majority to form on the basis of a narrow interest or harmful passion. In a large society, a coalition of the majority will be necessary in order to achieve an authoritative status, and its demands will have to pass muster with a great variety of economic, geographical, religious, and other groups in society.
Though Madison hoped the representatives of America would be wise and virtuous, he was not naïve about the temptations of power and the charms of ambition that accompany political office. He well knew that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Some representatives will be weak of mind or lacking in backbone. Some may possess the ambition and political skills of a demagogue and be able to work their wiles on less clever and weaker colleagues. Even the most philosophic and patriotic representatives, Madison warned, should not be given a blind trust, for the political scenes in which they must operate often distract their reasoning “and expose it to the influence of the passions.”
In essence, Madison advised his fellow citizens to be wary of the heat generated by politics and the allurements of political power. Madison thus proposed a system of checks and balances that would incorporate the less than sterling side of human nature into the very workings of government. To accomplish this, the powers of the three branches of government are partially blended, enabling each branch to guard against usurpations of power by the others and safeguard its own constitutional province. Examples of constitutional checks and balances include the executive veto of legislative bills, the legislative override of the executive veto, the required Senate confirmation of presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, and judicial review.
In essence, Madison wanted the different branches of government, as well as the two houses of Congress and the national and the state governments, to check each other in the exercise of power, thereby guaranteeing the diffusion of governmental power and the protection of the people's rights and liberties.
Madison's contributions to the American Republic are best summarized by his lifelong dedication to the principles of freedom and responsibility. These principles go hand in hand and constitute the cornerstone of republican self-government. Together, they protect the citizens in the free exercise of their faculties. The individual's free exercise of his or her mind and talents is the most basic of all rights, from which all our civil rights and liberties are derived. These include freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the rights of property.
We are all familiar with the Bill of Rights as a document listing our protected freedoms. Madison hoped it would in time become much more than a parchment barrier against oppressive acts. Over time, a bill of rights becomes sanctified and incorporated in public opinion, and its principles exert an influence on the actual views and sentiments of the people. The guardianship of our constitutional rights is immeasurably strengthened when those rights and the responsibilities that flow from them are written not just on paper, but on the minds and hearts of the citizens.
In all free governments, Madison claimed, public opinion is sovereign. Public opinion is the authority that ultimately determines governmental measures; it is the spirit behind the laws. The arena of public opinion is the sphere in which a coalition of the majority takes place on any given issue. Majority opinion in a republican polity is constantly in the process of constructing itself within an intellectual, moral, and psychological milieu larger than itself. Consequently, the things that influence public opinion are of critical importance to those who are concerned with the stability, character, and future of the political order.
The Madisonian process of refinement and enlargement of the public views can be seen throughout the broad workings of the legislative process today, from public hearings on political matters in home districts to the deliberative proceedings on the House or Senate floor, from the contest and compromise of interests in legislative committees to the representatives' open newsletters to their constituents, from the necessity to defend their public stances and votes during re-election campaigns to the honor felt by representatives whose “faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.”