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Madison and Jefferson: Human Beings Like the Rest of Us

Madison And Jefferson: Human Beings Like The Rest Of Us

Madison and Jefferson. Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg. New York: Random House, 2010.


Burstein and Isenberg have written a fascinating–well, what shall we call it? A “dual biography?” Or should we be trendier and coin a term and call it a “duography” –of America’s third and fourth presidents. Part of the content of the book is an argument for this choice, in that the authors show how difficult it is to disentangle the careers of these two men, thus justifying the unusual choice of genre.

Jefferson and Madison worked together over more than four decades on a largely shared view of governmental action and reform. As fellow Virginians, they worked together to protect Virginia’s interests in the new, larger polity which it had joined, and to promote their vision of a largely agrarian republic. While this alliance has long been recognized, Madsion has generally been seen as the junior partner. The authors try to correct this impression, arguing that while Madison was certainly less charismatic than Jefferson, he was at least as important in promoting their common agenda, mostly through his efforts as a legislator and writer.

The book begins with Madison and Jefferson already adults, around the time of the American Revolution. The authors include some interesting material on the transition from the Articles of Confederation to our current constitution. Some modern anti-federalists attack the Constitution because, as they see it, the constitutional conventioners exceeded their brief from the Continental Congress and “illegally” went on to write a new constitution. But what did the Confederation Congress make of this “illegal” constitution making activity?

Consider the following:

A heated debate took place in Congress before it was agreed that no amendments would be added to the text of the Constitution. Congress would remain neutral (as to the value of the 1787 constitution as presented to it) “. . . and send the Constitution on to the states without directly endorsing it . . . the congressional resolution . . . expressed unanimous agreement to that procedure.” (165) And, of course, if we ought to evaluate the legality of the Constitution according to whether its creation was allowed under the constitution that preceded it, we might note that The Articles of Confederation were not regarded as very legitimate by King George III and Parliament!

Another interesting passage speaks to the current debates about the “original intent” of the constitution writers:

“Jefferson believed that one generation could not be trusted to safeguard the interests of the next . . . The people deriving benefits from the federal Constitution had to be the living users of the text. The Constitution’s meaning could not be stagnant; it’s understood benefits had to be progressively redefined. ‘No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law’. . . He meant, too, that there was no original intent: the founding generation could not make the Constitution into a property monopolized by its authors, eternally empowering themselves to control its value and application” (205).

The authors’ claim that “there was no original intent” does not seem justified by their evidence.

What they might have more justifiably claimed was that Jefferson did not think that “original intent” was of much importance, since “No society can make a perpetual constitution.” The founders may have been as chock full of original intent as any strict constructionist imagines they were, but the thrust of Jefferson’s argument is that such intent has no moral claim on any future generation living under their constitution.

Other episodes described in this book raise the question of whether the American Revolution actually succeeded, and, if so, for whom? For instance, commenting on taxes in the post-Revolutionary period, the authors note, “[Shay’s rebellion] was sparked by high taxes worse than any stamp requirement or duty on tea the British had formerly imposed” (146). And it only took four years to get to that state of affairs!

And what of the democratic aspirations of those who supported the Revolution? Well:

“Among the middling sorts of people, hope of a new social order died hard. But as the average soldier found out, the ruling gentry had not gone to war to make liberty infectious or democracy possible. The egalitarian ideal proved useful in rallying support for independence among a wider public, but the simple fact was that colonial elites aimed principally to replace the British as America’s lawgivers. They went to war for themselves” (213).

It is interesting to note that Adam Smith diagnosed this situation similarly in 1776.

Today we often harken back to the glory days of the American founding, arguing that politics today are “too divisive,” and thinking “If only we had men like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams around now: their politics were concerned with principles and high ideals!” But how is this for divisive politics? In [1798] the House Vermont Republican Matthew Lyon responded to an insult he had received from Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold by spitting in his face. A few days later Griswold clobbered Lyon with a cane (328).

And what did the Founders think of the “high ideals” of the other Founders? Well, consider the opinion of Dr. Benjamin Rush:

“Could the absurdities in principle and conduct of our two great parties for the last 12 years be laid before the world in a candid and dispassionate manner, we should be ashamed to call ourselves MEN. The disputes of children about their nuts and gingerbread have less folly and wickedness in them” (463).

And the politicians of those “glory days” were not above using the law for purely partisan ends:

“The Sedition Act was the most extreme manifestation of panic politics. Its unusual provision was to declare that publishing, or even verbalizing, ‘scandalous and malicious’ statements about the president or Congress would result in a stiff fine and imprisonment. The carefully worded statute did not, however, protect the vice president from libelous insults” (334).

The vice president was, of course, Jefferson, the arch-enemy of the Federalists who had passed the act.

The authors are generally quite good in regarding the past for what it was, rather than evaluating it as some inferior version of the present. But on rare occasions they let modern prejudices creep in to their historical analysis. For instance, they write:

“[Some] Virginians . . . had openly conveyed their eagerness to alter the federal Constitution by pushing through amendments . . . to make the republic more democratic . . . Reducing U. S. senators’ terms from six to two years would go far toward eliminating aristocratic pretense in that body. Direct election of the president would be an obvious improvement on the Electoral College. No longer giving judges lifetime appointments seemed a sensible move” (432).

What is striking for me is not so much that any of these proposals are obviously wrong, but how the democratic prejudice of our age leads the authors to see them as obviously right, despite the weighty arguments put forward against pure democracy by a host of political thinkers, including many of the American founders, the latter being the very people in whose thought the authors are experts.

Another flaw in this work is a common one: Historians can be cruising along nicely, doing a great job of explaining what actually happened in the past, when they are suddenly struck by “the Jared Diamond syndrome:” they grow fearful that they have gone on doing “simple” history too long without giving some “master” explanation that is at a “higher” level than “mere” contingency. We find this anxiety on display in the following passage: “Once again it is the southern mind, its long-prevailing sense of opportunity, competition, and risk, that explains all governing motives in the Gulf area drama of 1810-1811″ (492, emphasis mine).

Burstein and Isenberg are explaining the actions of four main figures in that “Gulf area drama:” Jefferson, Madison, George Matthews, and Fulwar Skipwith. The obvious problem with the authors’ thesis here is that each of those four acted quite differently in regard to the Spanish possessions on the Gulf of Mexico. And yet somehow all of those different approaches have one explanation: the “southern mind.”

Certainly there would be commonalities in the way most southerners saw things, or else “culture” would be a meaningless term in historical analysis. And that commonality can certainly be a part of an historical explanation. But is a “long-prevailing sense of opportunity, competition, and risk” really unique to the southern U. S.? Are there people somewhere on the earth who aren’t concerned with “opportunity, competition, and risk?”

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Madison’s and Jefferson’s biographies, clearly on display in this book, is the two men’s vacillating attitude towards slavery. Sometimes the founders’ lacunae on the issue of slavery are excused because they were just “men of their time.” Well, this defense, if true, is not terrible: we ought not condemn historical figures merely for believing what all of their contemporaries also believed. For instance, I think it as fatuous to condemn Aristotle for accepting slavery as it would be to condemn Newton for not developing quantum mechanics.

But that response won’t do concerning slavery at the time of Madison and Jefferson, because the incompatibility of that “curious institution” with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was recognized at the time by, among others, Madison and Jefferson themselves. Nevertheless the two men continued to own slaves throughout their lives and to devise defenses for the continuation of slavery that appear to be mere rationalizations.

For instance, when Madison writes about slaves that they had a “natural and habitual repugnance to labour” (533), was he just being a “man of his time?” Didn’t it occur to him, as a “defender of liberty,” that this repugnance is quite natural when you are being forced to labor at no pay for your slave-master’s benefit? Or consider Jefferson’s reaction to the black population of Haiti freeing themselves from their French “owners,” an event one might think the author of the Declaration of Independence would applaud:

“But when queried about the U. S. response to a French military expedition to [Haiti], Jefferson gave the impression that he would support an occupation and that he wished to see an unofficial alliance involving France, England, and the United States. All three would come together to crush the island republic . . . Jefferson agreed that they would ‘reduce [Haitian leader] Toussaint to starvation'” (375).

This reaction was motivated by Jefferson’s fears that freed Haitian slaves would inspire revolt amongst American slaves. And Jefferson and Madison look even worse when compared with, say, Edward Coles, who was a man of the exact same time:

“Coles grew up identifying with the first families of Virginia and, like Jefferson, attended the College of William and Mary. This privileged young Virginian, as secretary to President Madison, felt comfortable sending to Jefferson a pressing appeal to help him bring an end to slavery in their home state. Coles planned to emancipate his slaves, bring them to Illinois, and give them land–it would be 160 acres each when he succeeded in realizing his plan a decade later” (534-535).

Jefferson declined to help. Coles hadn’t even bothered to write his boss, Madison (Coles was Madison’s secretary), since he knew he would get no help from him. And Coles was far from the only abolitionist around at the time.

The Democratic-Republican Party of Madison and Jefferson was famously Francophilic, and so. naturally, America’s relationship with France frequently enters into this book’s narrative. Some of the material presented is of contemporary relevance given that, in 2004, piqued by France’s unwillingness to support every war the Bush administration planned to undertake, a pair of neoconservative authors, John J. Miller and Mark Molesky, declared that France is “our oldest enemy.”

Now, it is no doubt true that the interests of the United States and France have sometimes diverged. But such episodes must be evaluated in light of evidence that tips the scales in the other direction. For instance, when Benjamin Franklin died, our authors report:

“The outpouring was perhaps even greater in France, where the good Dr. Franklin was especially revered. The National Assembly recalled his ‘sublime mission’ during the American Revolution, praised ‘the charms of his mind,’ and declared a belief that ‘great men are the fathers of universal humanity’” (217).

And what did people in the early republic think of the French? Well:

“In advance of the fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution, Congress and President Monroe had invited Lafayette to return to the United States to see how it had grown, and how beloved he still was. It was no exaggeration.”

“During his thirteen-month tour . . . the last surviving commander of Continental Army troops grabbed headlines week after week. Accompanied by his son, George Washington Lafayette, he was heralded everywhere as ‘the nation’s guest’. . . adulatory crowds formed wherever he was spotted. Young ladies competed to set flower wreaths upon his head; balls were held and toasts drunk” (594).

The above could of course be mere exceptions in an otherwise unblemished record of hostility; however a few other incidents, such as the gift of the Statue of Liberty, World War I, World War II, and NATO, might convince us otherwise.

The authors reach a number of interesting conclusions, for which their evidence is quite convincing. As stated early on in this review, Madison and Jefferson should really be regarded as different but equal personalities in the founding period, in contrast to the more common view that treats Madison as Jefferson’s lieutenant. They contend that both men were primarily politicians rather than political theorists; the political theorizing they did was to support their political positions.

And that point leads to the next: Madison’s position on constitutional interpretation was whatever it needed to be to advance his political goals: the constitutional views on display in The Federalist are only a small portion of his written output (which, nevertheless, draws almost all of historians’ attention), and later he took a quite different view on, say, original intent: “The only way to appreciate Madison’s constitutional thinking is to measure comprehensible changes in his view in response to specific political problems” (641). (I’m pretty sure “measure” is being used metaphorically here.)

This book’s greatest virtue, though, is that it removes Madison and Jefferson from the realm of demigods, and shows them as sometimes public-minded and sometimes partisan, sometimes farsighted and sometimes obtuse, sometimes virtuous and sometimes sinful: in other words, it shows them to be human beings like the rest of us. The authors’ occasional lapses into simply assuming the superiority of direct democracy, and into historical determinism, are minor blemishes on an otherwise excellent work of historical clarification, one that will easily repay the time put into its reading for anyone serious about understanding the life and thought of these two major figures in the American founding.

Gene Callahan

Eugene Callahan is a research fellow at the Collingwood Centre at Cardiff University and a Lecturer in Economics at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He is author of Economics for Real People (2004); Oakeshott on Rome and America (2012); and co-editor, with Lee Trepanier, of Tradition v. Rationalism: Voegelin, Oakeshott, Hayek, and Others (Lexington Books, 2018).

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