The Other Madison Problem

By David S. Schwartz & John Mikhail

The conventional view of legal scholars and historians is that James Madison was the “father” or “major architect” of the Constitution, whose unrivaled authority entitles his interpretations of the Constitution to special weight and consideration. This view greatly exaggerates Madison’s contribution to the framing of the Constitution and the quality of his insight into the main problem of federalism that the Framers tried to solve. Perhaps most significantly, it obstructs our view of alternative interpretations of the original Constitution with which Madison disagreed.

Examining Madison’s writings and speeches between the spring and fall of 1787, we argue, first, that Madison’s reputation as the father of the Constitution is unwarranted. Madison’s supposedly unparalleled preparation for the Constitutional Convention and his purported authorship of the Virginia plan are unsupported by the historical record. The ideas Madison expressed in his surprisingly limited pre-Convention writings were either widely shared or, where more peculiar to him, rejected by the Convention. Moreover, virtually all of the actual drafting of the Constitution
was done by other delegates, principally James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris. Second, we argue that Madison’s recorded thought in this critical 1787 period fails to establish him as a particularly keen or authoritative interpreter of the Constitution. Focused myopically on the supposed imperative of blocking bad state laws, Madison failed to diagnose the central problem of federalism that was clear to many of his peers: the need to empower the national government to regulate the people directly. Whereas Madison clung to the idea of a national government controlling the states through a national legislative veto, the Convention settled on a decidedly non-Madisonian approach of bypassing the states by directly regulating the people and controlling bad state laws indirectly through the combination of federal supremacy and preemption. We conclude by suggesting that scholars pursue a fresh and more accurate assessment of Madison and his constitutional legacy, particularly with respect to slavery.