Constitutional Convention: James Madison Role In It

In the spring of 1786 the Confederation Congress formally endorsed the calling of a special convention in Annapolis in an effort to (more effectively) consider further commercial reform and create a far more nationalized and/or unified trade policy for the states rather than the current system wherein Georgia may levy tariffs against South Carolina. What followed was a disaster as only 5 state’s delegates showed up. Alongside this, in the fall of 1786 Shay’s Rebellion occurred which only spurred Madison on in his personal beliefs on the inherent disposition of Confederations to collapse and would only end with the delegates creating a new system at a convention only taken seriously by the presence of George Washington. The bold move by Madison tore down the system, which left to its devices, would have ensured the downfall of the American Experiment and the collapse of the Union he loved so much.

These ideals were highlighted in February of 1787 while Madison was seated at his desk in his one-room quarters on the southern tip of Manhattan. He sat writing his own book (or more likely, personal therapy) which he entitled “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederations”. This was more of an extremely boring essay wherein he spoke on the many Greek, Italian, Dutch, and Germanic confederations, all of which as he noticed, united against a common enemy only to fall shortly thereafter to the strains of civil war, anarchy, and far worse autocrats than imagined before.

This immersion in the historical texts was of course not but research for his own hypothesis on the destiny of the Confederation highlighted in “Vices of the Political System of the United States”.

Of course, his intent on exposing the failures of the confederation system was not to raise the white flag in the name of submission to the almost inevitable, but rather he was preparing his case as if a lawyer for a court due to occur on May 25, 1787 though it seemed not so in February.

We know of this fact because of our own hindsight on the issue of the founding of our modern political system and how at this moment, Madison was concocting possibly the most important court of his political career. He would soon direct the agenda for the Constitutional Convention, manage the ratification process as Publius alongside Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, lead the ratification debates in the Virginia Convention, then draft the Bill of Rights. In the history of the United States, there was never such a fundamental change in the meaning of the American Revolution than in what is now called “Madison’s Moment” between 1787 and 1789 and truly, there has never been a more miraculous political performance than it.

Madison’s “Vices of the Political System of the United States” reads far more like an indictment of the Articles of Confederation than anything else because that is exactly what it was. It was a testimony of his experiences over his time as delegate and catalogs his conversion from an Anti-Federalist to a Nationalist. This transformation occurred most during the War for Independence as states refused to obey their tax obligations, refused to fund veteran’s pensions, and after the war, refused to cooperate on internal improvements, imposed tariffs on each other, and made separate treaties with the Native Americans. The Confederation Congress also was entirely unable to speak with a unified voice on foreign matters because of all the local, state, and regional interest blocs.

The Madisonian transformation from Virginian to American is often misrepresented to be far earlier than believed. He did support the creation of a national bank, though only to finance the war debt and not to establish an institution to manage the national economy. He did argue that the land acquired in the Treaty of Paris (1783) was a national trust that therefore must be controlled by the Continental Congress, though also expressed that he believed that the Kentucky Territory was within the Charter of Virginia and its independence is only to be considered by the Virginian Legislature. The challenges of running a broken system eventually carried him over the line as he is quoted in 1783 as saying, “The Idea of erecting our national independence on the ruins of public faith and national honor must be horrid to every mind which retained either honesty or pride”. 

The ensuing years showed Madison’s pessimistic predictions to be true as after the war as all the political forces became centrifugal and delegates elected to the Confederation Congress either refused to serve or to show up, and the Congress itself became but a traveling circus as they met in Philadelphia, Princeton, Trenton, Annapolis, New York. “The perpetuity and efficacy of the present system cannot be counted on,” Madison said. “The question is, in what mode and at what moment the experiment for supplying the defects are to be made. The answer to this question cannot be given without a knowledge greater than I possess of the temper and views of the different states”. 

The hysteria surrounding Shay’s Rebellion and the failure of the Annapolis Convention propelled Madison to a new drive as he went and lobbied delegates at the Confederation Congress to endorse the recommendation from the Annapolis Convention for a new convention in Philadelphia; introducing a bill in the Virginia Legislature to elect a delegation to the convention even before it was officially approved; and opening up a correspondence with George Washington to lure him back to public life as one of Virginia’s delegates, a move calculated to lend legitimacy to the gathering in Philadelphia that would almost ensure that it did not repeat the embarrassment of Annapolis.

In Madison’s correspondence with George Washington, he countered the belief that the colonies had declared their independence as sovereign states, so that any shift in sovereignty from state to the federal itself was a repudiation of the “spirit of ‘76” as it was called. Madison made the opposite case, arguing that such a shift in sovereignty was nothing more than a realization of the true meaning of the revolution rather than a betrayal of its core principles.

We can no longer doubt that the crisis is arrived at which the good people of America are to decide the solemn question, whether they will reap the fruits of that Independence and of that Union which they cemented with so much of their common blood, or whether by giving way to unmanly jealousies and prejudices, or to partial and transitory interests, they will renounce the auspicious blessings prepared foe them by the Revolution, and furnish its enemies a eventual triumph over those by whose virtue and valor it has been accomplished.

These were profound implications for his career and the conversation around a federated union rather than confederated republic, for Madison was insisting on a new understanding of what the American Revolution meant. Madison’s only goal in the early months of 1787 was to orchestrate a second American Revolution of which he thought of as only a truer realization of the first. The looming convention in Philadelphia had to succeed lest the United States be lost to the ever-growing chasm of history, shattered democracies, and lost republics. He was determined to have no delegate be more prepared than he for the trials anticipated so that no image may survive the furnace of opinion but his.

James Madison began his the courting of Washington seriously in December 1786 and continued through the following spring, beginning a relentless assault against Fort Washington, always nudging him, placing his name in the list of delegates and telling Washington upon his protests that he should just keep it for the time being and add credibility to his efforts anyway, and Knox having encouraged Washington to attend stating, “it would be a circumstance highly honorable to your fame in the present and future ages; and double entitle you to the glorious republican epithet — the Father of Your Country”.

By late March, Washington informed Madison that he was willing to lead the Virginia delegation leaving not but the debates on an opinionated whim of which his preparation has made him ready to tilt in his favor.

Madison arrived in Philadelphia on May 3rd, eleven days before the convention and the rest of the Virginian delegation trickled in by May 17th, the lack of a quorum due to storms along the coast allowed Madison to take extra days to lobby his fellow delegates. The result of this lobbying effort was the fifteen-point Virginia Plan. With no other comprehensive plan made, the Virginia Plan would rule the field by default in what is called “Madison’s Moment” as he brought down the Anti-Federalist Confederation and instituted the most well-known system of democratic representation in the world as he earned the title “Father of the Constitution”. The success of the system proposed by Madison can be proved by the longevity of the mentioned system and the rate at which it is determined to continue. The Constitution has proved to be far more than a list of rules as it has laid the foundations for the freedoms experienced in the modern Union as can be experienced in everything including judicial proceedings, elections, and individual liberties experienced under the rule of those elected.

16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now