“Becoming Madison, The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father” by Michael Signer, PublicAffairs, 370 pages, $28.99
“The Quartet, Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789” by Joseph J. Ellis, Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages, $27.95
It was not to be sacred script. The makers of our Constitution wanted to be well-remembered, “but they did not want to be embalmed,” according to Joseph Ellis.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.”
The path of the U.S. Constitution was a twisty road, rutted and muddy, practical politics of the highest and lowest sort, unfinished even today. The vaunted Bill of Rights itself was the product of James Madison who didn’t believe it was necessary, but foisted it onto the First Congress to assure safe and complete ratification of the whole document.
The story of the second American Revolution, the birth of a nation out of 13 separate sovereignties and the unlikely document that secured it, is utterly fascinating. A small group of men, meeting illegally in secret, sweating out a summer in the small hall that hosted the signing of the Declaration of Independence, hammered out that Constitution and overturned some of the basic tenets of the Revolution itself. Even the process of ratifying the Constitution was illegal under the rules of the discarded Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.
This had never been done before in human history and likely will not be repeated.
These two new histories of that episode of brilliance, of political creation, are as lively as a thrilling mystery, as enlightening as a full college semester and as pleasing as a frosty bowl of Southern punch. They truly bring to life that slice of delicious American history.
While George Washington, a reluctant hero, was paramount to the creation of the United States and its underlying foundation of laws, the most faithful, true Founder was James Madison, a very unlikely hero. His biography, by Michael Signer, tells of a sickly child not expected to live long, spending many years under the wing of a wealthy planter-father. James had horrible anxiety seizures when under stress and could barely function. Yet he became president and outlived most of his contemporaries.
It was Madison’s political acumen, his careful planning and solid research plus an ability to dominate the debate with utmost logic and irrefutable facts, that led the way to molding together the Constitution and its treacherous route to approval by all 13 states. He could compromise against his strongest personal desires when they proved unattainable, in order to salvage what could be done.
In his biography, Michael Signer concentrates on Madison’s upbringing, the teenage years at Princeton where his mentor for life helped form his research habits, philosophy and intellectual passions that long sustained him. Madison’s work at the Constitutional Convention is especially revealing, followed by his challenging debate with Patrick Henry for the crucial ratification in Virginia. This was an enormous accomplishment for a young man not yet 36.
The quartet of men that Ellis features, the Founding Fathers, are Washington and Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Subsidiary roles go to Robert Morris, the nation’s wealthiest man, and Gouverneur Morris (no relative). They were all nationalists, aware that the Articles of Confederation “was less a constitution than a diplomatic treaty among sovereign powers,” Ellis wrote.
Would we become a true democratic nation or a confederation of states drawn together into four or five regions, each with its own laws and foreign policy? Most people in America at that time didn’t care which happened. The Revolutionary War was over, and life was moving on. But for our leaders, the outlook was dreary, with heavy war debts, no international reputation or recognition and potentially heavy incursions into our land by Britain and Spain.
On the other hand, a brilliant treaty ending the war gave us victory over the world’s greatest empire and secured a huge, rich land all the way to the Mississippi River, making us bigger geographically than most of Europe. It was the promise of that wealth to the west that drove many to create a nation out of disparate states.
In fact, it was that issue of sovereignty that was the flashpoint of conflict between the nationalists and the states-righters. How much power to the federal government and how much to the states? The issue has not been resolved even today.
Representation in the national legislature was another tough nut to crack, resulting in a popularly elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate with each state getting two senators. This was the great compromise between small and large states.
And slavery. It is never mentioned in the Constitution but was the huge, ugly elephant in the hall. This issue was decided only later, with the Civil War and crucial amendments to the Constitution.
Oh, it was a magnificent time in hindsight. Those men in that hall in Philadelphia would be astounded that the nation and the Constitution have lasted so many decades and centuries and will likely last for many more. At the time, though, those men sweltered and argued, got up and left for home and then came back, continued their debates over tankards of spirits at night and spiraled around tiny details and weighty truths. That document barely survived the battles, but lives on with reverence today.