A diminutive, persuasive Virginian hijacked the Constitutional Convention and forced the moderates to accept a national government with vastly expanded powers
On May 5, 1787, James Madison arrived in Philadelphia. He was a diminutive young Virginian—about five feet three inches tall, 130 pounds, 36 years old—who, it so happened, had thought more deeply about the political problems posed by the current government under the Articles of Confederation than any other American.
Madison had concluded that the loose confederation of states was about to collapse, that the full promise of the American Revolution—liberty and order in an independent American nation—was about to be lost, and that only the wholesale replacement of the feeble authority of the Articles by a central government of vastly expanded, truly national powers could rescue the infant republic from anarchy, possible civil and petty interstate war, and the likely return of predatory European powers to American soil. He was poised to make that case to the other delegates gathering in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, most of whom were moderates who presumed they were there to reform the Articles, whereas Madison was one of the radical minority that regarded the Articles as beyond repair and wished to replace them altogether.
He quickly discovered that he was the beneficiary of two pieces of good luck. The first was that the leading member of the Virginia delegation—none other than George Washington—agreed with his political diagnosis. “The situation of the General Government (if it can be called a government) is shaken to its foundations,” Washington declared upon his arrival in Philadelphia. “In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy and confusion will inevitably ensue.”
Madison’s second stroke of good fortune was that the entire Virginia delegation had arrived on time, while the other state delegations took three weeks to gather and create a quorum. This meant that Madison enjoyed a providential interval during which he could lobby his fellow Virginians about the acute character of the political crisis and the radical reforms necessary to avert it.
There are no records of the many conversations that occurred in the boarding houses and taverns between May 5 and May 29, when the Constitutional Congress officially assembled. But going by the document that emerged from these deliberations—known as the Virginia Plan—Madison most probably conducted a nonstop seminar. He had all the information at his fingertips: the sorry history of all European confederacies; the abject failure of the state governments to maintain fiscal discipline; the inability of the Confederation Congress to raise revenue to pay off debts incurred during the war; the lack of any coherent foreign policy.
All of these concerns resulted in the fifteen-point plan, which recommended a fully empowered central government consisting of three branches—executive, legislative, and judicial. In effect it posited the wholesale replacement of a confederation where sovereignty resided in the states by a truly national government. Madison pushed hard for a provision that gave the new federal government a veto over state laws, but Edmund Randolph and George Mason insisted on softening this bold assertion of federal power with more ambiguous language. As a result, when the Constitutional Convention officially assembled on May 29, Madison’s extraordinary diligence enabled the Virginia delegation to seize the initiative. No one on the moderate side of the argument had come to Philadelphia with equivalently clear proposals for a simple tinkering with the Articles, so the radical agenda embodied in the Virginia Plan commanded the field by default.
From the moderate point of view, and even more so from that of those delegates who opposed any reform of the Articles, Madison’s maneuvers behind the scenes represented an orchestrated coup de main, a remarkably deft hijacking of the debate by a minority of radical nationalists. Over the next three months Madison was forced into repeated compromises. His proposal for a federal power to override state laws never gained any traction. And his insistence that both branches of the legislature be based on population was rejected in favor of a state-based Senate and population-based House. Madison took both of these defeats hard, and when the convention adjourned, he departed Philadelphia fearful that the final document would prove inadequate to sustain the United States as a coherent union.
He was wrong about that, at least until 1861, when the core question of federal against state sovereignty became necessary to resolve on the battlefield. But by defining the terms of the debate with his Virginia colleagues in late May of 1787, Madison had established a framework that placed advocates of modest reform on the defensive throughout the convention, and thereby made some kind of consolidated American nation not only possible but likely.
In retrospect, the most important conversations that occurred during that sweltering summer took place before the delegates convened. This was “little Jemmy Madison’s” most influential and consequential moment, because it defined the terms of the debate in collective terms that made the federal government a supportive embodiment of “us,” or “We the People,” rather than an alien embodiment of “them.”
Madison had almost 50 years of public service before him, to include the secretaryship of state under Thomas Jefferson and the presidency in his own right. His constitutional posture shifted on several occasions over those years, and he had the misfortune to be the only sitting president to have the national capital laid waste by invaders’ fire during his tenure. Life during the most formative phase of a nation’s identity, especially political life at the highest level, is always hard. But looking back, with all the advantages of hindsight, we can say without much doubt that May 1787 was Madison’s finest hour.