Skip to main content

The Last Of The Fathers

March 2023
1min read

James Madison and the Republican Legacy

by Drew R. McCoy; Cambridge University Press; 376 pages.

In 1772, when he was twenty-one, James Madison wrote, “My sensations for many months past have intimated to me not to expect a long or healthy life.” He glumly proclaimed himself “too dull and infirm now to look out for any extraordinary things in this world.” Yet the morbid young man went on to lead an indisputably extraordinary career as a framer of the Constitution, as a co-author of The Federalist Papers , and as a two-term President of the United States. After leaving office in 1817, Madison enjoyed a long and productive retirement until his death in 1836 at the age of eighty-five.

Drew R. McCoy focuses on this final period of Madison’s life, when the last surviving constitutional signer endeavored, in McCoy’s words, “to convey to a new generation the meaning of a Revolutionary past that was fast receding from memory.” The 1787 Constitution represented a bold experiment in government, but lax and self-serving interpretations of the founders’ original intent variously threatened to plunge the young republic into either tyranny or anarchy, as in the nullification crisis, which roused Madison from a long public silence in the late 1820s.

The nullifiers, a group contesting the federal government’s right to impose tariffs on imported goods, asserted the right of states to nullify federal laws they deemed unconstitutional and, if necessary, withdraw from the Union. Madison was horrified by this loose reading of the framers’ legacy, calling it “a preposterous and anarchical pretension” that could render the Constitution as impotent as the Articles of Confederation that had preceded it.

Using this and other issues, McCoy explores the theoretical framework for the elegant contrivance of checks and balances that Madison had helped put in motion. By the 1830s Madison’s undilutedly eighteenth-century political outlook had begun to look a bit antiquated to an industrializing, expanding, railroad-building nation. His non-ideological, somewhat mechanistic view of government occasionally put him into unusual positions: Madison detested slavery, but his unwaveringly strict interpretation of state prerogatives prevented him from advocating federal regulations limiting the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. Nevertheless, in his last years Madison played a crucial role in maintaining, in the midst of a period of growth and reassessment, the efficacy of a document that reflected the singular talent of his political mind, of “snatching order from the jaws of chaos.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "July/August 1989"

Authored by: The Editors

John Philip Sousa and his seventyfive-piece band were brought to town to celebrate the building’s opening.

Authored by: The Editors

James Madison and the Republican Legacy

Authored by: The Editors

Missionary for the Modern

Authored by: The Editors

Colonial Revivals and American Culture, 1876–1986

Authored by: The Editors

A Biography

Authored by: Garry Wills

When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.

Authored by: The Editors

The ubiquitous legacy of America’s favorite Frenchman

Authored by: John Kobler

In the years between the dedication of the Statue of Liberty and the First World War, the Divine Sarah was, for hundreds of thousands of Americans, the single most compelling embodiment of the French Republic

Authored by: Mark Jenkins

Remember the excitement of the 1924 Olympics in Chariots of Fire? That was nothing compared with what the U.S. rugby team did to the French at those games.

Authored by: Albert B. Stephenson

The Tin Lizzie carried us into the twentieth century, but she gave us a hell of a shaking along the way. Now a veteran driver tells what everybody knew and nobody bothered to write down.

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.