The Father of American Politics

James Madison’s role in drafting the Constitution is well-known. His role as a media-savvy party activist is not.

James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution, reflecting his role in planning, writing and ratifying the nation’s fundamental law. This should be his month: The Constitutional Convention, where he starred, finished the document in September 1787. And Congress sent the amendments that became the Bill of Rights—which Madison also played a major role in shaping—to the states in September 1789.

But Madison has another claim on our attention. He is the father of American politics as we know it.

Madison helped establish America’s first political party, the Republicans. In 1791, as a representative from Virginia, he joined Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson on a trip through upstate New York and New England, supposedly collecting biological specimens for the American Philosophical Society but actually collecting political allies for themselves. The politician they wished to combat, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, already wielded great power through his office, and hence he was somewhat slower to organize a party; when he did, it took the name Federalists.

James Madison, the fourth U.S. president

Madison and Jefferson built better than Hamilton: the Federalists disappeared as a national party in 1816, while the old Republicans march on today as the Democrats. (The modern GOP is an unrelated organization established in 1854.)

Madison helped found the first party newspaper, the National Gazette. (The Nation, The New Republic and National Review are latter-day reincarnations.) He recruited the paper’s first editor, Philip Freneau, a versifier and college chum. Jefferson gave Freneau a nominal job as a translator in the State Department and in his free time Freneau smacked Hamilton in prose.

Madison’s interest in newspapers flowed from his interest in the power of public opinion. “Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments,” he wrote in a December, 1791 National Gazette essay,
“. . . a circulation of newspapers throughout the entire body of the people . . . is favorable to liberty.” Then “every good citizen will be . . . a sentinel over the rights of the people.”

Drowning in both media and poll data today, we understand the importance of regularly measuring public opinion. But in the early republic consulting public opinion was a new concept.

The Federalists had little use for it. They thought the people should rule at the polls, then let the victors do their best until the next election. Madison foresaw, and applauded, our world of 24/7 news, comment and pulse-taking before it existed.

Madison belonged to an early form of the political machine, the dynasty. America had revolted against George III and the House of Hanover, but the dynastic temptation lingered on. Federalist John Adams, our second president, saw his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, become the sixth president. But the Adamses were unpopular one-termers. Between them stretched the Virginia Dynasty—two terms of Jefferson, two terms of Madison, two terms of James Monroe—24 years of government by friends and neighbors.

The Adamses—and the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons in our day—had dynasties of blood and marriage. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe made a dynasty of ideological brotherhood.

Not that Madison ignored the political importance of marriage. After an unhappy courtship in his early 30s, he left romance alone until he was 43, when he married a pretty widow, Dolley Payne Todd. When Madison took office as Secretary of State (in 1801) and as president in 1809, Dolley Madison became more than a hostess. She was a political wife, America’s first: half a campaign tag-team, and often the better half. Gregarious and outgoing, she completed her husband’s personality, which was shy and stiff except with intimates.

Martha Washington, the first First Lady, was beloved but domestic; Abigail Adams, the second, was political but abrasive. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, was a widower. As one U.S. senator put it, only Madison had “a wife to aid in his pretensions.”

Madison succeeded as a political innovator because he was good at politics. He did what came naturally to him: agenda-setting, committee work, parliamentary maneuvering. He grew up in a family as large as an oyster bed—six siblings who survived childhood, numerous nieces, nephews and cousins—good training for a future legislator.

He worked at what didn’t come naturally: public speaking and campaigning. His voice was weak; time and again, note-takers at debates he participated in (such as in Virginia’s convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution) left blanks in his remarks or simply gave up, because Mr. Madison “could not be distinctly heard.” Yet when circumstances required it, he took on the flamboyant Patrick Henry and once tangled with his friend Monroe in the open air of a snow storm so bitter he got frost bite on his nose. He won both debates.

Madison played well with others. He worked with George Washington, profiting from his charisma and judgment, and before they fell out with Hamilton, profiting from his exuberance. (Hamilton tapped Madison to contribute to the Federalist Papers, which was initially Hamilton’s project; Madison wrote 29 of the 85 essays.) As president, he learned something about money and the world from his Treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. He was a great man who was not afraid of assisting or deferring to other great men (another legacy of his tight family life). He also worked with the less-than-great: hatchetmen, gossips, wire-pullers. They do the work of politics too. They are part of the game.

James Madison helped build a republic. He was also an ambitious party activist who counted votes, stumped, spoke, scratched backs and (when necessary) stabbed them. He would not be afraid of the contrast, for his deepest thinking told him that the architects of liberty had to understand and sometimes use the ordinary political materials of ambition and self-advancement to ensure that this republic would endure.

Mr. Brookhiser is the author, most recently, of “Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement” (Basic Books, 2009).

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