« PreviousContinue »
MR. MADISON AGAIN IN THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION — SLAVERY
COMPROMISES – THE CONSTITUTION.
ROM 1785 to 1789, Mr. Madison devoted much
of his time to speculations on government, in investigating the histories and remains of ancient political systems which were republics or approached nearly that form which the people of America could embrace. Among his writings are quite extensive notes on this subject, not only including extinct republics, but also many of the existing governments of Europe. Without the examples of successful and noticeable republics then in operation from which to copy, it did become a matter of deep concern to the framers of this Government as to what should be its main permanent features. As it was clear that unrestrained democracy was not the way to national or personal prosperity, it was a matter of supreme interest and great difficulty to decide what standards of authority could and should be erected in the organic laws and methods of a government founded on principles of just liberty and right alike to all men. While this state of circumstances in America at that period, may present an apology for such researches, it must now occur to the man of most ordinary spirit and understanding as an unsatisfactory, if not trifling way of reaching the condition and needs of the people of this country. Mr. Madison was not alone in this far-fetched kind of speculation. Many of the leaders of his time pursued the same course. One of the hardest things in the life of John Adams to be reconciled to the existence of an exalted judgment and sense of the fitness and value of things, was his work of quoting the records of old European governments in his printed volumes designed especially to convince the Americans that they should accept the Constitution for the establishment of a system mainly unlike any of them, and designed for an age and a people wholly unlike any other that ever had existed. This performance on the part of Mr. Adams caused him to lose some votes for the Vice-Presidency, at least. It was no wonder.
Of this very work, on the “ Constitutions of the American States,” Mr. Madison made the following comment in a letter to Mr. Jefferson dated June 6, 1787, at Philadelphia :
“Mr. Adams's book, which has been in your hands, of course, has excited a good deal of attention. An edition has come out here, and another is in the press at New York. It will probably be much read, particularly in the Eastern States, and contribute, with other circumstances, to revive the predilections of this country for the British Constitution. Men of learning find nothing new in it; men of taste many things to criticise ; and men without either, not a few things which they will not understand. It will, nevertheless, be read and praised, and become a powerful engine in forming the public opinion. The name and character of the author, with the critical situation of our affairs, naturally account for such an effort. The book also has merit, and I wish many of the remarks in it which are unfriendly to republicanism may not receive fresh weight from the operations of our governments."
But as may be seen in a former volume of this work, Mr. Jefferson had already passed a favorable judgment on the “ Defense of the American Constitutions” of Mr. Adams, and could not recall it; and the least praiseworthy parts of it Mr. Madison had not yet examined. Both of their criticisms applied to the first volume only.
Finally the day arrived for the meeting of the Convention at Philadelphia, May 14, 1787, and in the mean time Dr. James McClung had been substituted in the Virginia delegation for Patrick Henry, who could not or would not attend. After two weeks of anxious waiting for the arrival of delegates, Mr. Madison wrote as follows to Edmund Pendleton :
“PHILADELPHIA, May 27, 1787. “ DEAR SIR,-I have put off, from day to day, writing to my friends from this place, in hopes of being able to say something of the Convention. Contrary to every previous calculation, the bare quorum of seven States was not made up till the day before yesterday. The States composing it are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Individual members are here from Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia, and our intelligence promises a complete addition of the first and last, as also of Connecticut, by to-morrow. General Washington was called to the chair by a unanimous voice, and has accepted it. The secretary is a Major Jackson. This is all that has yet been done, except the appointment of a committee for preparing the rules by which the Convention is to be governed in its proceedings. A few days will now furnish some data for calculating the probable result of the meeting. In general, the members seem to accord in viewing our situation as peculiarly critical, and on being averse to temporizing expedients. I wish they may as readily agree when particulars are brought forward. Congress are reduced to five or six States, and are not likely to do any thing during the term of the Convention.
“A packet has lately arrived from France, but brings no news.
“I learnt with great pleasure, by the Governor, that you continued to enjoy a comfortable degree of health, and heartily wish this may find it still further confirmed ; being, with sincere affection and the highest esteem,
Your obed't friend and serv.”.
The Virginia delegates all entered the Convention favorable to the plan of thoroughly reorganizing the Union, of devising a system of government which would give stability and peace to the country. On some points, however, and especially pertaining to the Executive, Mr. Madison had no very definite ideas, not even at the day on which the Convention began to assemble. Indeed, he approached the whole matter with considerable timidity, and without boldly formed opinions.
But notwithstanding the final success, mainly, of the Randolph or Virginia plan, Mr. Randolph became offended and withdrew from the Convention
Mason would not sign; McClung and Wythe, who would have signed, were taken away by personal and family matters; and so only the names of Washington, Madison, and Blair, from Virginia, were attached to the Constitution. Perhaps no man in the Convention, more earnestly desired to see the adoption of a strong, firm, just republic than did General Washington. In a letter to Mr. Jay in the previous autumn he had said:
“We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calcu. lated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can long exist as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union, in as energetic a manner as the authority of the State governments extends over the several States."
To Mr. Madison he wrote:
“I confess that my opinion of public virtue is so far changed that I have my doubts whether any system, without the means of coercion in the sovereign, will enforce due obedience to the ordinances of a general government, without which every thing else fails."
Mr. Madison had freely committed his views to Mr. Jefferson, and others as before mentioned, and now he had the gratification of seeing them presented in an elaborate form, and become the basis of all the discussions in the Convention, and finally of the Constitution itself.
Mr. Madison's proposition for a negative was afterward a source of no little annoyance to him and his friends, but located finally in the Executive and the Supreme Court it became a fortunate and wise feature of our system, controlling the extravagant and evil acts of the legislative department.
No point in the Virginia or Madison plan was more assailed than this one of establishing a power of negation and veto somewhere in the government, and none more required jealous watchfulness. Yet it was the grandest conception in the plan, and the most statesmanlike of all Mr. Madison's principles. This negative power was attached to the entire American system, in the individual States, as well as in the General Government, and although it can not be maintained that it is always safe in either the Executive or the Judiciary, and that the results are always wise and just, it is still one of the most refined and admirable provisions in the polity of the Republic, meriting the praise of men worthy of being called statesmen in other less fortunate countries.
The great timidity with which the States embraced the purposes of the Convention may be sufficiently apparent in the fact that not until eleven days after the day for the assembling was a quorum of seven States formed. Then, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, and New Hampshire appeared in the order