James Madison, our fourth president, is better known as the Father of the Constitution, a title that should be especially familiar to Philadelphians. In Signers' Hall at the National Constitution Center, a bronze Madison stands, all five feet of him, at the right hand of George Washington as he is about to sign the document.
But Madison had another child that Americans know well, especially as the presidential election cycle swings toward the Iowa-New Hampshire madhouse: Madison was the Father of Politics. He invented many of the political institutions we live with, and he foresaw the shape of politics to come more clearly than any of his fellow founders.
Madison's constitutional role came first. The son of a Virginia planter, he spent the Revolutionary War and its aftermath in state and national government, where he experienced failure and dysfunction firsthand. In 1786, he maneuvered a conference on interstate commerce in Annapolis, Md., into a call for a Constitutional Convention. When the convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison attended every session, from May to September, speaking more than almost anyone else, and keeping notes of every motion and speech.
After the Constitution went to the states for approval, Madison led the fight for ratification in Virginia, then the nation's largest state. He was also a key player in New York, where he wrote a series of pro-Constitution op-eds for local newspapers along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay; today they're known as the Federalist Papers. And in 1789, Madison, then a congressman, shepherded the Bill of Rights through the House.
Madison was more than just busy; he was intellectually creative. Throughout history, most republics had been city-states, and theorists argued that citizen oversight could work only in small communities. If that was true, it was bad news for the United States, which already stretched from Maine to Georgia in Madison's day. But in Federalist No. 10, Madison made a new argument: that republican government would be more stable in a big country, because selfish factions would find it harder to seize power over an "extend[ed] sphere."
The new Constitution was an elaborate contraption, with a president, a judiciary, and two houses of Congress coexisting with 13 states. In Federalist No. 51, Madison embraced the resulting gridlock. The "interior structure" of the government ensured that the different branches would "keep . . . each other in their proper places," he wrote. Ambitious men would always seek to amass power; that was human nature. But under the Constitution, "ambition" would "counteract ambition."
Madison's contributions to politics began in the early 1790s. The Constitution was up and running, and he and his friends were running the show: Washington was president, Hamilton was treasury secretary, and Thomas Jefferson was secretary of state. They began to fall out, however, over Hamilton's financial program.
Hamilton thought he was building American prosperity; Madison thought Hamilton was enriching his banker cronies. The details aren't important. What is important is what Madison did to fight Hamilton: With Jefferson, he created the first modern political party.
In the summer of 1791, Madison and Jefferson took a trip to New York and New England, supposedly to relax, but actually to touch base with Northerners who disliked Hamilton as much as they did. The next year, Madison christened the new alliance the Republican Party. Forty years later, it changed its name to the Democratic Party. (The modern Republican Party dates to the mid-19th century.)
Madison also helped found the first partisan newspaper, the National Gazette. He supplied its editor, a former college classmate of his named Philip Freneau, and Jefferson gave him a nominal job at the State Department. In his free time, Freneau thwacked Hamilton and Washington (who called him "that rascal Freneau"). Today's opinion journalists, political bloggers, and TV yakkers all descend from him.
Madison's wife, Dolley, became the first political wife. A stylish extrovert, she compensated for her husband's shyness. As one senator wrote, Madison could make a "generous display" of D.C. dinner parties because he had "a wife to aid in his pretensions."
Madison the theorist justified what Madison the pol was doing. A big country and a complex government, he decided, were not sufficient obstacles to the Hamiltons of this world. Public opinion had to be mobilized to stop them. "Every good citizen" had to become "a sentinel over the rights of the people," he said. The people did not just rule through the ballot box on election day; they had to be consulted at all times.
The world Madison helped create has its problems. Consultation blends seamlessly into manipulation. Lobbyists and pressure groups pitch in. As media proliferate, the national conversation metastasizes from newspaper essays to the 24/7 shout fests of today.
Madison would take it all in stride. The Constitution is the rules; politics is the game. Wherever we look, high or low, we can see Madison's fingerprints.