- “James Madison Problems”: Three New Works
James Madison, U.S Constitution, Constitutional Convention, Public opinion, Republicanism, Federalist
The long-running debate over what Gordon Wood called the “James Madison problem” centers largely around the status of public opinion in Madison’s thought: whether, in other words, it was to be regarded as an object of concern or a salutary force, whether Madison changed his mind on that question between helping to frame the constitutional order and serving within it and, finally, whether, if he did so, his motives were opportunistic.1 More recent scholarship on Madison has sought strands of consistency that transcend Wood’s problem.2 Still, the theoretical [End Page 805] standing of public opinion remains challenging terrain for interpreters of Madison. Of course, that Madison’s thought might have evolved need not scandalize, but if it did change, it would be helpful to understand exactly how and why. Three new books help to shed light on that question, among others.
Colleen Sheehan’s The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism exegetes his “Notes on Government,” uncovering the classical roots of what she argues was his belief, at least as of 1791, in a regime that helps to give public opinion shape. Jeremy Bailey’s James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection is a wide-ranging and often surprising exploration of several untreated aspects of Madison’s thought, including his alliance with Thomas Jefferson and what Bailey sees as his use of public opinion to complete the constitutional project. Finally, Mary Sarah Bilder’s Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention asserts that Madison’s Notes of the Philadelphia convention as we have them today are the product of a lifelong modification designed to shape public opinion, largely public perceptions of Madison himself.
These works come amid a recent renewal of historiographical interest in Madison, including a spate of biographies from Lynne Cheney, Jeff Broadwater, and Kevin R. C. Gutzman, among others. Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s definitive Madison and Jefferson has plumbed new depths of the Founding’s most enduring intellectual and political partnership.3 These, combined with the University of Virginia’s publication of the first in a projected seven volumes of Madison’s content-rich retirement papers, have stoked new interest in the Virginia scholar–statesman. This trio of new books from Sheehan, Bailey, and Bilder are turning that interest back toward his political thought.
Sheehan sees the “intellectual journey” of the “Notes” as “a retrieval of the ancient quest to vindicate republican government” (13). Madison’s guide on the journey is Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, the French author of Voyage of Anacharsis, which Jefferson sent to Madison on the eight-volume work’s publication in 1789. Sheehan suggests that Madison regarded the ancient and modern solutions to the internal stability of [End Page 806] republics—the former as the education of public opinion via singular institution, the latter taming it with institutional arrangements and self-interest—as something of a false dichotomy. “In carefully investigating the various influences on government and, particularly, the powerful effect of public opinion on the operations of government in an extensive, federal republic, Madison believed he had discovered a way in which the safety and the liberty of citizens, including their participation in the active sovereignty of the regime, could be achieved” (17).
The key to this is communication. Thus in the “Notes,” Madison, reflecting on the problem of size, counsels that a republic cannot be too small—because, as he had noted in Federalist 10, it would be consumed by faction—but also not too large, because public opinion could not form. Devices that facilitate communication—roads, newspapers, commerce, and the like—counter the otherwise diluting effect of territorial sprawl. This public opinion, in Sheehan’s...