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Reviewed by:
  • The Papers of James Madison ed. by David B. Mattern, et al.
  • Greg Weiner (bio)
The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, volume 3
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016

James Madison’s retirement writings cover one of the most fruitful periods of his life, yet the Founder’s winter has produced only one [End Page 763] full-dress scholarly study—Drew R. McCoy’s The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy—and drawn a relatively limited range of discrete commentary, most recently from Jeremy D. Bailey’s James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection. The University of Virginia Press’s steady effort to publish his papers from this period, which reaches its third installment in this volume, covering March 1823 through February 1826, should provide ample fodder for further study by students of both American political thought and American history and culture. Spanning both theoretically incisive topics such as political parties and constitutional interpretation as well as historically rich events like the internal-improvements controversy and the founding of the University of Virginia, it has as its most striking feature the extent to which it shows Madison continuing to grapple—largely consistently—with the issues that preoccupied him throughout his active political life.

The more conventional understanding is that Madison the officeholder departed from the nationalist views of his founding youth under the pressures of partisan politics, only to return to them in his retirement, prompting Chief Justice John Marshall to remark in 1830 that “Mr. Madison is himself again” (Beveridge 557). Yet in this volume we find Madison the elder statesman still playing the partisan, writing in 1823 as he had in the National Gazette in the 1790s that the essential distinction between the early American political parties lay in a difference “in [their] confidence . . . in the capacity of Mankind for self-government” (58). We see the elder Madison still the unyielding proponent of separating church and state, so much so that he opposed a theology chair at the University of Virginia (16), a stance consistent with his earlier opposition to public funding for Christian religious instruction in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance and his opposition in the first House of Representatives to a congressional chaplain maintained at public expense. We see Madison reprising his turn as Publius, the pseudonymous author of The Federalist, reasserting the extended-republic theory of Federalist 10 as the best, indeed the only, reliable safeguard against majority abuses in a free society:

In Govts. where the will of the people prevails, the danger of injustice arises from the interest real or supposed which a majority may have in trespassing on that of the minority. This danger in small Republics has been conspicuous. The extent and peculiar structure of ours, are [End Page 764] the safeguards on which we must rely, and altho’ they may occasionally somewhat disappoint us, we have a consolation always in the greater abuses inseparable from Govts. less free; and in the hope also that the progress of political Science, and the lessons of experience will not be lost on the national Councils.


Similarly, he opposes unicameralism in an 1824 letter because it produces “laws passed under transient impulses, of which time & reflection call for a change” (394), just as in Federalist 63 he had said a function of a senate was temporarily to inhibit impulsive measures that “the people . . . themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn” (Carey 327).

In 1825, as the debate over internal improvements such as roads and canals that recurs in these pages continues, Madison returns to a theme that preoccupies much of his career, both preceding and following the period covered in this volume: the inevitability of majority rule. As president, a veto of an internal-improvements bill had been Madison’s last official act. He continued to support improvements on policy grounds but to oppose them constitutionally. In December 1825, he writes that mistakes in constitutional interpretation might arise from two sources: the government usurping powers against the public will or a majority of the public usurping...


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pp. 763-767
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