- Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution by Jeff Broadwater, and: The Framers' Intentions: The Myth of the Nonpartisan Constitution by Robert E. Ross
Amid the spiraling political chaos that defined 2017–2019, Americans found themselves living though a seminar on the U.S. Constitution. Some days the topic was familiar-sounding if not fully or easily comprehended: impeachment, for example, or the separation of powers. Other days brought revelations. The 25th amendment, it turns out, has a very important Section 4. Many Americans heard for the first time about the previously archaic but suddenly relevant "emoluments" clause. The learning curve has been steep and made more challenging by the popular seduction of "originalism." Besides that folly, there has been a surfeit of mendacity. The pressures on our framework of government grew so intense that learned and measured people—historians, constitutional scholars, journalists, diplomats, and political scientists—judiciously began to warn the public of looming constitutional crises. Where it all will end, and how much longer the governmental design conceived 233 years ago will endure, is anyone's guess.
Revisiting where it all began offers some insights and, if one squints, a bit of comfort. In Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution, Jeff Broadwater tells a complicated story with clarity and elegance. He weaves together the personal experiences and intellectual journeys of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to reveal strong connections between the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Jefferson/Madison vision for the federal government in action, which Broadwater calls small-government nationalism. Broadwater emphasizes evolving consistency: Jefferson and Madison are always learning and adjusting but never abandoning their fundamental convictions about just government.
Broadwater presents sophisticated and clear analyses of the two men's writings that scholars would expect, including Jefferson's "Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774); Madison's "Vices of the [End Page 561] Political System of the United States" (1787); their joint work on disestablishment in Virginia; and their long correspondence on constitutional matters. Broadwater also finds space to discuss the impact of the two lifelong friends' shared Virginia background, Jefferson's family troubles and his international travels, Madison's hypochondria and his frustrations in the Confederation Congress and the Virginia legislature, and how they interacted with and were influenced by other leading members of the founding generation. It is an impressive writing feat.
There are, understandably, challenges to the design of the work. Jefferson figures more prominently in the early parts of the book. Broadwater tries to keep him in focus through the ratification of the Bill of Rights, but this grows strained in places, most noticeably in the sections focused on 1787–1789. Then, of course, the story centers on Madison, and Jefferson is absent or reactive and generally less influential than Broadwater suggests.
Throughout the book, Broadwater skillfully reveals for the reader the myriad specific influences that culminated in Madison's various innovations in the Constitution. Madison's struggles with Patrick Henry in the Virginia legislature and the persistent parochialism he endured in the Confederation Congress shaped his views on representation. Efforts at creating a constitution for Virginia influenced his vision of ratification. Searching for a plan for Kentucky propelled his convictions about western lands. Broadwater mines to particularly strong effect Madison's advice to his former Princeton classmate Caleb Wallace regarding Kentucky statehood.
While Broadwater explains Jefferson and Madison's interactions with a host of contemporaries—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph—there is less of George Washington than one might expect. Washington is mentioned only once in the chapter on the 1787 Philadelphia convention; while Washington's practical contributions were minimal, his friendship with Madison and his influence across the country mattered deeply. Such quibbles aside, Broadwater brilliantly balances familiar stories with fresh ideas. He knows just when to use a brisk pace...