The Right's propagandists never take note of that quote from Madison. Nor do they explain to their followers the broader context of the Constitutional Convention and why Madison and Washington were so determined to scrap the Articles of Confederation.
General Washington had strong personal reasons for hating the Articles of Confederation, which had allowed the 13 "independent" states to renege on their financial commitments to the Continental Army. Not only did Washington have to watch his troops suffer, but he put down an incipient mutiny against Congress which might have drastically changed the course of U.S. history.
After the war, Washington also was frustrated by the lack of national cooperation under the Articles, undermining economic reconstruction. Washington, like other Founders, had invested in undeveloped land to the west and recognized the necessity to build canals and roads for reaching this territory and making it more valuable.
In 1785, Washington established the Potowmack Company, which began digging canals to extend navigable waterways westward along the Potomac River. But these efforts were hampered by the national disorganization under the Articles of Confederation.
The Commerce Clause
At first, Madison sought to amend the Articles to give the central government power over national commerce. Washington strongly supported this move, writing:
"The proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure. We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be."
But Madison's amendment failed, leading him to envision a more radical strategy for junking the Articles altogether. Again working with Washington, Madison put this new governing structure before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
Meeting in secret, supposedly just to consider amendments to the Articles, the delegates instead debated replacing the Articles with a new Constitution, a move that represented the most significant shift in authority from the states to the central government in U.S. history. Madison's Commerce Clause also was back in play.
On May 29, 1787, the first day of the Convention's substantive debate, Virginian Edmund Randolph presented Madison's framework. Madison's convention notes quote Randolph as saying...
"There were many advantages, which the U. S. might acquire, which were not attainable under the confederation -- such as a productive impost [or tax] -- counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations -- pushing of commerce ad libitum -- &c &c."
In other words, the Founders -- at their most "originalist" moment -- understood the value of the federal government taking action to negate the commercial advantages of other countries and to take steps for "pushing of [American] commerce." The "ad libitum -- &c &c" notation suggests that Randolph provided other examples off the top of his head.
Historian Bill Chapman has summarized Randolph's point as saying "we needed a government that could co-ordinate commerce in order to compete effectively with other nations."
So, from the very start of the debate on a new Constitution, Madison and other key Framers recognized that a legitimate role of the central government was to ensure that the nation could match up against other countries economically and could address problems impeding the nation's economic success.
The Framers also knew what they were doing. As historian Richard Labunski wrote in James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, "no one knew better than the delegates that the proposed Constitution would drastically alter the structure of government. Much of the power of the states would be taken from them."
The point also was not missed by the advocates of states' rights. After the Constitutional Convention disclosed its new plan, Anti-Federalists, led by Virginia's Patrick Henry, mounted a fierce campaign to defeat Madison's scheme because they recognized that it concentrated power in the central government.
For instance, dissidents from Pennsylvania's convention delegation wrote: "We dissent ... because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government." [See David Wootton, The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.]