In spring 1787 -- with a convention called in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation -- Madison unveiled his radical alternative, not simply some modifications to the Articles but an entirely new system that wiped away the Articles' language about the "independence" and "sovereignty" of the states.
On May 29, 1787, the first day of substantive debate at the Constitutional Convention, a fellow Virginian, Edmund Randolph, presented Madison's framework. Madison's Commerce Clause was there from the start, except that instead of a 25-year grant of federal authority, the central government's control of interstate commerce would be made permanent.
Madison's convention notes on Randolph's presentation recount him saying that "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 U.S. Congress was to ensure that the nation could match up against other countries economically and could address problems impeding the nation's economic success and the public welfare.
The constitutional framers understood 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, these Anti-Federalists, led by Madison's chief rival 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.]
As resistance to Madison's plan spread -- and as states elected delegates to ratifying conventions -- Madison feared that his constitutional masterwork would go down to defeat or be subjected to a second convention that might remove important federal powers like the Commerce Clause.
Finessing the Opposition
So, Madison -- along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay -- began a series of essays, called the Federalist Papers, designed to counter the fierce (though generally accurate) attacks by the Anti-Federalists against the broad assertion of federal power in the Constitution.
Madison's strategy was essentially to insist that the drastic changes contained in the Constitution were not all that drastic, an approach he took both as a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention and in the Federalist Papers.
Today's Right has sought to transform Madison from his role as the chief advocate for a strong central government into the opposite -- a modern-day Tea Partier before his time -- by citing Federalist Paper No. 45, entitled "The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered," in which Madison used the pseudonym Publius.
Trying to finesse the opposition to his plan for enhanced federal powers, Madison wrote:
"If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS."
But even that was an admission from Madison that the Constitution added teeth to what had been toothless authorities theoretically granted to the central government under the Articles. Making powers meaningful, rather than ineffectual, is not an insignificant change.