Madison "sponsored a resolution instructing Virginia congressmen to vote to give the federal government the authority to regulate commerce for twenty-five years," wrote Chris DeRose in Founding Rivals.
Madison's resolution won the support of General Washington, who wrote to Madison, saying: "The [commerce] 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."
Though Madison's amendment failed, he kept the idea alive as part of a more drastic scheme to consolidate power in the hands of the federal government through a constitutional convention.
On Dec. 9, 1785, Madison wrote to fellow Virginian James Monroe that "It is more probable that the other idea of a convention of commissioners from the states for deliberating on the state of commerce and the degree of power which ought to be lodged in Congress, will be attempted." [See DeRose's Founding Rivals.]
Rewriting the Rules
When that day arrived 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 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 strength and welfare.
Through the hot summer of 1787, the Convention delegates debated Madison's plan, amid the give-and-take of compromise, reining in a few of Madison's most radical ideas. Contrary to the Right's current propaganda, Madison actually favored even a more powerful central government than the Convention eventually adopted.
Madison wanted Congress to have veto power over state laws, a provision that was dropped though federal statutes and treaties were made "the supreme law of the land" and thus federal courts could strike down state laws that were deemed in violation.
Despite some concessions, the Constitution emerged from the secret meetings in Philadelphia as a stunning assertion of federal power -- a reality not lost on some influential politicians who favored a continuation of the states' "independence" and "sovereignty" that were explicitly recognized by the Articles of Confederation, but which disappeared in the Constitution.
Anti-Federalists correctly recognized what had happened and soon rallied strong opposition to the new governing framework. As dissidents from the Pennsylvania 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."