That is the context which today's Right misses when it cites Madison's comments in Federalist Paper No. 45, entitled "The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered," in which Madison, using the pseudonym Publius, sought to minimize what the Constitution would do. He 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.
"The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained. The powers relating to war and peace, armies and fleets, treaties and finance, with the other more considerable powers, are all vested in the existing Congress by the Articles of Confederation. The proposed change does not enlarge these powers; it only substitutes a more effectual mode of administering them."
Today's Right trumpets this essay and especially Madison's summation -- that "the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite" -- but the Right ignores what Madison was trying to accomplish with his essay. He was trying to defuse the opposition.
After all, if Madison really thought the Articles only needed some modest reform, why would he have insisted on throwing them out altogether along with their language about state "sovereignty" and "independence"?
Nor was it entirely accurate for Madison to suggest that replacing the federal government's toothless powers in the Articles with powers having real teeth in the Constitution was trivial. Under the Constitution, for instance, the printing of money became the exclusive purview of the federal government, not a minor change.
Madison also was a touch disingenuous when he dismissed the importance of the Commerce Clause, which gave the central government control over interstate commerce. Madison understood how important that federal authority was -- and he was determined to protect it. (Indeed, in modern times, the Commerce Clause has become perhaps the most controversial feature of the Constitution, serving as the foundation for federal activism ranging from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to Barack Obama's health-care reform.)
Madison, the Builder
To cite Madison as an opponent of an activist federal government, the Right must also ignore Federalist Paper No. 14 in which Madison envisioned major construction projects under the powers granted by the Commerce Clause. Madison wrote...
"[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements. Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.
"The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete."
What Madison is demonstrating in that essay is a core reality about the Founders -- that, by and large, they were practical men seeking to build a strong and unified nation.
Though the Right today plays games with notions of "originalism" and "strict construction" -- pretending that the Founders wanted to lock the United States into a world of the late Eighteenth Century -- the true "originalist" intent of the Constitution's framers was a forward-looking pragmatism.
They were concerned about addressing the many challenges of a sprawling nation in a world with many external and internal dangers, both for themselves and their posterity.
The Articles of Confederation -- with their emphasis on the states' powers -- weren't working, so Madison and the Constitutional Convention jettisoned that structure in favor of a system with a strong and energetic central government with the authority to build the young nation. They also made the new system flexible so it could respond to future, unanticipated problems as well.
In exalting this pragmatic approach, Hamilton mocked the Anti-Federalists who propounded fanciful notions of how the Constitution would lead the federal government to oppress the people. He wrote in Federalist Paper No. 31:
"The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal Government, we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning. Imagination may range at pleasure until it gets bewildered amid the labyrinths of an enchanted castle, and knows not on which side to turn to extricate itself from the perplexities into which it has so rashly adventured.
"Whatever may be the limits or modifications of the powers of the Union, it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers; and by indulging an excess of jealousy and timidity, we may bring ourselves to a state of absolute skepticism and irresolution."
Hamilton's comments could as readily be applied to today's Tea Party members who somehow see in federal regulation of the health-insurance industry or of investment banks nefarious assaults on the liberties of Americans. As the Tea Partiers dress up in Revolutionary War costumes, however, they are more representing the overheated alarms of the Anti-Federalists than the careful planning of the Constitution's framers.