"Building a case against the Articles of Confederation, [Madison] needed to explain why the United States was so ill equipped to accomplish the basic tasks of raising money, making treaties, and regulating commerce. By April 1787 he had a diagnosis in hand. He called it 'Vices of the Political System of the United States,' and it became his working manifesto, a summary view at the end of his first decade as a state and national politician.
"Chief among the vices Madison identified was the undue power lodged in the individual states. Having held a seat in Congress longer than anyone else (four years), he had come to feel that the Confederation was barely a government at all. Like most confederations, the U.S. system was a voluntary compact, a weak 'League of friendship' among the states, and subject to internal dissensions. It lacked executive and judicial components; it rarely if ever represented the collective will of the people. ...
"Madison saw little to be gained in rescuing the Confederation. It was a dysfunctional system, its flaws too ingrained for it to be made energetic or even stable. ... Moreover, the aggrandizing state legislatures of the 1780s resembled nothing so much as a group of rambunctious children refusing to play together fairly. ... Damning the states unmercifully, Madison found his solution in a centralizing government. "
"Madison explained his thinking to George Washington shortly before the Constitutional Convention was set to open. There was only one way to save the nation, he said. The states had to be made 'subordinately useful.'"
In Madison's original draft of the Constitution, the federal Congress would have even been given veto power over state legislation, a provision that eventually was dropped. However, the Constitution and federal law were still made the supreme laws of the land, and federal courts had the power to strike down state laws deemed unconstitutional.
Though not giving the federal government all the powers that Madison had wanted, the Constitution still represented a major shift of authority from the states to the central government. And, that transformation was not lost on the Anti-Federalists who struggled desperately to block ratification in 1788. [For more details, see Robert Parry's America's Stolen Narrative.]
The South's Fears
The battle against the Constitution and later against an energetic federal government -- the sort of nation-building especially envisioned by Washington and Hamilton -- emanated, in part, from the fears of many Southern plantation owners that eventually the national political system would move to outlaw slavery and thus negate their massive investment in human bondage.
Their thinking was that the stronger the federal government became the more likely it would act to impose a national judgment against the South's slavery. So, while the Southern argument was often couched in the rhetoric of "liberty," i.e. the rights of states to set their own rules, the underlying point was the maintenance of slavery, the "liberty" to own black people.
This dollars-and-cents reality was reflected in the debate at Virginia's 1788 convention to ratify the Constitution. Two of Virginia's most noted advocates for "liberty" and "rights" -- Patrick Henry and George Mason -- tried to rally opposition to the proposed Constitution by stoking the fears of white plantation owners.
Historians Burstein and Isenberg note that the chief argument advanced by Henry and Mason was that "slavery, the source of Virginia's tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected" and that this danger was exacerbated by the Constitution's granting the President, as commander in chief, the power to "federalize" state militias.
"Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for 'domestic safety' if there was no explicit protection for Virginians' slave property," Burstein and Isenberg wrote. "Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections -- the direct result, he believed, of Virginia's loss of authority over its own militia."
Henry floated conspiracy theories about possible subterfuges that the federal government might employ to take away black slaves from white Virginians. Describing this fear-mongering, Burstein and Isenberg wrote:
"Congress, if it wished, could draft every slave into the military and liberate them at the end of their service. If troop quotas were determined by population, and Virginia had over 200,000 slaves, Congress might say: 'Every black man must fight.' For that matter, a northern-controlled Congress might tax slavery out of existence.
"Mason and Henry both ignored the fact that the Constitution protected slavery on the strength of the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause. Their rationale was that none of this mattered if the North should have its way."
Madison, a principal architect of the new governing structure and a slave-owner himself, sought to finesse the Mason/Henry arguments by insisting, according to Burstein and Isenberg, that "the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never 'alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union' by stripping southerners of their property. 'Such an idea never entered into any American breast,' he said indignantly, 'nor do I believe it ever will.' "
"Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust "any man on earth' with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy."
Enter Thomas Jefferson