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The Right's Dubious Claim to Madison

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Source: Consortium News

James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth President of the United States.

By asserting a connection to America's First Principles, the Tea Party is forcing a reexamination of the early years of the Republic and a reconsideration of what the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intended.

That debate may be useful even if the Tea Party's chief motivation in provoking it is simply a "rebranding" that recognizes that the image of white people waving the "Stars and Bars" and seeking "states' rights" to disenfranchise black and brown people has a negative connotation for many modern Americans.

Substantively, however, nothing has changed in this rebranding. There's the same animosity that the Confederates felt toward President Abraham Lincoln and the Union when the South's beloved institution of slavery was threatened. Only now the neo-Confederates are expressing their hatred for President Barack Obama and the federal government for advocating programs -- like voting rights, immigration reform, food stamps and guaranteed health care -- that are viewed by the predominantly white Tea Party as disproportionately aiding racial and ethnic minorities. So, to present a more palatable image, today's Right has dialed back the time machine from 1860 to 1776, trading in the Confederate flag for the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag with its coiled snake and "Don't Tread on Me" motto, except with the federal government replacing the British monarchy as the source of "tyranny."

But instead of referencing the precedent of the Confederacy's secession from the Union in defense of "states' rights" and slavery, the Tea Party and today's Right are asserting that they simply want to restore the original vision of America's Founding, which they insist is not much different from the argument that the Confederates were making in 1860.

To that end, the Right has invested heavily in "scholarship" that seeks to present the Framers as essentially pre-Confederates who believed strongly in "states' rights" and wanted a weak central government. However, that "history," in turn, requires slanting the evidence and kidnapping of one key Founder in particular.

Madison as Flip-Flopper

At the center of today's ideological struggle over the Founding era is James Madison, a chief architect of the U.S. Constitution when he was essentially a protege of George Washington in the 1780s. But Madison was also a practical politician who drifted -- in the 1790s and later -- into the orbit of his central Virginia neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, who led bitter fights against Washington's Federalists and especially Alexander Hamilton.

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This ambivalence of Madison -- as central to Washington's vision of a strong central government yet his later realignment with Jefferson's fierce loyalty to Virginia and its interests -- makes him a perfect candidate for the Right's rewriting of the narrative surrounding the Constitution. The earlier Madison who sided with Washington on centralizing government power can be blurred with the later Madison who supported Jefferson in defending Virginia's regional interests, particularly its investment in slavery.

In this regard, Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg's Madison and Jefferson offers some valuable insights into the history of the era and the political collaboration between these two important Founders. Unlike many histories that glorify Jefferson in particular, this book, published in 2010, provides a fairly objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the two leaders.

Perhaps the authors' most significant observation is that Jefferson and Madison must be understood as, first and foremost, politicians representing the interests of their constituencies in Virginia where the two men lived nearby each other on plantations worked by African-American slaves, Jefferson at Monticello and Madison at Montpelier.

"It is hard for most to think of Madison and Jefferson and admit that they were Virginians first, Americans second," Burstein and Isenberg note...

"But this fact seems beyond dispute. Virginians felt they had to act to protect the interests of the Old Dominion, or else, before long, they would become marginalized by a northern-dominated economy.

"Virginians who thought in terms of the profit to be reaped in land were often reluctant to invest in manufacturing enterprises. The real tragedy is that they chose to speculate in slaves rather than in textile factories and iron works. ... And so as Virginians tied their fortunes to the land, they failed to extricate themselves from a way of life that was limited in outlook and produced only resistance to economic development."

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Not only was Virginia's agriculture tied to the institution of slavery but after the Constitution banned the importation of slaves in 1808, Virginia developed a new industry, the breeding of slaves for sale to new states forming in the west.

The Virginia Dynasty

In that way, the so-called Virginia Dynasty over the presidency that ran consecutively from Jefferson in 1801 through Madison starting in 1809 and James Monroe ending in 1825 -- defended the interests of the South's slaveholders in part by constraining the role of the federal government in building the young nation's industrial strength and its financial development.

It had been a fear among Southern politicians from the earliest days of American independence that a strong federal government would eventually eradicate slavery. So, it was a Southern imperative -- carried forward by the Virginia Dynasty -- to limit that power even though Madison had been instrumental in centralizing it.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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In it, I learned more about Thomas Jefferson than ... by Daniel Penisten on Monday, Jun 24, 2013 at 8:50:13 PM