James Madison, "father of the Constitution" and fourth president of the United States
In recent decades, the American Right has sought to rewrite the founding narrative of the United States through selective "scholarship," by snatching a few quotes out of context and then relying on a vast propaganda machine (and much ignorance about U.S. history) to turn the Constitution inside out.
According to the Right's revisionist narrative, the framers of the Constitution met in Philadelphia for the purpose of tightly restricting the powers of the national government and broadly empowering the states -- when the actual intent of the Constitutional Convention was nearly the opposite.The Right has now popularized this bogus version of history so much that it has become a rallying cry for the Tea Party and other poorly informed Americans, including that self-proclaimed historian Newt Gingrich, who declared recently, "I believe in the Constitution; I believe in the Federalist Papers. Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy."
Yet, perhaps oddest of all, the Right has taken James Madison, one of the Constitutional Convention's strongest advocates for a powerful central government, and made him the new godfather for the state supremacy movement.
While it's true that Madison -- like many other Founders -- veered during his long career through conflicting positions regarding the precise powers of the central government, he went to Philadelphia in 1787 along with fellow Virginian George Washington and other national leaders with the intent of creating a strong and vibrant central government to replace the weak version under the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles had made the 13 original states supreme and independent, while bestowing few powers on the central government. Washington was among the fiercest critics of this system of state "sovereignty" because it had allowed states to renege on promises of money for the Continental Army, which left General Washington's men without pay, food and ammunition.
"Thirteen sovereignties," Washington had written, "pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole." [See Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia.]
Madison was of a similar mind. In 1781, as a member of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, he introduced a radical amendment that "would have required states that ignored their federal responsibilities or refused to be bound by decisions of Congress to be compelled to do so by use of the army or navy or by the seizure of exported goods," noted Chris DeRose in Founding Rivals. However, Madison's plan -- opposed by the powerful states -- went nowhere.
Similarly, Madison lamented how the variety of currencies issued by the 13 states and the lack of uniform standards on weights and measures impeded trade. Again, he looked futilely toward finding federal solutions to these state problems.
Changing the Government
So, after a decade of growing frustration and mounting crises under the Articles, a convention was called in Philadelphia in 1787 to modify them. Washington and Madison, however, had other ideas, pressing instead to scrap the Articles altogether in favor of a new constitutional structure that would invest broad powers in the central government and remove language on state sovereignty and independence.
As Washington presided over the convention, it fell to Madison to supply the framework for the new system. Madison's plan, which was presented by the Virginia delegation, called for a strong central government with clear dominance over the states. Madison's original plan even contained a provision to give Congress veto power over state decisions.
The broader point of the Constitutional Convention was that the United States must act as one nation, not a squabbling collection of states and regions. James Wilson from Pennsylvania reminded the delegates that "we must remember the language with which we began the Revolution: "Virginia is no more, Massachusetts is no more, Pennsylvania is no more. We are now one nation of brethren, we must bury all local interests and distinctions.'"
However, as the contentious convention wore on over the summer, Madison retreated from some of his more extreme positions. "Madison wanted the federal assembly to have a veto over the state assemblies," wrote David Wootton, author of The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. "Vetoes, however, are bad politics, and again and again they had to be abandoned in the course of turning drafts into agreed texts."
But Madison still pushed through a governing structure that bestowed important powers on the central government -- including the ability to tax, to print money, to control foreign policy, to conduct wars and to regulate interstate commerce.
Madison also came up with a plan for approving the Constitution that bypassed the state assemblies and instead called for special state conventions for ratification. He knew that if the Constitution went before the existing assemblies -- with the obvious diminution of their powers -- it wouldn't stand a chance to win the approval of the necessary nine states.