James Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” But Madison’s ties to the U.S. Constitution go beyond the role he played at its birth. Jeff Broadwater, professor of history at Barton College, highlights Madison’s various constitutional roles in the book James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation. Broadwater discussed themes from that book during a conversation with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: That really is an important thing to know about James Madison, isn’t it? He was president, of course, played a key role with the Constitution, but then spent many more years dealing with that constitution. Is that something that people often forget?
Broadwater: I think we can forget it. Sometimes Madison’s role in the adoption of the Constitution overshadows his role as a party leader in the 1790s and his role as secretary of state and as president in the early 1800s. But, in those roles, the Constitution was very important to Madison. The great policy debates of the 1790s and early 1800s — many of them were disputes about constitutional law. And Madison thought that as a public official, he had a responsibility to try to follow the Constitution. He didn’t think that, for example, that he could simply defer to the courts, the way we’re more inclined to do nowadays.
Kokai: Let’s go back to that whole title, that label that we have of James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” In reading your book and others about Madison, it seems that he gets that title despite the fact that the Constitution didn’t really look the way he wanted it to look.
Broadwater: No. In many ways the Constitution was not the constitution he wanted, and if he’d had his way, we might not have had a constitution. Because, for one thing, he was very much opposed to the Great Compromise in which representation of the House is based on population and representation in the Senate was — the states were equal. He thought … representation in both houses of Congress should be based on population. He lost that battle.
But I think we can rightly call Madison the father of the Constitution because of the role he played in every step in the process, from getting the Constitutional Convention called to … supporting the Bill of Rights after the Constitution had been adopted, creating a consensus in support of the Constitution.
Kokai: One other thing that’s interesting about Madison is that people who have looked at his record and the things that he believed seem to find a lot of discrepancies. At some point he was for a national government — stronger national government — at other times he said, “Wait a minute. The national government is doing too much.”
Kokai: And then we he got to be president, he liked having a big national government again. What do you think about his stance on whether the U.S. should have a strong national government, and did he change much over the years?
Broadwater: I think he did change. Historians sometimes refer to the “Madison problem,” trying to explain this change. But I think there were two things going on. I think one thing is that Madison saw, during the debate over the Constitution and during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, that people did not want as strong a central government as he had originally wanted. And he accepted that. So I think that’s one reason, one thing that explains Madison’s apparent change of heart.
And I think the other thing is that Madison wanted to try to avoid going to extremes. And I think in the 1780s he thought that central government under the Articles of Confederation was much too weak. So he wanted a stronger government. In the 1790s he gets concerned that the federal government may be becoming too powerful, and so he wants to move again back to the center. So I think there are a couple of things going on that explain Madison’s change of position. But I think there was a fundamental consistency, or at least integrity, in the positions he took.
Kokai: Now one might say, based on the answer you just gave, that perhaps Madison, despite having some very strong beliefs and an ideology informing what he did, still had some political acumen …
Broadwater: Oh, yes. Yes, yes.
Kokai: … or the idea that, let’s do what we can do and not just stick rigidly to this one idea.
Broadwater: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, he was pragmatic enough to respond to political realities and the needs of the time. And also, politically astute enough — remember, he was a politician. Virginia was his political base. And I think he knew that if he got too far afield from what people in Virginia wanted that, you know, that’d be a problem for him.
Kokai: Your  speech to the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society … the title was “Living with a Legacy.” How did Madison’s role in putting together this constitution help affect the way that he performed as an actor on the national stage for decades to come?
Broadwater: Well, I think one example might help to answer that question. At the Constitutional Convention, Madison proposed that Congress be allowed to charter corporations. We take corporations for granted nowadays, but in Madison’s day, to establish a corporation took a special act of a legislature. And he thought Congress should be able to create corporations. The other delegates disagreed, and Congress was not specifically given that power.
And so in the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton proposes that Congress incorporate a bank, Madison says no. Madison knew, “We thought about that during the Constitutional Convention. I thought it was a good idea then, but I lost. And so I’m bound now to oppose the bank when Hamilton proposes it.”
And I think there are several other examples, pretty specific examples, where Madison changes position or tempers a position based on his experience during the convention or the ratification debate.
Kokai: As an author who has studied Madison, we hear oftentimes the early Founders’ positions being either Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian. Now we know Madison worked closely with Jefferson and also worked closely with Hamilton. If you had to put the Madisonian spin on things, is it somewhere in between Jefferson and Hamilton, or closer to one or the other?
Broadwater: He’s definitely closer to Jefferson. I would say he was maybe not quite as idealistic, maybe not quite as optimistic about human nature as Jefferson was. But he and Jefferson were very close. Madison, you might say, was a little more of a pragmatist, maybe a little more of a realist than Jefferson was.
Kokai: What is one thing people generally don’t know about James Madison that you wish they did know?
Broadwater: We think of Madison today as a weak president. I’ve gotten that response from folks when I talk to them about Madison. They say, “Well, you know, he was father of the Constitution, but he wasn’t much of a president.” In his day, he was considered a very successful president. Expectations about presidents have changed. And I think that was one of the most interesting things to me about the book, is the way Madison was seen in his day as president is very different than we look at him today.