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Monday, April 1, 1996

The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic

An Important Work of Historical Revisionism

Mr. Watkins is assistant editor of The Freeman.

Historians have painted James Madison as a young centralizer and nationalist who later defected to the philosophy of states’ rights and strict construction of the Constitution. Madison was also accused of philosophical apostasy by his contemporaries. Alexander Hamilton, his collaborator on The Federalist, bitterly complained that after 1789 Madison was “seduced by the expectation of popularity” in Virginia and thus opposed his former allies.

Madison’s political thought, however, is much more complicated than critics and historians would have us believe. In The Sacred Fire of Liberty, Lance Banning attempts to demonstrate that Madison did not change horses in midstream, but rather acted consistently throughout his career.

Banning begins by examining Madison’s stances in the Continental Congress in the early 1780s. The young Madison, according to Banning’s research, was strikingly similar to the Madison of the 1798 Virginia Resolutions, which boldly enunciated the compact theory of the Constitution. While in the Continental Congress, Madison opposed an independent federal power to impose taxes, insisting that his native Virginia was absolutely sovereign within her chartered bounds. In an incident foreshadowing a clash with Hamilton, Madison fought a plan for a national bank on the grounds that the power to charter a corporation was not enumerated in the Articles of Confederation. Madison evinced frustration at the Congress’s powerlessness to carry out its delegated functions, but did not seek to expand these functions except in the realm of trade.

Madison’s experiences in the Continental Congress led him to craft the Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention. At the convention, Madison joined with the nationalists in recreating the federal government, but Madison the nationalist was far different from the Hamiltonian nationalists. Madison, in Banning’s view, merely sought “a constitutional device that could secure the general government’s supremacy within a system where the overwhelming burden of responsibilities would still be carried by the states.” (Italics in original) The Northern commercial elites, on the other hand, had plans for a much more energetic government than Madison expected.

Though Madison did collaborate on The Federalist to defend the same plan of government, Banning shows that Madison and Hamilton’s interpretations of the plan were antipodes from the start. Whereas in Hamilton’s contributions there are numerous references to the value of a great commercial republic, no such language can be found in Madison’s. Madison’s support of the new plan of government was predicated on his belief that agricultural producers would be dominant and keep the regime within its proper bounds.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Banning makes is his reevaluation of Federalist No. 10. Banning unabashedly asserts that No. 10 was neither an unequivocal endorsement of a large republic nor an endorsement for multiplying the variety of interests in the nation. According to Banning, Madison was arguing that a large republic offers more security from majority abuses. In Madison’s view, the extension of the republic could only curb democratic ills when local and general interests were properly and strictly divided. Increasing the number of factions, which Madison considered a great evil, was not his intent.

In short, the research presented in this book makes it apparent how the Father of the Constitution could both oppose the Washington Administration and later frame the Virginia Resolutions. The Sacred Fire of Liberty is an excellent examination of the thought of James Madison and an important work of historical revisionism. Banning’s portrayal of Madison as a son of the Virginia piedmont, consistent advocate of states’ rights, and strict constructionist, does much to aid our understanding of the Father of the Constitution.

  • William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute. He received his B.A. in history and German summa cum laude from Clemson University and his J.D. cum laude from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He is a former law clerk to Judge William B. Traxler, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and he has served as Assistant U.S. Attorney, Associate at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, and Associate with Leatherwood Walker Todd & Mann.