As stated in the preamble, the purpose of the U.S Constitution was to “form a more perfect Union.” The framers realized the current government existing under the Articles of Confederation lacked the ability to effectively meet the needs of a sprawling new nation. Among our founding fathers there was a young Virginian who wished to create a new national government able to exercise sufficient powers to hold together the disparate interests of the various states. His name was James Madison. This is the story of how his experiences in the Confederation government shaped his views of the need for a stronger American government.
As a product of the Revolutionary era, James Madison blazed with patriotic fervor as he rose to become one of Virginia’s leading statesmen. Born in March 1751, he was the oldest son of Orange County Virginia’s leading tobacco planter. He grew up amid the storm of colonial protests over oppressive British policies. He joined in those protests after entering Princeton University. There he participated in a colonial boycott of British goods and praised Bostonians for their famed Tea Party. He began to make a name for himself in 1774 when he urged his fellow Virginians to prepare for war. He served on the local Committee of Safety and in the militia, rising to become a colonel. Unfit for actual combat because of slight stature and delicate health, he turned his life of public service to the political sphere. He served in the 1776 Virginia state constitutional convention where he committed himself to protecting religious freedom and preventing persecution of religious dissenters like Baptists. Afterwards, he was appointed to the Council of State where he worked with Governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. In early 1780, at the age of twenty-nine, he became a delegate to the Continental Congress. Soon after arriving, he began to transform into a nationalist.
Before entering Congress, Madison was a firm supporter of republican principles, but he came to recognize the survival of republican principles was intertwined with the survival of the Union. At the moment, the Union appeared in jeopardy since the states had the final say in every matter. Congress had authorized the states to requisition supplies, raise money to fill the nation’s treasury and establish credit ratings to pay off the nation’s debts. By giving states control over these matters, Madison believed Congress had severely delegitimized itself. Certainly a Virginian loyal to his state, he came to believe in a broader allegiance. He began his shift towards nationalism by staunchly supporting the four key administrators in the new government, most importantly the superintendent of finance. He became known for his ability to secure passage of critical legislation. Unfortunately, Congress still permitted each state to decide if it would comply with each measure. Occasionally the states refused to comply, and Congress lacked the authority to enforce its policies. To solve this dilemma, Madison proposed an amendment that would allow Congress to use force against those states refusing to meet their obligations. The amendment failed to pass, but by now it had become apparent to many that the individual states were unable and unwilling to voluntarily meet their responsibilities, most of which were financial.
By late 1782 Madison saw one of the most pressing threats to national integrity was the struggling economy of the Confederation. Knowing that most states were in debt, Madison feared that waiting on the states to fulfill their fiscal obligations threated the nation’s reputation on the world stage. Believing firm action was needed, he joined with Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton to urge Congress to enlarge its power to collect revenue. On January 28, 1783 he called for the adoption of a “plan of a general revenue operating throughout the United States under the superintendence of Congress.” It was a further indication of his commitment to a shift in the relationship between the states and the central government. A month later he delivered a similar speech claiming that collection of revenue was consistent with “the principles of liberty and the spirit of the constitution.” Despite his support for congressional oversight of finances, he was concerned with the propriety of using financial restructuring to accomplish political centralization. In response he proposed a compromise whereby Congress would levy an impost, a tax on imports, and the individual states would turn over their revenue to the “common treasury.” Before leaving Congress in mid-1783, he publicly urged the states to accept the compromise since it provided as small a change as necessary to preserve the Confederation. Some states delayed approving the impost and continued to lag in fulfilling other fiscal obligations. His concerns about the nation’s survival increased further after watching how much commerce was affected by the lack of centralized control.
James Madison came to believe a centralized government would not only allow Congress to restore financial stability to the country but also to provide unified control over competing, sometimes feuding, state-to-state commerce. As the laws currently stood, Congress was unable to intervene in interstate commercial disputes, but even more ominously, Congress could not compel the states to unite in countering threats in international commerce. By 1785 British trade policies placed American merchants at the mercy of British merchants. With each state in control of its own affairs, it was difficult for the Confederation to pose a united front to the British challenge. From his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, Madison joined in the cries for Congress to assume more authority over commerce. He wrote to James Monroe in Congress how “our merchants are almost all connected” with British merchants to the extent that “our trade was never more monopolized by Great Britain…than it is at this moment.” Madison’s concern for American trade compelled him to support an amendment granting Congress authority over trade. Sadly it failed due to a lack of support. Undeterred, Madison continued to assert to his fellow Virginians that authority over trade ought to be ceded to Congress since the individual states could not effectively wield that power by themselves. In time, he convinced many Virginians that a solution to the commercial crisis needed to be found. Other states finally agreed, and the result was the 1786 Annapolis Convention. Just before reaching the convention, Madison received word of the confrontation that persuaded him once and for all the Confederation was in danger of collapsing.
By 1786 the Confederation was being torn apart by financial and commercial concerns, but the final nail in the coffin appeared to be a dispute over foreign affairs. Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay met with Spanish authorities to negotiate navigation of the Mississippi River. The subsequent treaty required the United States to relinquish navigation of the river for thirty years in exchange for opening Spanish ports to American goods. Southerners were outraged by the demand and horrified by Northerners’ willingness to accept the treaty’s terms. Madison was just as outraged, but even more, he was frightened at the prospect of the states pitting themselves against each other. He was even more frightened at the talk of the nation dividing into separate confederations. He saw that the potential breakup of the Confederation would not only end the American republic but also would open the door for European nations to treat the American states as puppets. He realized the current Confederation Congress could, in its present form, do nothing to stop the country’s spiral downward. Only a stronger government, a new government, could keep America from returning to a colonial state. The handful of delegates who joined him at Annapolis agreed something drastic had to be done. They petitioned Congress to authorize a convention to be held in Philadelphia for the purpose of considering all the defects of the existing national government.
Madison returned from the Annapolis Convention determined to take a central part in forming a new national government. He began by using the uproar over Jay’s treaty with Spain to force Virginia to support more immediate reform than had occurred up to this point. He was elected to another term in Congress and arrived in New York City just in time to hear of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. The rebellion, an armed uprising by farmers and Revolutionary War veterans enraged by oppressive economic policies, convinced him and many other Congressmen that the nation was “tottering to its foundations.” By the time the rebellion was put down every state except Rhode Island had chosen delegates to attend the Philadelphia convention. Madison left for the convention in early May and arrived in Philadelphia with a proposed format for a new government. Known as “the Virginia Plan,” his resolutions called for the central government to exercise supremacy by collecting revenue, regulating commerce and compelling state obedience. He also desired to unite the country so America’s leaders could negotiate with Spain and Britain from a position of strength rather than weakness. Madison’s proposal replaced the ineffective Confederation Congress with a tripartite system of government. Though there were numerous compromises during the Constitutional Convention, Madison’s proposal was the foundation for America’s new government. There was a bicameral legislature, composed of a Senate and a House of Representatives, which was, among other powers, able to tax the states and to approve treaties with foreign nations. There was also a separate executive to enforce the laws and an independent judiciary to monitor compliance with the laws. On September 17, 1787 James Madison, one of the principle authors, signed the final draft of the Constitution that created “a more perfect Union.”
James Madison understood the importance of creating a Union of states able to withstand the myriad challenges facing a new nation. Without his involvement, the Constitution as it exists today, perhaps even our country, might not have come about. He watched the Confederation government struggle to exercise legitimate authority over the states. Often, the very survival of the fledgling republic seemed uncertain. Madison determined to give his nation new direction and a government capable of protecting the country from those forces that had nearly destroyed it in its first years. James Madison, visionary founding father, led the effort to create a government that would indeed “form a more perfect Union.” It was his gift to the ages.