Founding Rivals | Madison vs. Monroe: the Bill of Rights and the Election that Saved a Nation
© 2011 Chris DeRose
In these days of contentious politics, where adversaries rip into one another with all the grace of beasts, Chris DeRose’s Founding Rivals is downright heartening. It is the story of a friendship born of revolution and the struggle to create a more perfect union, a friendship which helped define that union…and one which persevered even as the two friends found themselves running against one another for the same seat in the first Congress of the United States.
Madison and Monroe’s names stand tall throughout American history. Public servants for most of their lives, and eventually the fourth and fifth presidents respectively, they began their careers in America’s most exciting time. They agitated for independence and drilled for war: during the conflict, Madison became a statesman while Monroe served in the Continental army. While Madison and his colleagues attempted to bring together the selfishly quarreling colonies together in a common cause, and put together a functioning government amidst the chaos of war, Monroe was nearly killed in combat and served faithfully throughout the war, seeking a place in the battle even when he had the opportunity to remain safely behind the scenes. After York Town, Monroe joined Madison in public office and the two were introduced through a mutual friend, Thomas Jefferson.
Together they agonized about the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, and through their letters DeRose offers readers a look into the early years of the Republic, at a time when the legislature of Virginia held more power than the Congress of the confederacy. The states are united in name only: their collective government has little power and only marginal influence. In these troubled years, debt increases, rebellion sweeps through the backwoods, and the powers of Europe smile at the fledgling nation’s impotency. Spain, especially, sees America’s faltering as a promising sign that it will maintain control of the Mississippi.
The letters between Madison and Monroe are a delight to read. They possess an elegance lost today, and reflect a serious-minded approach to governance that our current candidates would do well to emulate. In preparing for a constitutional convention, Madison engaged himself in an exhaustive study of confederacies throughout history, adding that to an already impressive political education to guide him in finding an effective form of government for the new nation — one which would be strong enough to defend against foreign foes and honor its debts, but not so strong as to crush the sovereignty of the people under one authority. After an initial failure at Annapolis, Madison, Monroe, and others are finally successful in organizing a convention in Philadelphia. The two are never in Congress at the same time: when one is seated in the national council, the other is present in Virginia’s house of delegates, and they work together for the common cause. In Philadelphia, however, after Madison presents his ideas — a framework we know today as the US Constitution — their collaboration ends.
The nation falls into two parties, Federalist and Antifederalist. Federalists like Madison advocate for the immediate adoption of the Constitution, while the Antifederalists oppose it. Some, like Patrick Henry, appear to vigorously oppose the Constitution just to delight in the sound of their own voice. Others are concerned about the lack of a Bill of Rights protecting the people against the government overstepping its authority. Monroe in particular is concerned about the amount of power the Constitution gives the central government, seeing its ability to directly tax the people as problematic at best and inviting tyranny at worst. DeRose covers the raucous debate in Virginia’s House of Delegates, where the Constitution is just narrowly ratified. Virginia was arguably the most influential state in the union at this point, a fact lost to modern readers who are accustomed to the leadership of states like New York and California today.
Even though the Constitution is ratified, the Antifederalists are not content to accept defeat. Instead, they see the first congressional elections for the new state as an opportunity to put their men into office to maintain the status quo while they organize efforts to call for another constitutional convention — a prospect that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are united in seeing as patently dangerous. To oppose Madison, the author of the Constitution and its most eloquent defenders, the Antifederalists choose Monroe…and in the book’s penultimate chapter, the ‘election that saved a nation’ takes precedence.
DeRose may be over-stressing a point here — the claim is certainly dramatic — but the election is certainly worth considering. Having accomplished the great task of getting the Constitution ratified, Madison can now advocate for amending it with a bill of rights, to win over the two states which have not yet joined the union, and gain the support of those who accepted it only grudgingly, like New York and Virginia. DeRose sees the presence of Monroe as prompting this decision on Madison’s part, the younger forcing Madison to temper his defense of the Constitution. It is quite possible, considering that earlier — in Virginia — Madison staunchly maintained that no bill of rights was necessary to tell the government what it could not do, because nothing in the Constitution gave the government the right to interfere with civil rights in the first place.
Even though I’m not necessarily convinced that the election of Madison to a particular seat in the house of Representatives saved the nation, Founding Rivals is excellent history. These two extraordinary gentlemen lived lives of distinction, lives worth noting. Madison’s views on the hypocrisy of slavery are particularly impressive considering the time in which he lived. DeRose’s account follows the lives of these two admirable men through some of the most critical periods of American history, giving readers an education on what the government was like between Revolution and the Constitution. Moreover, the relationship between these two men is a standing reproach to the narrowminded, vicious, petty, and pathetically partisan politics of today. Witness here a friendship that survived political combat, and be reminded of the principles of good government — not just the rights we value through political philosophy, but our approach to people. Though disagreeing on the Constitution, these two were united in their civil-mindedness, their tolerance of one another’s opinions, and their sincere commitment to the common good.