Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like to be James Madison. He was a diminutive genius who did not call attention to himself. He was a balding hypochondriac who was always sure he did not have enough vitality for the hurly burly of our early national politics. He was a profound reader, a digester of the history of republics and constitutions going all the way back to Aristotle and Polybius. After some romantic stumbling, Madison married the widow Dolley Todd on September 15, 1794, a woman almost infinitely more charismatic than the man she called “the little great Madison.” There was nothing flashy about him. He lived in the shadow of a generation of giants: George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, and of course Thomas Jefferson, who somehow was his best friend. And yet, in some respects, James Madison was the greatest of them all. He is certainly the most underrated of the Founding Fathers.
It’s fair to say that Madison would never have been the fourth president of the United States had it not been for the third president, the sage of Monticello. I like to say that James Madison was a great man who gave the best energies of his life to a greater man who lived about 35 miles away. Jefferson was always trying to get his closest friends to relocate near his fortress of solitude at Monticello. He had in mind a kind of Enlightenment agrarian colony, an actual, not virtual, Republic of Letters. Jefferson and his circle of like-minded friends would make wine, hold salon dinners, exchange garden seeds, experiment in science and agriculture, perfect the art of republican conversation, pool their libraries, nurture young future leaders of the American republic, and hold themselves aloof from Mr. Hamilton’s money-grubbing, industrial, stock-exchanging America. Jefferson’s mini-utopia never quite gelled, though his protégé James Monroe set up his own headquarters within sight of Monticello, and the Italian horticulturist and republican Philip Mazzei took up residence nearby for a few years before returning to Europe as a kind of publicity agent for the American experiment. Madison seems to have regarded the 35 miles that separated him from Jefferson as the right distance: Close enough to get there in a long day, far enough away to avoid being entirely absorbed by the whimsical force of Jefferson’s mighty personality and his impractical vision of America.
Jefferson was a utopian visionary who had a magnificent dream of a highly educated, lightly governed agrarian paradise of self-actualized farmer citizens living in actual democracy at the local level, and tightly-representative democracy in the larger geography of Virginia and the United States. Madison did not entirely disagree with this, but he reckoned that if you removed the soaring Jeffersonian rhetoric, toned the whole thing down and replaced the poetry with a pragmatic program that took into account that most people were never going to be exemplars of the Enlightenment, now you would have something better than all the other nations of the world. He was a chastened Jeffersonian, a realistic, pragmatic, and times reluctant Jeffersonian, but he could never break with Jefferson in the way he did first with Hamilton and later even with George Washington.
Jefferson was a genuine political radical who was not afraid to praise upheaval and invite revolutionary adjustments to corrupt or stagnant governments. It was Jefferson who said that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Madison could never have written that sentence. He believed that the tree of liberty—if you insist on such organic metaphors, Mr. Jefferson—must occasionally be carefully pruned by a cautious and well-read gardener. Madison did not like the idea of upheaval, yet his famous friend was always soaring off with plans to tear up the Constitution once every nineteen years or declare the national debt void after each statistical generation, or threaten nullification or secession if the government of the United States overstepped its constitutional bounds.
They exchanged 1,250 letters in the course of their fifty-year friendship. I like to imagine Madison seeing a letter from Jefferson in the pile of mail—Jefferson’s exquisite penmanship was unmistakable—and turning to Dolley with a wry smile and saying, “Well, here we go…” Jefferson would be about to envision some brilliant and fundamentally impractical future, all dream and no infrastructure, all principle and no logical path to success. And it would be James Madison’s challenge to determine if any part of Jefferson’s vision could be sobered up, disciplined down, and distilled into something that had a chance of working in the real world. Then he would have to write an extremely carefully crafted response, twice as long as Jefferson’s original, to talk Jefferson down off the ledge without hurting the great man’s feelings or causing Jefferson to try out his utopian project on other correspondents more susceptible to what I like to call the Jefferson Music.
If you know Raphael’s famous Vatican painting The School of Athens, you get the picture of the nature of what many historians have called the most successful and productive political friendship in American history. Jefferson was Plato in his red tunic, looking a good deal like the disheveled Leonardo da Vinci, with a finger pointed up to the sky—to the world of pure Idea, the empyrean, the other world, to the cosmos where there was no human imperfection, no human nature. Madison was Aristotle, Plato’s grounded pupil, dressed in blue with a carefully trimmed beard, clutching a big folio in one hand, the other hand well below his shoulder stretched out in a calming, let’s bring it down to the real world gesture. Plato is looking off into the distance with a countenance of deep certainty. Aristotle is looking directly at Plato and he is wearing a look of concern, as if to say, “Oh, Jesus, here were go again with the world of pure forms.”
Nothing could be more emblematic of the relationship of the Jefferson-Madison friendship than Raphael’s painting.
And yet, Madison never spoke harshly to Jefferson, even when his mentor, who was in France through the whole birthing ordeal of the US Constitutional Convention, wrote letters that were used by anti-federalists to oppose ratification of Madison’s greatest achievement, the Constitution of 1787.
Madison must have loved Jefferson deeply. He admired the genius of the great man and he realized that without the Jefferson Music America could not achieve its great potential, that Hamilton’s world was prosperous and powerful without being poetic, that John Adams’ world was so fastened with restraining mechanisms and checks and balances that it could not soar, that Washington’s world was too sober to lift humanity to the next level of its evolution. Madison realized that we needed Jefferson perhaps more than any other of the Founders, but that Jefferson could not be entirely trusted to envision a realizable republic. It was Madison’s job to talk Jefferson out of his wilder ideas, his radical states’ rights doctrine in 1798, his occasional secessionist impulses, his apparent attraction to political violence, his indifference to political stability and tradition, his willingness, in 1803, to turn down the Louisiana Purchase because it seemed unconstitutional.
Not only did Madison perform his Aristotelean role with magnificent patience and prudence—there must have been times when he was a little fed up with Jefferson’s habits of mind and expression—but he periodically suited up and entered the gladiatorial arena on behalf of Jefferson and Jeffersonianism in spite of his preference for the safe world of the study and the dining room.
When Jefferson knew he was dying, he wrote one of his greatest letters to James Madison. It was dated February 17, 1826. Jefferson was 83. Madison was 74. Jefferson had just 137 days left to live. The beloved disciple would live another ten years. In that last letter, Jefferson wrote,
the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me thro’ that long period. if ever the earth has beheld a system of administration conducted with a single and steadfast eye, to the general interest and happiness of those committed to it, it is that to which our lives have been devoted. to myself you have been a pillar of support thro’ life. take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.
Take care of me when dead. Think about that. On the brink of death Jefferson asked Madison for one more gift of friendship: to protect Jefferson’s reputation against those who would seek to deny or delimit or degrade his unbelievably important contributions to the Founding of the United States, what in his First Inaugural Address Jefferson called “the world’s best hope.”
And I need hardly say, Madison performed that last task impeccably, though he probably spent a fair amount of time shaking his head.