Let us, as citizens of a great republic, proudly and honorably determine "to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." Let us then honestly, if humbly and paradoxically, admit that "there are subjects to which the capacities of the bulk of mankind are unequal," and that designing a good constitution is one of them (p. vii). What then? James Madison had answers to this question that are worth contemplating. Gary Rosen ferrets them out, arranges them cogently, and puts them in illuminating historical and philosophical context.
If students of James Madison have agreed about anything over the past century, it is that Madison disagreed with himself. Historians, Madison biographers, and students of the founding with widely different views of other important matters join in concluding, with some of his contemporaries, that Madison's political thinking underwent, as Rosen says, a "radical transformation," a "metamorphosis," and that in the end the Father of the Constitution was "hopelessly inconsistent." The purpose of Rosen's book is to correct this respectable error, to demonstrate Madison's lifelong consistency both in practice and in theory, and thus "to rehabilitate Madison as a constitutional thinker and a statesman." To accomplish this, Rosen undertakes to demonstrate that Madison's statesmanship was guided by a profoundly original understanding of "the root idea of his political thought: the social compact" (pp. 1-3).
Madison's contribution to social compact theory lay primarily in his understanding of what Rosen calls the "political right of nature." The political right of nature involves the "notion, implicit in the social compact as it had come down to the founding generation, . . . that a sovereign people, having resolved to escape the state of nature, was capable on its own of forming a government adequate to that end" (p. 7). Rosen considers this "the most problematic assumption of prior accounts of the social compact" (p. 81). "For Madison, the political right of nature represented the social compact's defining moment" (p. 14). Madison recognized, as great social compact theorists like Hobbes and Locke had failed adequately to do, that the people were not capable themselves of exercising this right effectively. Possessing the natural right to establish government, the people lack the deliberative capacity, the prudence, to establish good government. The consent of the people, though a necessary foundation of legitimate government, is an instrument inadequate to secure the safety and happiness for the sake of which people enter into government in the first place. The people are not founders, and founding is necessary to accomplish the ends for which they naturally and reasonably leave the state of nature. Madison therefore, as a member of a people engaged in the complex act of exercising the political right of nature, sought and found a place not yet discovered in social compact thinking for founding and for founders: for a modern, republican, architectonic prudence not altogether unlike the classic understanding of phronesis first articulated by Aristotle.
In the years leading up to and following the constitutional convention of 1787, Madison came to see clearly and understand the implications of a fundamental distinction between the mass of his countrymen whose consent was the source of legitimate government and a wise few on whose prudence the best hopes of the people for liberty and justice decisively depended (pp. 71, 81). Much of Rosen's interpretation revolves around this epochal moment in American history when the people exercised their right to alter or abolish the forms of government to which they had become accustomed (in this case, the Articles of Confederation) and to institute new government on such principles and in such form as to them seemed "most likely to effect their safety and happiness." Rosen shows how Madison, during this "Critical Period," came to understand and to shape the interplay of the many motives and influences animating his fellow citizens: the natural desire for safety or security, various civilized interests that had grown up in American civil society, the self-assertive pride of both individuals and states. Madison's statesmanship relied upon accident and force to complement reflection and choice as he attempted, with founding prudence, to harmonize wisdom and consent in the establishment of a new constitution.
Many of those who devote their time to trying to explain the American founding have thought it fruitful to place the founders in different respects and in varying degrees in relation to ancient or modern political thought. Indeed, this is a tradition begun by the founders themselves. Rosen contributes to this tradition with an analysis of Madison's understanding of "prudence," an understanding that has an "affinity with Aristotle," and "[a]t the very least . . . is a departure from the broad principles of Hobbes and Locke" (p. 88). With Aristotle, Madison regarded prudence as a virtue of the practical intellect which, at its full height, is the uncommon or rare political judgment of great political men. Madison also "seems to have held [with Aristotle] that 'a man cannot be prudent if he is not good'" (p. 84). Thus Madisonian prudence seems to be at home in the classical world of statesmen and citizens, morality and politics. The "key proposition of [Hobbes's] teaching," on the other hand, was that "'Prudence is but Experience; which equall time, equally bestows on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto'" (p. 91). Prudence is thus reduced to universally competent instrumental calculation in the service of mere self-preservation. It is Madison's republicanism that raises the sights of his prudence above this mere necessitous calculation "toward the achievement of a certain kind of human dignity" (p. 100). This republican dignity grows from liberal roots, to be sure. It arises from "a certain proud self-reliance, a jealous and irascible attachment to the rights of nature." But the potential dignity of the attachment to and assertion of our natural rights is completely "suppressed" in Hobbes's account of the compelling passions leading to the social compact; it becomes at least "visible" in Locke's idea of a right of revolution, but it is more fully expressed in the "vigilant and manly spirit" that, as Madison saw in America, both "nourishes freedom" and is "nourished by it" (p. 117).
Two other great modern thinkers, Hume and Rousseau, anticipated Madison in recognizing the deficiencies in Hobbes's and Locke's accounts of the social compact, but their responses to these deficiencies were themselves deficient in part because in different ways they "rejected reason as the ordering principle of the soul" (p. 96). Madison, in contrast, "believed himself and his counterparts to be capable of rational praxis" (p. 97). Furthermore, Madison "did at times allude to a certain order of the soul that republican institutions produced" (p. 118). In this order, "Reason manifested itself . . . not in [mere] problem solving or calculation but in character, as a kind of self-control and independence" (p. 119). Here, in a way characteristic of classical political thought, republican constitutional forms foster a "human virtue . . . correspond[ing] to the authoritative opinions of a regime" (p. 119). "Madisonian founding" in the end is "best seen in Aristotelian terms" (p. 99).
The great pivot of Madison's inconsistency, in the widely shared view of generations of scholars, is his mystifying shift in the 1790s from broad construction and nationalism to strict construction and states rights, from prudential provision against majority tyranny to organizing a united ruling majority: in brief, from Federalist to Republican, from Hamilton to Jefferson (pp. 142-43; 158). The inconsistency appears to resurface during Madison's presidency when he reverses himself on the question of the constitutionality of a national bank (Madison had unsuccessfully opposed a national bank as unconstitutional when first put forward by Hamilton in the 1790s) (p. 169). The inconsistency seems to descend into confusion when, less than a year after recognizing the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States, Madison vetoes a bill for funding internal improvements apparently on his old strict-constructionist grounds (pp. 169-70).
What appears inconsistency in Madison's long career, Rosen argues, is a profoundly consistent effort, amid different challenges, to secure enduring conditions for fulfilling the ends of the American social compact. These conditions were threatened by proud and exaggerated claims on behalf of the few whose prudence was essential to the goodness of the new constitution (Hamilton), and by proud and exaggerated claims on behalf of the people whose consent was essential to the legitimacy of the constitution (Jefferson). The harmony of prudence and consent in the moment of the American founding was made possible in part by a combination of rare or miraculous accidents that ought not to be relied upon in ordinary times. The blessings of this harmony were best secured and perpetuated by inculcating among the people at large a reverence for the forms of the new constitution and requiring of the most ambitious and talented few a prudential deference to these forms (pp. 128, 137-38). By developing an authoritative constitutional tradition rooted in an original kind of "originalism," Madison hoped to perpetuate both the consent and the prudence that were inseparably and necessarily combined in the successful exercise of the political right of nature that was the American founding (pp. 157-77).
Rosen does not claim to be the first to argue for Madison's consistency. He acknowledges, for example, the recent success of historian Lance Banning in showing the consistency between Madison the Federalist and Madison the cofounder of the Republican Party. But Banning's account does not extend to the period of Madison's presidency, and, more important, his analysis is founded on the "thoroughly mistaken premise" of the "ideological school" Gordon Wood, J.G.A. Pocock, et al. that "Liberalism" is "utterly indifferent to public things" or to virtue. Rosen's analysis, by contrast, conforms to a "growing literature that seeks to restore natural-rights liberalism to the preeminence it once enjoyed in interpretations of the American founding." According to this view, the founders "were perfectly capable of integrating the seemingly incompatible domains of civic virtue and natural rights" (p. 5).
Rosen's concern to correct the ideological or "republican hypothesis" school's error seems to lead Rosen himself into certain difficulties. He rightly wants to show that, contrary to the republican hypothesis school's account, the American revolutionaries and founders did not "find the opposition between virtue and rights nearly so absolute as do most defenders of this hypothesis" (p. 55). To show how Madison, in particular, understood the relation between virtue and rights to show how "republicanism" and "liberalism" are blended in his thought Rosen, among other things, offers reflections on the following three interesting passages from Madison's public and private writings.
- No instance has heretofore occurred, nor can any instance be expected hereafter to occur, in which the unadulterated forms of Republican Government can pretend to so fair an opportunity of justifying themselves by their fruits. In this view the Citizens of the U.S. are responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a Political Society. If justice, good faith, honor, gratitude & all the other Qualities which enoble the character of a nation, and fulfil the ends of Government, be the fruits of our establishments, the cause of liberty will acquire a dignity and lustre, which it has never yet enjoyed; and an example will be set which can not but have the most favorable influence on the rights of mankind. If on the other side, our Governments should be unfortunately blotted with the reverse of these cardinal and essential Virtues, the great cause which we have engaged to vindicate, will be dishonored & betrayed; the last & fairest experiment in favor of the rights of human nature will be turned against them; and their patrons and friends exposed to be insulted & silenced by the votaries of Tyranny and Usurpation. (p. 55; from Address to the States, 26 April, 1783)
- Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. (p. 56; Federalist 55 [cited as 56 in Rosen])
- There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore more needs elucidation than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word "interest" as synonomous with "Ultimate happiness," in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in the popular sense, as referring to immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false. In the latter sense it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil & enslave the minority of individuals; and in a federal community to make a similar sacrifice of a minority of the component States. (p. 68; Letter to James Monroe, 5 October, 1786)
Rosen is right in saying that, "[f]or Madison, the 'cardinal and essential Virtues' were perfectly compatible with a regime based on 'the rights of mankind'" (p. 55). He is right to point out that these virtues were in one respect a necessary means to securing the ends of the rights of mankind. He may even be right that Madison considered the rights of mankind "precedent in every respect" to such cardinal and essential virtues; that Madison thought American government promotes such virtues "only incidentally, as fit instruments of policy" (p. 56); that Madison agreed with Hobbes that "virtue corresponds to no natural inclination" (p. 57); and that the "final cause" of the founders' statesmanship was mere preservation of the body (pp. 29, 113). But, as to the last few claims, he goes wrong insofar as he depends on these passages to prove them. To draw such conclusions he must read these passages in a strained way, to say the least.
Of Madison's Address to the States, Rosen writes:
Thus, as he writes in his address, justice and the other virtues are the "fruits" of governments established within the ambit of "the cause of liberty." Their true worth, however pleasing they may be to the eye, lies in their being "Qualities" that "fulfill the ends of government." They are not to be cultivated simply for their own sake. American government might require certain virtues, but it promotes them only incidentally, as fit instruments of policy. (p. 56)
The more natural reading of the Address, it seems to me, is to understand Madison to be speaking of virtues not "only" as "incidental" or as "instruments," but as ends. In this passage, the virtues are to be cultivated as much for their own sake as is republican government, which could not be justified if it did not produce certain results, or bear certain "fruits." These virtues lend not only "luster" but "dignity" to the cause of liberty. The friends of liberty and the rights of human nature will be "silenced" if their experiments, rather than bearing these fruits, bear their opposites. If liberty and the rights of mankind do not produce these results, or achieve these ends, they will not only be less pleasing to the eye: there will be nothing to say on their behalf. Where freedom produces baseness and all manner of vice, despotism may be justified. Madison could hardly be more explicit: these virtues "fulfil the ends of government." Now it is true that they are not to be cultivated "simply" for their own sake. They are among those goods (like health) that are ends in themselves and conditions for other goods. Similarly we choose liberty because it is a good in itself and because it is a necessary condition for virtue. These virtues, as Madison might say, both nourish freedom and are nourished by it.
Certainly the passage from Federalist 55 speaks of virtue as a means to the ends of self-government. But it is hard to reconcile Rosen's suggestion that for Madison "virtue corresponds to no natural inclination" with this passage, in which Madison refers to "faithful likenesses of the human character" as those which portray the human character as capable of enough virtue for self-government. If the virtues necessary for self-government are essential parts of the "human character," are they not intrinsic to human nature? Is not this Madisonian thought less at home with Hobbes than with Aristotle, who holds that nature, while not providing us with virtue, equips us to acquire it through habit (Ethics 1103a14-25)?
In the letter to Monroe, Madison recognizes "ultimate happiness" as the true measure of "interest," but Rosen is inclined not to hear the loud echo here of the teleological language of Aristotle. Rosen chooses to reduce "ultimate happiness" to an impartial respect for others' rights (p. 69). Whatever he may say about Madison's republicanism and about the intrinsic dignity of politics in Madison's thinking, Rosen presents Madison's and the other founders' statesmanship as "ultimately aimed at self-preservation" (p. 113; emphasis added; also see pp. 24, 29, 117). It may be possible that in this passage Madison meant no more by "ultimate happiness" than a disposition suited to preservation of bodily existence, but is that the most plausible reading? Such a reading seems more to descend from Rosen's thesis about Madison's liberalism than to arise from a natural reading of Madison's words in context. The phrase "ultimate happiness," as used here, more plausibly suggests as the true measure of a man's interest the finis ultimus of full moral and intellectual development.
It may be that Madison's few brief paeans to virtue are difficult to reconcile with his many famous and extended paeans to freedom and rights and his famous concessions to or reliance on self-interest. But if they cannot be reconciled without such strained readings as Rosen offers for these passages, they are perhaps better left in undisturbed tension.
On the other hand, maybe Madison is even more Aristotelian than Rosen wants to give him credit for. In developing his idea of the political right of nature, Rosen argues that "[t]he motive of self-preservation, while strong enough to lead human beings to associate, is not so unrelenting as to keep them from considering various means for escaping their predicament." "Civil society arises from necessity but attempts to transcend it" (p. 34; emphasis added). But Rosen is reluctant to consider that this very relenting quality of the motive of self-preservation may enable human beings to consider other natural ends that must be neglected so long as the struggle for survival consumes all one's energies and attention. How different must it be to say that "civil society arises from necessity but attempts to transcend it," and to say that, "while coming into being for the sake of living, [the city] exists for the sake of living well" (n. 61, p. 192)?
However capable Madison and his fellow founders were of "integrating . . . seemingly incompatible domains" of thought, their heirs and successors have not always found it easy to preserve or reconstruct the reasoning by which they accomplished this. In making the case for the consistency of Madison's statesmanship, Rosen recovers or discovers grounds in Madison's thinking for integrating domains widely held to be in various ways incompatible: social compact theory and the idea of founding, ancient and modern political thought, the current academic categories of "liberalism" and "republicanism," and even the thought of Madison's great contemporaries Hamilton and Jefferson. Most to his point, Rosen discovers grounds on which Madison can integrate what have seemed to so many for so long to be the incompatible domains of his own thought and practice. Whatever questions may still remain about the ultimate ground of Madison's theoretical and practical consistency, Rosen has ably come to the defense of Madison's own self-assessment, made late in his long life:
There were few, if any, of my contemporaries, through the long period and varied scenes of my political life, to whom a mutability of opinion was less applicable, on the great constitutional questions which have agitated the public mind." (1831; p. 143)