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Mr. Ulmschneider's Forums > AP Government: Madison, Paine, and Politics

James Madison: The Flip-flop. Or was he?

posted Dec 18, 2012 03:29:27 by senormichaelchen
Wood provides an insightful analysis of years of scholarship surrounding Madison's legacy. His examination of the two schools of thought: one arguing that Madison shifted fundamentally between the 1780s and 90s and the other, less popular, arguing that he was in fact, the same Madison. The disconnect has been labeled "the Madison Problem" and rightly so, the importance of understanding the thoughts of James Madison do matter. Heralded by many scholars as perhaps one of the only great American political thinkers, Madison's ideas provide a crucial glance into the construction of the Constitution as well as the first years of our nation that has defined it.

I find Woods' argument rather convincing. It seems to me that Madison had this view of government that dwelled between the two political camps we use to describe the 18th century politics: federalist and states-centric. I believe that Madison found his experiences in the Virginia legislature frustrating and it very much shaped his distrust of the "masses" and helped to shape the strong powers of the Congress and government today. On the other hand, he considered the dictatorial and unbridled reign of European monarchs (and limited parliaments) and shuddered at the thought. In modern terms, his view would have been labeled something along the lines of a states' rights activist but in the time, which is crucial to note, his thoughts were one of a deliberate statesman, dedicated to an united America but with severe checks against the European-style government the colonists had just been liberated from.
My point is this: I agree with Woods' conclusion on the steadfast nature of Madison's political thought. I believe he had a very specific vision for government, one that fell neither to the whims of the people nor the central government. He is the very image of stability.
[Last edited Dec 18, 2012 03:30:57]
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2 replies
Mr_Ulmschneider said Dec 19, 2012 00:12:51
Michael - do you feel like Madison's contributions have gone under-recognized for any particular reason? The Madison Problem, as he calls it, has gone on for quite some time.

Second, why does Madison's change in views present a problem for scholars? What is it about his change that was so difficult for most of his contemporaries to understand?

Third, do you think there are any less intellectual reasons for his shift? Some psychological historians attribute it to a lack of will on his own part -- in the 1780s he was Hamilton's friend and compatriot, and in the 1790s he was Jefferson's, and lent his own strength to their ideas at the time.
"An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second." (Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785)
senormichaelchen said Dec 19, 2012 00:51:13
Firstly, I would contend that Madison's contributions were undermined by scholars who believed in this "Madison Problem". After all, who wants to name a "flip-flop" as the principal author or at the very least, principal intellectual behind the United States Constitution, the longest lasting and most influential Constitution in perhaps the history of the world? No, we'd prefer people who were more clean-cut, who looked more stable. After all, that's why we extol our Constitution, right? Stability!

I think his apparent shift in stances challenged historians' view of our "Founding Fathers" *cue ominous music*. To many and certainly to me before Governor's school, the Founding Fathers were seen (and heralded by elementary and middle school teachers)as political geniuses who never wavered in their determination, unanimously opposed tyranny of Britain, and came together as one to write the most influential document in modern(?) history. While they were certainly very intelligent and unmatched in today's political atmosphere, the founding fathers were not just fathers but friends, brothers, and husbands. They were people who were molded by their experiences and brought those to the table. We change accordingly to both outside factors and those within us. Elevation of the Fathers made it strikingly difficult to allow for what seemed on the surface to be a political game, an unwarranted and inexcusable deviation from Madison's previous thoughts.

Rather than attributing his vacillations to a lack of will, I would argue that they were due to his experiences at the time. As I mentioned before, I do believe that his experience in the Virginia legislature influenced him strongly and pushed him towards vouching for a stronger national government, one that is not subject to the whims of the people. However, many of his contemporaries like Hamilton interpreted that stance as one meaning the advocacy of strong central government in all aspects of legislation. This was clearly not the case. He feared, as many antifederalists did, the potential tyranny of the federal government when given unchecked power in times of war, among many other vehicles of undefined power.
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