By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
In mid-April 1787, James Madison made bold to lay his ideas for an entirely new frame of government before the one man who, more than any other, could make it happen: George Washington. Washington, too, supported Madison.
Hume’s Idea of a Commonwealth
David Hume, in his Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth in 1752, wrote, “A small commonwealth is the happiest government in the world within itself.” But this was “because everything lies under the eye of the rulers.” Hence, small communities could as easily become the seedbeds of despotism as empires.
By the same token, Hume saw no reason why a large state, such as France or Great Britain, couldn’t be modeled into a commonwealth. Because, the larger the territory, the more factions are likely to spring up, and the more factions, the less likely that any one of them will be able to amount to much of a threat to the others.
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The Idea for the Framework
This viewpoint offered the key for Madison, and he came up with a proposal for a new frame of governance. He took his idea to the only man he knew who could take it to fruition—George Washington.
The old general had been glad to find “that Congress have recommended to the States to appear in the Convention proposed to be holden in Philadelphia in May,” and he told Madison that a thorough reform of the present system is indispensable. That was enough of an opening for Madison.
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The New Framework
First, wrote Madison, there is no need to believe that the “individual independence of the States is utterly irreconcilable with their aggregate sovereignty.” The solution was not to abolish the states and suck them into a consolidation of the whole as one simple republic. That would be as inexpedient as it is unattainable.
What Madison had in mind was some middle ground, which may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, yet not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful.
Madison’s Proposed Change in Representation
Thus, Madison recommended a change in the principle of representation in Congress. Instead of the state legislatures sending single-vote delegations, he supported representatives in Congress elected directly by the people of the states, in proportion to each state’s population.
The Congress would then become the representatives of the people at large, not the states, and the lesser states.
He then proposed that the Legislative department might be divided into two branches; one of them chosen every year by the people at large, or by the legislatures. The other was to consist of fewer members, to hold their places for a longer term, and to go out in such a rotation as always to leave in office a large majority of old members.
Stronger National Government
Madison proceeded to allow the national government positive and complete authority in all cases which required uniformity; such as the regulation of trade, including the right of taxing both exports and imports, the fixing the terms and forms of naturalization, etc.
In order to prevent the states from passing the multitude of laws they would pass to obstruct this complete authority, Madison suggested giving Congress over and above this positive power, a negative—a veto—in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the states.
Without a national veto over state legislation, every positive power that could be given on paper would be evaded and defeated. In addition, Madison said that, not only should Congress have a veto over state legislation: “The national supremacy ought also to be extended as I conceive to the Judiciary departments.”
Finally, Madison proposed a national executive must also be provided.
Madison had made sure that Washington’s name, along with his own, appeared on the list of Virginia’s delegates to Philadelphia. But Washington was feeling his years that winter: fever and rheumatism had landed him in bed for two weeks.
The Wait for George Washington
There was also a sticking point about schedule. Washington had only just declined an invitation from the Society of the Cincinnati, the veterans’ organization founded by his old officers, to attend their annual meeting in the same month of May in Philadelphia.
Madison on the other hand, from where he was sitting in the Confederation Congress in New York, was able to be in Philadelphia on May 3, eleven days before the Convention was due to open.
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The Countdown Begins
But there was no Washington. In fact, there wasn’t much of anyone, apart from the Pennsylvania delegation, which included the tottering old Benjamin Franklin, the embattled James Wilson, Thomas Mifflin, and Robert Morris. As opening day arrived, Madison, as he complained in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, was disheartened that the number as yet assembled is but small.
But he despaired too quickly. On Sunday, May 13, the chiming of bells, the noise of crowds thronging the streets, and the clatter of the First City Troop of Cavalry, announced the arrival of Washington. The first man of the republic had come to bless the Convention with his participation.
Common Questions about James Madison’s Proposal
James Madison took his idea to George Washington.
James Madison suggested giving Congress a veto in all cases.
In his new framework for governance, James Madison proposed a middle ground, which supported due supremacy of the national authority, without excluding the local authorities.