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Review: James Madison and the Making of America by Kevin R. C. Gutzman

(Continued from page one)
Slaveholder George Mason, of Gunston Hall, styling himself as a progressive revolutionary after Lord Dunmore fled, was charged with the drafting of a declaration of rights. The first section of the draft contained the paragraphs: "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." At least one individual in Virginia's slave society recognized the contradiction. Robert Nicholas, the colony's treasurer noted that if this passed it would imply a break with slavery. To him this would throw society into desperate straits, convulsions and upheaval. As a remedy Nicholas proposed inserting a clause that would subtly exclude blacks from this formulation. Only those who "entered" "into a state of society" would enjoy these rights. Madison and the others agreed and the convention moved on.

The scholarly scion was a very young delegate when the Virginia House of Delegates considered a plan to offer a slave for any "man" who enlisted in the Virginia armed forces. The slaves would be expropriated from large slaveowners who would be given an IOU to be paid off in several years. Madison strenuously objected to this plan arguing that a better alternative would be to free slaves to be soldiers in the revolutionary army. In addition, this was something that would be consistent with the principles of the revolution. Madison said, "It wd. certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty." (23)

The young slaveholder politician then believed he had insight into the psychology of contemporary blacks. Madison reasoned that there was no reason to worry about insurrection or rebellion by these recently freed slave soldiers because "with white officers & a majority of white soldrs.(like this in original no typo!-cb note) no imaginable danger could be feared from themselves, as there certainly could be none from the effect of the example on those who should remain in bondage: experience has shown that a freedman immediately loses all attachment & sympathy with his former fellow slaves." 23-24 It was rejected, however, in large part because the planter-dominated General Assembly felt that it was "unjust" to slave owners. (24)

At least in the early 1780s Madison seemed especially concerned about northern interference in southern affairs. He indicated his approval of a measure in which the Confederation would maintain a small permanent navy commenting that Southerners should support this move since "without it what is to protect the Southern States for many years to come against the insults & aggressions of their N. Brethren." In the aftermath of the decisive American victory at Yorktown, Madison sought to use their demand for compensation for "slaves & other property" to offset British claims of restitution to Loyalists for loss property. (32)

During his stay in Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress Madison's "body servant" slave, Billey, was ruined as a slave, in Madison's view. He was so used to life in the free state of Pennsylvania and city life in Philadelphia--a city then enjoying a large, optimistic and developing African-American community--he was no longer, in Madison's view, suitable "to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virga." To what extent and in what manner Billey was resisting Madison's effort to ship him back to slavery in Virginia is not known, but Madison does express doubt as to whether it "could be done." The young scholar-politician also indicating that during this era of revolution, he could not "think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy pursuit, of every human being." Nevertheless, Madison still seemed determined to get as much monetary value from him as possible noting that he could not legally sell him for seven years and that he didn't "expect to get near the worth of him." In all likihood this indicated that he had signed him over to someone on an indentured labor agreement for a sum of cash. Later, after the fulfillment of the agreement Billey would be allowed to be free, although we do not actually know what happened. Even after demonstrating a minimum of empathy with his captive, Madison felt he was entitled to compensation, this is an indication of the limits of his consciousness concerning blacks, slave exploitation and freedom. In his quote Madison confirms that he would pay or expend resources, money or labor in pursuit of white American freedom and that he earlier expended labor, resources, and money to squelch black and African freedom. Continuing to profit from slave exploitation makes it abundantly clear which side of liberty and freedom he stood.

In his youth he pondered these questions more often than later in life. Back in Orange County, Virginia during the middle of winter 1783 he harbored the twin, yet contradictory, desires of enjoying the life of a prosperous planter and being not dependent upon slave labor. Madison wrote that he wanted "to depend as little as possible on the labour of slaves" yet wanted "a decent & independent subsistence." Madison failed miserably if this youthful aspiration is taken seriously. For the rest of his life he, his planter class, and his nation would depend on slavery for their prosperity and development.

During the Philadelphia convention when the discussion turned to the slave trade George Mason railed against "this infernal traffic" blaming "the avarice of British Merchants" noting that this government had repeatedly prevented the Virginians from banning it. The slaveholder complained that slavery discouraged white immigration and tended to damage the white attitude toward labor deemed to be that fit for slaves. Moreover, it exerted "a pernicious effect on manners" since "every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant." (119) In the situation of a threat of foreign invasion, the existence of slavery profoundly weakens a nation, he maintained. Altogether, Mason concluded the slave system brought down "the judgment of heaven on a Country." Yet, Mason must have winced when Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut maintained that if slavery was really "to be considered in a moral light we ought to go farther and free those already in the Country." (119) He noted that to halt imports of slaves would not hurt Virginia's slaveholders who already were counting on a natural population increase. This ban would hurt South Carolina's and Georgia's slaveholders, however, since the high death rates resulting from hard labor "in the sickly rice swamps foreign supplies are necessary."(119)

This discussion led South Carolinian John Rutledge to warn that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia would refuse to adopt the Constitution "unless their right to import slaves be untouched." Madison contended that it was "wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men." 121 The document eventually referred to "such importation" thus avoiding the mention of slaves or the slave trade as Madison desired. (121)

Madison wrote Federalist No. 54 under the fictitious name of Publius. Publius was a fictitious New Yorker who presented a typical southern argument with regard to the issues of how to treat the taxation and political representation of the hundreds of thousands of people held in bondage. Madison as Publius argued for the Three-Fifths Clause maintaining that it is consistent with the laws of the states since slaves were both property and persons. Madison wrote, that "we must deny the fact that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respects whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities; being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects, as property."(180) According to Publius, it would further degrade slaves if they were counted as full persons for purposes of taxation and were not counted at all for purposes of legislative apportionment. In addition, Madison felt that the slaveowner's wealth, consisting chiefly of slaves, should receive its due in more political representation. (180-81)

Madison, in discussing the special interests that inevitably emerge in societies, said, "We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man." During the period of the American Revolution "the real or supposed interest of the major number" resulted in whites oppressing other whites when they were able. "Debtors have defrauded their creditors. The landed interest has borne hard on the mercantile interest. The Holders of one species of property have thrown a disproportion of taxes on the holders of another species." (82) Pushing for their interests, Madison and other slaveholders negotiated a sweet deal resulting in the idea of the electoral college that gave them disproportionate national power. Madison himself felt that the problem was that suffrage was more widely distributed among whites of the North as opposed to the South and that, if the vote was sheerly a popular one, southern whites would derive no advantage from the fact that they hold hundreds of thousands of slaves in bondage. After all, they conveniently reasoned, they are people. The electoral college, weighted in favor of the South, would solve this problem. (112)

During the debate over the Constitution after Virginia's George Mason criticized the provision that prohibited banning of the slave trade before 1808. Maintaining that he "would not admit the Southern States," namely South Carolina and Georgia, "unless they agreed to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade," he nevertheless still complained that existing slavery had no protection. Madison disagreed arguing that the 1808 halting of slave importation clause was an improvement over what was agreed to in the Articles of Confederation. Moreover, Madison argued, the Constitution, did, in fact, provide increased protection for slavery in that it contained the Fugitive Slave Clause requiring states to return slaves to slaveholders. The Articles of Confederation had no such clause and blacks were unfortunately escaping to free states and freedom from chattel slavery. (228)

Madison's first inaugural speech might strike one as mighty pious and lofty for an owner of dozens of slaves. An excerpt from a single sentence containing 375 words proclaimed the nation "too just to invade the rights of others, too proud to surrender our own, too liberal to indulge unworthy prejudices ourselves, and too elevated not to look down upon them in others...." (302) The nation was also to "carry on the benevolent plans which have been so meritoriously applied to the conversion of our aboriginal neighbors from the degradation and wretchedness of savage life..." (302) Within this single sentence perhaps the only reference to black slaves was the clause, "to hold the Union of the States as the basis of their peace adn happiness" or " respect the rights and authorities reserved to the States and the people,..." 302

The administration of James Madison, Jr. was haunted by the British invasion highlighted by the burning of the White House, the Capitol and other buildings. The author notes the little known fact that the British were motivated by the burning of public buildings including the colonial parliament in York, Upper Canada (Toronto now). (321-22) The incredibly inept performance Madison demonstrated as president recalled the equally pitiful actions by Thomas Jefferson, when, as governor of Virginia, he left Virginia unprepared for a predictable British invasion and exercised poor leadership in its aftermath.

In retirement Madison, like other prominent Americans, was stunned by the onset of the Missouri crisis in 1820. He disagreed that Congress had the power to exclude slavery from a state or territory, and argued that a state could decide for themselves whether to prohibit slavery or not. He harshly attacked the "inflammatory conduct of Mr. (Rufus)King" and his "general warfare agst. the slave-holding States, and his efforts to disparage the securities derived from the Constn. were least of all to be looked for." (340) He maintained that the authors of the Constitution, he was in a key position to know, had "a sense of equity & a spirit of mutual concession" that produced the "three-fifths clause" compromise. Like Jefferson, Madison supported the colonization of free blacks to another land, far, far away. For years Madison served as the president of the American Colonization Society.

The author errs in asserting that in his youth Jefferson tried to put slavery on the gradual road to extinction. Surrounded and dependent upon slaves at birth and throughout his life, Madison, like Jefferson, never seriously contemplated life with slaves to control and exploit. He died close to an enslaved man who had personally served him for seventy years. With respect to his own slaves, Madison, like Jefferson, heavily in debt, didn't provide for his slaves' freedom upon his wife Dolley's death since this might give them an incentive to shorten her life.(360) Yet, she never freed any of his slaves, perhaps because of a desire or need for cash.(361)

The author details the 4th president's unique role in drafting the Constitution, and, following this, working for its passage. The ideological combat Madison, and his neighbor and mentor, Jefferson engaged in with Federalists is detailed, as is his differences with well-known anti-Federalists such as Virginia's Patrick Henry. His frustrations in trying to wring funds from the individual colonies during the Revoltionary War and individual states in its aftermath, transformed his views on the need for taxation, standing armies and the federal role. A firm national financial footing was key to both a sound national defense and prosperous national economy. Both were necessary for the young nation to enjoy the respect of other nations, Madison learned. His words on the national debt ring relevant today. He said on the floor of Congress that, "the idea of erecting our national independence on the ruins of public faith and national honor must be horrid to every mind which retained either honesty or pride." (34)

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