Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover question 88.
Q88. Which of the following is not something James Madison did?
A. Become known as the “Father of the Constitution”
B. Co-author the Federalist Papers
C. Serve as a member of George Washington’s Cabinet
D. Serve as fourth president of the United States
James Madison (1751-1836) was one of the many Virginians who played a central role in the founding of America. After studies at Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) with the Presbyterian minister and Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon, Madison returned to the family plantation at Montpelier.
A young Madison had helped George Mason work on the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Virginia Constitution of 1776; later, Madison, a protégé of his older neighbor Thomas Jefferson, helped the latter disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia on grounds of religious freedom, writing the famous “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.” He served both in the Virginia legislature and as a Virginia representative to Congress. Madison brought not only these practical experiences but careful study to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Madison was generally regarded as one of the best-prepared members of the Convention: he had carefully studied political history, as well as the problems of the Articles of Confederation and the state governments in the 1780s.
Although the finished product was quite different than the one Madison proposed, his influence in first developing the Constitution and then defending it as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and in the Virginia ratifying convention mean he is often celebrated as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison himself had advocated a more centralized national government than the Convention’s finished product, which in some ways reflected the more decentralized views of others like Roger Sherman more than his own preferences. Nonetheless, Madison believed himself bound by the Constitution, especially what the state ratifying conventions, far more skeptical of central power, had agreed to; that was what he defended, both in writing the Federalist Papers and in Congress.
As one of the three co-authors of the series, Madison wrote a number of the most important and well-known Federalist Papers. These included No. 10 (on the benefits of an extended – or large – republic), No. 37 (on the challenges that the Constitutional Convention had to overcome), No. 39 (on the distinctive form of federalism embodied in the Constitution), and Nos. 47-51 (on the separation of powers). In these essays, Madison penned some of the most famous lines in American political writing. For instance, in Federalist No. 10, he reminded his readers that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” and, in Federalist No. 51, he observed, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
During the First Congress, Madison led the effort to consider constitutional amendments of the kind requested by the state ratifying conventions. Although all of Madison’s proposed amendments were not ratified, he drafted the amendments that, with some revisions, became the Bill of Rights. As a member of the early Congresses, Madison was initially a close ally of George Washington before becoming more closely aligned with Thomas Jefferson’s views on the Constitution, believing that Alexander Hamilton and his faction were not being faithful to the limits on the federal government that had been agreed on in the writing and ratifying of the Constitution.
As a result, Madison and his mentor Jefferson helped to found the Democratic-Republican Party, which they viewed as committed to defending the Constitution’s meaning. As a key part of this, Madison authored the “Virginia Resolutions” by which the state of Virginia critiqued the Federalist Party’s Alien and Sedition Acts as violating both the Tenth Amendment’s general limits on federal power and the First Amendment’s specific limits on restricting free speech.
Madison eventually succeeded Jefferson as the fourth president of the United States and led the country during the War of 1812. (He also succeeded Jefferson as head of the University of Virginia). Madison, who had been younger than most of the other participants in the Constitutional Convention, outlived them to become the last of the Founders. Although Madison believed that the original meaning of the Constitution as agreed to by those ratifying it, rather than the original intent of those who drafted it in secret, bound the American people, Madison nonetheless prepared his copy of his notes from the convention for release after his death. Even as he similarly criticized slavery and ensured the term slave never appear in the U.S. Constitution, like almost all other Virginia leaders, Madison was a slaveholder, and did not free his slaves on his death.
One of Madison’s final major political acts was coming out of retirement to criticize South Carolina Senator John Calhoun’s doctrine of “nullification,” which Calhoun claimed had been inspired by Madison’s Virginia Resolutions, and by which Calhoun asserted the authority of states to unilaterally veto federal activity. As did the similarly states’ rights committed Andrew Jackson, Madison argued that limiting the federal power to the enumerated powers in the text of the Constitution did not include a veto power in the states, which was nowhere lodged in its text or an inference of that text.
The Bill of Rights was not a product of deliberation at the 1787 Constitutional Convention; they rejected George Mason’s proposal to include one. Instead, what became the Bill of Rights resulted from recommendations by the state ratifying conventions, who sought further guarantees of individual and local liberty by adding more explicit limits on federal power. Next, James Madison proposed a series of amendments to Congress, and finally, Congress revised, passed, and sent most of these proposed amendments on to the state legislatures for ratification. In this exercise, students will see how the revision process works by reading these different versions alongside the final Bill of Rights. (Optional supplementary readings are excerpts from James Madison’s speech proposing and explaining his amendments, as well as a collection of his speeches/writings explaining why the ratifying conventions who first recommended the amendments are an important source of ascertaining the meaning of the Constitution).
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes an answer key.
- Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- Depending on the class, you may wish to have the students work independently.
- Provide each student or pair with the necessary materials. You may consider assigning the readings, especially the optional readings, the night before, so that the students can fill out the worksheet and discuss the material in class
- Explain to each group that they will be reading earlier versions of what became the Bill of Rights, first recommended by the state ratifying conventions and then written into proposed amendments by James Madison, which were then modified by Congress into the Bill of Rights we know today. Each group will read the different proposed amendments, filling out the worksheets and answering the provided questions as they go.
- Recommend that they highlight instances where they find similarities and differences.
- They don’t need to write the entire text of the amendment in the worksheet: for example, “NH, 11th” for the 11th New Hampshire proposal.
- Let them know that they want to look for similar ideas, not identical statements. For example, one similarity is that nearly all of the documents provide for something like the Tenth Amendment reiterating and clarifying that the federal government is one of limited powers written in the text of the Constitution, although the states and Madison use different language to describe this idea.
- Circulate throughout the room as the students complete the worksheets to check for understanding.
- Once everyone has completed the worksheet, use their answers to springboard into a discussion. You might call on different groups or students to explain (for example, how the religion clauses came about). Once you have discussed how the changes were made, turn to the questions on the worksheet as a basis of discussion.
- You might also ask them about the process of revision itself: did the amendments get better by being refined? Or did the need to appease many people with different ideas result in compromises that weakened them?
- The most unique feature of the list of amendments proposed by James Madison is his idea that some of these rights (specifically conscience, press, or trial by jury) could not be restricted by the state governments either. (In other words, Madison was adding to the list of restrictions on the states in Article 1, Section 10, rather than to the list on the federal government in Article 1, Section 9). Such a proposal appears neither in the final proposal by Congress nor in any of the amendments recommended by the states. How is this different?
- If the primary concern was in restricting the federal government, here was a place Madison is proposing to have the federal government impose an additional restriction on the states—perhaps not the best way to appease the states. You may note Madison was ultimately vindicated: the 14th Amendment applies not only those three rights, but the individual rights guarantees in the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights, to the states.
Unlike other Founders, James Madison does not appear on Mount Rushmore, or an iconic monument in Washington D.C. or on circulating currency. Instead Madison’s monument is generally considered to be the Constitution itself—the term “Madisonian” is often used as an adjective referring to its carefully laid structures and rights.
James Madison was arguably the Founding Father most responsible for the Bill of Rights. He had many other accomplishments that helped build the American republic. What is one thing that he is well known for? Can you name others?
Do you think that Madison’s accomplishments receive the acknowledgment today that they deserve? How would you compare his accomplishments to those of other Founders, like Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton? If there were a monument to Madison in Washington, D.C., what do you think that monument would emphasize most about Madison’s life, and why?