James Madison
Garry Wills, 2002

If Thomas Jefferson was America's first geek president, then James Madison was its first nerd president: 5'4", 100 pounds, finished his four-year course at Princeton in two years, and was a fair way into his 30s before his first attempt to court someone (a 15-year-old girl who rejected him). Conservative historian Garry Wills argues in this brief biography that another sign of this nerdiness was that, much as Jefferson privileged the abstract ("rebellion") over the concrete (actual human beings getting their actual heads actually chopped off), Madison privileged the theoretical over the empirical. In Wills's account, Madison was absolutely convinced that America held the ultimate weapon in its disputes with Britain and France: an economic embargo, which would cripple the European powers' economies and force them to bow to US demands (eg, to stop boarding American ships and seizing all the crewmembers who seemed like they might have deserted from the British navy, as many had). As Jefferson's secretary of state, he actually got the embargo passed in 1807, and it turned out to be a crippling blow for the American economy, particularly trade-reliant New England, which threatened to secede. Nevertheless, Madison kept returning to the embargo as the cure for any problems that cropped up across the Atlantic. Nor, argues Wills, was the embargo Madison's only idée fixe. For instance, the Constitutional Convention was at least ostensibly intended merely to revise the Articles of Confederation, so the framers had to tread very carefully where the issue of state sovereignty was concerned. Giving the federal government the power to veto state laws was therefore a non-starter, and yet Madison strenuously lobbied for it. Why, given that such a move would likely have kept the Constitution from being ratified at all? Because Madison thought it was right. And to a theorist, it is better that a plan be perfect than passable.

And yet if we're supposed to believe that Madison's defining attribute was an unwillingness to change his views based on empirical evidence or the political currents, how do we reconcile that with the fact that Madison was all over the map on the fundamental issues of his day? He came up with the "Virginia Plan" to toss the Articles of Confederation and swap in a strong central government with authority to veto state laws... and a decade later authored the "Virginia Resolution" arguing that states had the right to nullify federal laws. A fervent opponent of the First Bank of the United States, he wound up chartering the Second. Wills accounts for this by pointing out that, even on these topics, Madison wished he had been consistent, spending his last years going back and altering articles he'd written, falsifying letters he'd sent, forging letters from others. The charitable explanation for this is that Madison wanted to pass the clearest possible exposition of his views on to posterity — even as those views were becoming irrelevant. Madison's life was consumed by questions such as: Should the United States be a Hanoverian-style monarchy or a republic of yeoman farmers? What side should the new nation take in the struggle between Britain and France? What role should religion play in a country that sprang from religious separatist movements but was inherited by Enlightenment-era deists? But even as the declining Madison was going all Minitrue on his legacy, those questions were being settled. The respective consensus answers: Neither, since industrialization has made both systems moot; who cares about distant powers to the east, when America's destiny lies west; and who cares, given the war over slavery looming on the horizon?

I was interested to learn that Madison's attempts to fill positions in his cabinet, in the military, and in the Supreme Court resulted in one fiasco after another: his ministers feuded, his generals were incompetent, and his would-be justices either turned him down or were spiked by the Senate. Which brings up an aspect of the American system of government that I have always found bizarre. For the past week, the executive branch of the government has basically been turned over to Henry Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and current secretary of the treasury. Thanks to Paulson (and the predictably docile Democrats in Congress) it seems that we will very soon be turning over hundreds of billions of dollars to Paulson's buddies on Wall Street. We didn't vote for Henry Paulson! Nor will we be voting for his replacement when we go to the polls in a few weeks. We're supposed to select a president without knowing whom he's going to nominate for this key post. Isn't that, y'know, an important piece of information to have? Like, if John McCain is going to pick (as seems likely) Phil Gramm, who did as much or more than any single person to bring about this economic meltdown, shouldn't we actually be told that? I'm not saying that we should vote separately for each office. But why can't we see the slate? The main argument I've heard against this is that candidates might make frivolous selections to win votes rather than choose the people they really want in those offices. But if you're going to argue that the public is too stupid to evaluate a slate, how can you argue that it's nevertheless qualified to choose a president?

Of course, Madison wouldn't have made such an argument! Under his system, the public wasn't deemed to be so qualified — the president was to be chosen by the legislature. For fear that the president would thus be insufficiently independent of Congress, this proposal was scrapped, but replaced with the electoral college. And the electoral college is based on the same principle: to wit, that few people follow politics closely enough to know who would make a good president, but they do know enough to be able to pick some local smart fella whom they can trust to make a good decision on their behalf. An argument can be made that expanding the franchise is therefore only a good idea so long as education is keeping pace — ie, that everyone who walks into a voting booth is as well-informed as an 18th-century town sage.

Of course, Madison was a world-class 18th-century sage and he proved terrible at choosing people, so.

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