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James Madison (1751-1836) and the Presbyterian Connection

The Library of Congress and Montpelier, Va., are holding 250th birthday celebrations this year for James Madison, fourth President of the United States. Although not as well-known as more deistic celebrities Washington and Jefferson, the Virginian deserves attention as the chief architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the new United States of America.


Readers ought to take note of this occasion because of Madison’s Presbyterian connections as pointed out in G. W. Sheldon’s recent brief but suggestive book, The Political Philosophy of James Madison (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 2001).

Although short physically, Madison stood tall intellectually with a lifelong appetite for knowledge and wisdom. He was nurtured by his Anglican family and Presbyterian ministers Donald Robertson and John Witherspoon, Scottish Presbyterian transplants to the New World.

In 1763 at the age of 12, Madison began five years of study at Robertson’s Virginia boarding school. His teacher introduced him to languages, the Bible, with a Calvinist twist probably from the Westminster Confession, Greek and Roman historians and philosophers, and more contemporary greats such as Locke and Montesquieu.

At the suggestion of an Anglican pastor, a Princeton graduate, Madison’s low-church family did not send “Jamie,” as he was called, to the College of William and Mary, with its high-church leanings. They sent him to study under Witherspoon, called in 1768 to preside over the College of New Jersey, source of Presbyterian evangelical piety as well as knowledge. Because of his earlier preparations Madison enjoyed advanced status and two-and-a-half years of what amounted to graduate studies, including theology indicating his early interest in entering the ministry. After some soul-searching, he entered politics as a vocation with his Whiggish sympathies.

A revolutionary, he served Virginia in the Continental Congress (1780-83, 1786-88), starting off as its youngest member. A political theorist as well as practitioner, he grew dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation and gave attention as to how the new nation would govern itself after revolution. He advocated a “Republic” or “free government,” which would balance national and state interests as well as legislative, executive and judicial functions of government in a structure which would, as the Preamble of the Constitution proposes, “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” We often take this document and its purposes for granted, while neglecting the underlying perceptions which motivated Madison.

With colleagues Hamilton and Jay, Madison shares his ideas in The Federalist (Mentor Book, [1787] 1998) especially in Nos. 10, 14, 18-20, 37-58, 62-63 in which he exposed his educational background. In No.51, for example, he wrote about the necessity of balancing interests: It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. 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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Madison’s Federalist comments on the history of ancient and modern governments and his political theory represent the ripe fruit of his education, and the adaptation of Witherspoon’s ideas in, for example, his lectures on “Moral Philosophy.”

Madison was also concerned about the dangers to a “Republic” of corrupt politics sanctioned by religious interests. Therefore, he fought successfully against Virginia’s Anglican establishment, with the aid of Presbyterians, and especially Baptists to pass Jefferson’s “Act for Religious Liberty” (1786). Despite the fact that the new United States Constitution prohibited a religious test for federal office, Madison was flexible.

As a member of the new House of Representatives (1789-1797), he helped write and pass Ten Amendments to the Constitution. Fortuitously, the first linked inseparably religious with civil rights: Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise (Madison’s phrase) thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It should be noted that Jefferson felt that no ministers should be allowed to hold public office fearing clerical abuse of power like that in the Old World. Madison joined Witherspoon in opposing his fellow Virginian, holding that ministers should not lose such an important civil right just because of their position. But in exercising it, they would receive no special privileges, nor be spared the rough-and-tumble of the political process with its checks and balances.

Madison went on to serve as Jefferson’s secretary of state and as president for two terms (1809-1817). Although not an illustrious chief executive, some credit him for seeing us through a “Second War of Independence” in 1812, during which the British drove the Madisons from the White House and burned Washington.

Furthermore, while some credit Madison, in cooperation with Jefferson, for opposing Adam’s onerous “Alien and Sedition Acts” by developing ideas about the right of states to nullify federal law, they also suggest he laid the ground for Southern arguments in favor of the Confederacy in 1861. Madison himself held slaves, and considered them inferior to whites, but was open to emancipation and colonization programs during his lifetime. While he failed to apply some of his deepest insights to the institution of slavery, abolitionists did.

Despite “Jamie” Madison’s flaws, he left a great political heritage, a Constitution under which we still live, and insights we should continue to ponder. Sheldon suggests he was a Niebuhrian “Christian realist” before Reinhold Niebuhr.

Certainly we Presbyterians should wish him a happy birthday because of the Presbyterian connection. Madison once claimed that he owed all he was and became to Robertson. And he always held Witherspoon (the “old doctor” as he called Witherspoon, who “doctored” his most famous student with an L. L. D. in 1787) in highest esteem for his wisdom and collegiality during the nation’s formative years.

posted July 2, 2001

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James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history, Union Seminary-PSCE.

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