Constitutional Union in the Face of Sectional Threat
James Madison served continuously in some sort of public office for forty years, culminating in his two terms as president from 1809-1817. Upon leaving the presidency, Madison retired from public office, but not completely from public life. Indeed, as the years passed, and the other members of the revolutionary generation passed away, Madison came to feel that he possessed an incredible responsibility. As the last of the founders, he felt that it was his job to safeguard all that he and his fallen comrades had worked for, namely the Constitution and the Union of states which it created. Indeed, as he no doubt felt, perhaps no other person was more fit for the job than he, the man who has come to be called the “father of the Constitution.” More important than the public view of Madison’s role, was his own view of his legacy. Madison saw the creation of the Constitution and the Union as his life’s work, and devoted much of his retirement to protecting them. In the words that were his dying bequest to the country which he helped create Madison wrote, “the advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”1 It is this overwhelming desire to protect his life’s work which explains his concern over what would come to be the greatest threat to his beloved Union: sectionalism. Moreover, while he vehemently opposed the sectional threats to Union which would emerge during his retirement, the way in which he opposed them can only be understood by taking into account Madison’s intimate self-identification with, and over arching desire to preserve, the Constitution. Madison’s calls for Union are thus all couched within the Constitution, as he understood, and as he called for everyone else to interpret, it.
During his retirement, Madison experienced and foresaw a number of sectional threats to the Union. Both events which took place during the time from 1817-1836, and perceived long-term national trends struck Madison as having the potential to create sectional discord. The Missouri Crisis and the Nullification Controversy both gave Madison occasion for grief and provided him with the opportunity to give his opinion. As we shall see, Madison saw both of these events as resulting from a misreading of the Constitution, and saw it as his job to set the record straight. In addition to these specific national crisis, Madison foresaw the problem of slavery (taken apart from the political controversies over slave state expansion such as took place over Missouri) could lead to sectional conflict, unless it was addressed in a timely and, above all, Constitutional manner. Indeed, throughout his discussion of all of these issues Madison is consistent in his desire for the preservation of the Union through Constitutional means.
The first post-retirement sectional challenge that Madison was presented with concerned the Missouri Crisis. Madison’s views of this crisis are best understood by looking at an essay he wrote in1821, “Jonathan Bull and Mary Bull,” in which he likened the dispute to one between a husband and wife. In this piece, which is quite unlike Madison’s typical writings because of its allegorical nature, Madison presents a version of the history of the United States and of the recent sectional conflict through the lens of the history of a marriage between Jonathan (who represents the North) and Mary (who represents the South).2 The story itself demonstrates how Madison perceived the dispute as originating over economic differences and the preponderance of presidents being southerners.3 Having outlined the economic and political aspects of sectional dispute, Madison next brings up the question of slavery, which then becomes the preponderant issue in the dispute. In the forum of the allegory, this argument takes the form of Jonathan stating that “white as I am all over I can no longer consort with one marked with such a deformity as the blot on your person.”4 Madison, indeed, could not understand how the North, could demand that the South should “either tear the [black] skin [(representing slavery)] from the flesh, or cut off the limb… [Or] there should be an end to all connection between them.”5 While this allegory was written after the crisis had been resolved, it demonstrates Madison’s conception of the level of threat of disunion that existed. Indeed, it must be noted that, from this allegory, Madison seems to have viewed the Northern interests as those whose irrational demands threaten the Union. Moreover, Madison viewed the compromise itself as of doubtful Constitutionality. From his perspective, Congress, and the northern majority there in, could not find a Constitutional justification for their desire to place territorial limits on slavery extension.6 The crisis and compromise thus indicated to Madison that sectional extremism, especially but not exclusively over slavery, could tear apart the Union he had worked so hard to create, especially if these extremists ignored the Constitution which he loved so dearly.
This allegory is indicative of a larger strain in Madison’s thinking during his later life, namely his opposition to slavery. James Madison was no fan of slavery on a personal level going so far as to sell property, and even contemplate parting with his beloved Montpellier, in order to avoid selling his slaves. In addition, he personally gave money as well as voicing public support for the colonization movement. However, Madison refused to let his personal feelings regarding the institution, interfere with his larger designs of preserving the Union and of abiding by the Constitution. Moreover, given his affection for the Union and his view that slavery was one of the biggest reasons why it might be broken up, it seems likely that at least part of his dislike for slavery was rooted in his fears that it might tear apart the country. As such it was, at least, only a small strand in the makeup of his pre-eminent thought and, at most, a side opinion that he constantly subjugated to his larger Union saving interests. With regard to the Missouri Crisis and his allegorical representation of it, “the lingering problem [of slavery] was… lost in the shuffle of the more pressing need to reconcile the feuding lovers and restore their happy Union.”7 Given the possibility that slavery could destroy the Union, Madison worked to find a way to end slavery in the South. He felt that the only way to accomplish this was through a system of gradual emancipation and re-colonization.8 His reasons for doing this were two-fold. First, he felt it a practical necessity, since white southerners might consider the abolition of slavery, but would never be reconciled to the idea of living in a society where they were outnumbered by free blacks. Due to a dramatic westward migration of whites and natural population growth of blacks, whites were outnumbered by blacks by a 3:2 margin in Virginia in 18209 and by an even larger margin in other southern states. Fears of slave insurrection by the white populace, even before Nat Turner’s unsuccessful attempt at rebellion, such as had happened on Santo Domingo, convinced Madison that only emancipation coupled with colonization in Africa could ultimately solve the South’s slavery problem. In addition, Madison’s argument for colonization included the idea that emancipation be both gradual and voluntary on the part of the slave owners, so as not to engender further sectional strife. The second reason why Madison supported colonization as a means for ending slavery was Constitutional. While radical abolitionist groups called for people to follow a higher law, “The American Colonization Society… was the only organization working toward emancipation… that did not see the Constitution as an obstacle to emancipation.”10 These facts demonstrate that while Madison was indeed an avowed opponent of slavery, his views on the subject were at least partly a result of his Unionist thought, while the plan he supported for the ending of slavery was largely influenced by both Constitutional and Unionist concerns.
The doctrine of nullification, and the crisis which occurred in 1832 when South Carolina attempted to actually enforce this doctrine, would prove the greatest threat to Union and Constitution which Madison would face during his retirement. Additionally, because of the Constitutional interpretations of those who espoused nullification, and because of their attempts to draw support for their views from Madison’s own writings, he viewed it as the most personal threat as well. Even before the doctrine was clearly enunciated, Madison had voiced his opposition to the principles it involved. In a series of letters to Judge Roane, Madison agreed that while there certainly was a provision for settling disputes between the federal government and the states, this power was vested in the federal court system and not in the individual states.11 This was only the beginning of Madison’s battle with states rights doctrines gone to extremes. Indeed, one major reason why Madison would become so hostile to the nullifiers was because, in his mind, the “were undertaking nothing less than a fundamental redefinition of the Union.”12 Even before the nullification controversy came to a head in 1832, Madison feared that if successful, the nullifiers “would convert the federal government into a mere league” not unlike the confederation which had failed so miserably.13
What made this particular threat to the Union so dire in Madison’s eyes, was that it was founded upon a fundamental misunderstanding of Constitutional principles which the founding generation had worked so hard to ensure. As the last member of that generation, and as one who had done so much to create the Constitution, Madison felt it his duty to educate the next generation about the real origins of the Constitution, while at the same time preventing the kind of mistakes which would lead the nullifiers to such wrong headed conclusions. Working alongside this duty to protect the Constitution was his fear that his own words might somehow lead to the destruction of the Union which he had worked so hard to create. Madison feared that, if the nullifiers somehow managed to the destroy the Union and convinced the public that they had derived their legitimacy from his writings that “his name would endure not as the founder of a free nation but as the prophet of anarchy and ruin.”14 Indeed, the nullifiers did base their doctrine largely on principles put forth by Jefferson and Madison in their Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798. Though Madison sharply disagreed with them, writing to Senator Robert Hayne to tell him that he had grossly misread Madison’s writings, the nullifiers, “still preferred [their] own interpretation of the principles of 1798.”15 Thus, along with viewing the battle against nullification as one for Union and Constitution, Madison also viewed it as a personal crusade to save his own reputation and preserve his legacy. He went so far as to call the nullification a “heresy”16 against the principles of the Constitution which, if successful, could only result in the destruction of the republic. Indeed, in his Notes on Nullification, Madison demonstrated to himself, and he hoped to the country, “the absurdity of [the] claim in its naked a suicidal form [that there]… [Can] be a Constitutional right in a single state to nullify a law of the U.S.”17 He argued that, because they could not site nullification as either a natural or a Constitutional right, that the exponents of that doctrine had no backing in historical or legal precedent18, and that they must be opposed by “every friend to Republican Government.”19 Madison’s usual tact and politeness are present only in very dilute forms, as he argued, fought, and pleaded for the public to recognize the rightness of his cause and to oppose the nullifiers as blind extremists who would subvert the Constitution and destroy Union unless they were stopped.
Despite all this, Madison, when he died, still had hope that the Union would go on. He hoped that economic necessity would cause the South to industrialize thus removing one difference between the sections and one area for conflict. He also hoped that either colonization or some other method of gradual emancipation would remove the slavery issue, thus saving Jonathan and Mary’s usually happy marriage. Indeed, throughout his retirement, Madison can be described as cautiously optimistic, yet always ready to fight to defend his beloved Constitution and the Union it had created. Indeed, whether he perceived them coming from the North, as in the case of the Missouri Crisis, or the South, such as the Nullification controversy, Madison “regarded with horror threats to the Union from whatever source”20 and to proper Constitutionality as understood by the founding generation. As the years went on, and founder after founder died, this generation became embodied in its last surviving member, the father of the Constitution, James Madison, who was always prepared to defend his creation against the sectionalism which would eventually rip it apart. But Madison could not live forever, and in 1836, fittingly the year that the first president born in an independent America was elected, he, like the rest of the Constitution’s creators, finally succumbed, leaving the preservation, or destruction, of the Union entirely in the hands of a new generation.
Bibliography Allison, Robert J. “From the Covenant of Peace, A Simile of Sorrow:” James Madison’s