james-madisonEditor’s Note: James Madison, often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” is considered on of America’s leading founding fathers. He was the principal author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers, and was the fourth president of the United States (1809-1817).

In 1798, he secretly co-authored, along with Thomas Jefferson, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to protest the Alien and Sedition Acts. It was these resolutions where the principles of nullification and interposition first gained prominence in the American tradition.

In honor of James Madison’s birthday, March 16, 1751, we are pleased to announce the third installment of our “publications” section. This paper, “From Interposition to Nullification: Peripheries and Center in the Thought of James Madison,” by Kevin R.C. Gutzman, is a fantastic resource for understanding the political thought of Madison, which showed great changes over his career – from nationalism to state sovereignty and back.

It was originally published in the University of Virginia’s Essays in History, vol 26, 1994.


From Interposition to Nullification: Peripheries and Center in the Thought of James Madison
by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

In 1836, the expiring James Madison offered “Advice to My Country”:

The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions, is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with deadly wiles into Paradise.

Madison’s concern for the future of the union had been piqued by the Nullification Controversy and the growing appeal of states’ rights.

There is a certain irony in Madison’s worries: the states’ rights strain of Jeffersonianism owed much to the actions and public writings four decades earlier of Madison himself. The story of Madison’s career can be seen as that of a creative politician whose very creativity came, at the end of his life, to threaten his foremost achievement. After his death, his intellectual heirs would rend the union asunder; the doctrine of state sovereignty under the federal constitution, which Madison had helped formulate in response to a perceived threat to republicanism, would be used to truncate the union, the extended sphere Madison had been instrumental in creating and in which he had long lodged his fondest hopes.

James Madison’s thinking about federalism prior to 1800 reflected the relative strengths of the federal and state governments at different times. Consistent theory yielded to political imperative; understanding was altered by perspective and experience. Madison had a consistent vision of the ideal polity, but the events of those years elicited the enunciation of doctrines and the support of constitutional interpretations of which, on sober second thought, he disapproved.

James Madison was integrally involved in the conception, drafting, and passage of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Yet, he had emerged from the Philadelphia Convention eleven years earlier convinced that the old British imperium in imperio had been recreated, concerned that the federal government had not been given enough power vis-a-vis the states. To rectify the situation, he had proposed a constitutional amendment making certain basic freedoms enforceable by the federal judiciary against the states.

This apparent inconsistency need not be viewed as a sign of opportunism. The Virginia Plan and the Virginia Resolutions were both devices Madison hoped would preserve the hard-won gains of the Revolution. He did not want mere union, but a certain type of union; he did not want mere federalism, but federalism which would return control of the republic to those who could be trusted to act continentally. In the context of 1787, this desire led to advocacy of firmer union in the Virginia Plan; in that of 1798, to assertion of states’ rights in the Virginia Resolutions.

Thus, Publius could point to the reservation of rights to the states as a positive feature of the proposed federal edifice: while he would have preferred a more centralized union, Madison believed the union in prospect was superior to the Confederation government. As a statesman, improvement was Madison’s goal; as an heir to the thought of St. Augustine, Madison thought that imperfection was to be expected in any human creation; as a practical politician, he adopted popular arguments with which he did not necessarily agree in order to secure his aim.

virginias-american-revolutionMadison, like his friend Thomas Jefferson, partook of the ambient partisan excess of the 1790s. Because he tended to see the actions of the Federalist administrations in an extremely negative light, his enunciation of Republican values in the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and “clarification” in the Report of 1800 were inconsistent with his statements and behavior both before and after the Federalist period. Madison undermined the prospects for long-term durability of his work in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 by acting as he did in 1798-1800.

It was to the “Principles of ’98” that James Madison’s successors in leadership of the Southern interest in federal politics turned until, in the 1960s, the South as an insular political entity was eliminated from American life. Despite what Madison said in his later years, the states’ rights tradition was firmly based on his and Jefferson’s writings in 1798.


Kevin R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, is the author of Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776–1840 and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution. He is also the co-author, with Thomas E. Woods, Jr., of Who Killed the Constitution? The Federal Government vs. American Liberty from World War I to Barack Obama. His upcoming book, James Madison and the Making of America, will be published by St. Martin’s early in 2011.

Kevin Gutzman

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