The Counterbalance: Explaining James Madison

Pastel portrait of James Madison by James Sharples (1752–1811), undated. (Princeton University Art Museum)

The charge was leveled often in his own time, as it has been ever since: James Madison is and was a hypocrite—a man inconstant in principles; “a mind mired in confusion and inconsistency, or perhaps even one suffering from schizophrenia or tainted by dishonesty.”[1]

This judgment is only a recitation of the verdict first rendered by Madison’s greatest political partner turned bête noire, Alexander Hamilton. Confused and indignant at Madison’s opposition to him and his programs as secretary of the treasury, Hamilton’s only explanation was that his character was motivated not, as he had long believed, by an inner spirit of “candour and simplicity and fairness,” but instead was of a “peculiarly artificial and complicated kind.”

If this seems a bit uncharitable, it is at least understandable. Hamilton’s lamentations (came only four short years after his and Madison’s great partnership in The Federalist essays—which itself immediately followed Madison’s seminal role in crafting the Constitution those essays so effectively defended. In so doing, he had championed a Constitutional framework that empowered the central government to a degree many, if not most, in the country did not support.[2]

Yet it was a mere matter of months into Washington’s (and Hamilton’s) first term before Madison began to organize and lead the opposition to the administration. “This kind of conduct has appeared to me the extraordinary on the part of Mr. Madison,” Hamilton sputtered, “as I know for a certainty it was a primary article in his Creed that the real danger in our system was the subversion of the National authority by the preponderancy of the State Governments. All his measures have proceeded on an opposite supposition.”[3]

This ostensible volte-face is all the more galling given the private and public views Madison expressed prior to and throughout the Constitutional Convention. He had come to Philadelphia convinced that the United States was as close to its demise as it was its birth—a worsening dystopia of over-ascendant states trampling upon the national good. “Indeed the [Articles of Confederation] neither has nor deserves advocates; and if some very strong props are not applied will quickly tumble to the ground.”[4] The laws of the Congress were being ignored, states were defaulting on their requisitions from Congress, states were in conflict over western lands, and, perhaps worst of all, foreign powers were beginning to manipulate state and regional rivalries to their advantage.[5]

In Madison’s assessment, there was one clear explanation for this: the balance of power in the young republic leaned too far, if not entirely, towards the state legislatures and away from the national government. This gross imbalance was as “permanently inherent” as it was “fatal to the object” of the Articles of Confederation, and so those Articles must be entirely replaced with a new plan of government.[6]

More important than the means to enforce its own laws or to independently raise its own revenue, Madison was convinced that the new national government must be given the power to veto state laws. This power, “to be applied in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States,” was absolutely necessary for the long-term survival of the Union. “Without this defensive power, every positive power that can be given [to the national government] on paper will be evaded and defeated.”[7]

The fate of the republic—of the American experiment itself—hung in the balance, and Madison saw the opening days of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia as his moment to push affairs in a favorable direction. His plan for a national government comprised of three branches with a bicameral legislature—known as the “Virginia Plan”—was formally offered before the Convention on its first day by Virginia’s governor, Edmund Randolph.[8]

In addition to affording the national legislature a “negative on all laws passed by the several States,” Madison’s plan sought to further geld them through representation and election. The lower house’s members would be elected directly by the people of the states, not by the state legislatures, as they were in the Confederation Congress. Members of the upper house would then be nominated and elected by the lower house.

Equal representation in the Articles (one state, one vote, regardless of size) had artificially inflated state power on the national level. To remedy this, the Virginia Plan also stipulated that representation in both houses should be proportional—either based on the size of a state’s population or its contributions to the national treasury. Not only would each representative be elected directly by their constituents, but they, and any other representatives from their state, would have their own individual votes. The legislative branch would be the engine of a new, vigorous national government—a government that was to be founded on the will of the American people and not upon the will of the several states.

Taken together, all these items were the weights needed to tilt the United States back into equipoise, curtailing the overweening strength of the states by enlarging the strengths of the national at their expense. Madison likened the American system of government to a solar system in which the national government’s ability to frustrate the rampant exercise of power by the states was “the great pervading principle that must controul the centrifugal tendency of the States; which without it, will continually fly out of their proper orbits and destroy the order & harmony of the political System.”[9] If a national veto and direct election seemed extreme at the time, it was only because extreme circumstances demanded it. Extremes were needed to counterbalance extremes.

In the weeks and months leading up to the convention, and in the long, hot, often contentious days of it, James Madison became the intellectual force in championing that counterbalance: a national, supreme government with its own means of revenue and enforcement whose independent power and prestige would force the over-ascendant states back into “their proper orbits.”

Much to his chagrin, he was only partly successful. Fears of an overweening national government akin to the one they had just gained independence from were still very much at the forefront of delegates’ minds. While Madison and his allies successfully persuaded their colleagues to approve a supreme national government with independent powers and sources of revenue, he was rendered nearly despondent by their refusal to accept his negative on state laws. The Supremacy Clause, enumerating that all laws made by the national government “shall be the supreme Law of the Land,” was but an unsatisfying substitute.[10]

Only begrudgingly too did he accept the upper house in the legislative branch affording equal suffrage to each state—and to have its members selected by the state legislatures he was so determined to bridle.[11]

Convinced that the immensity of the times had demanded remedies of equal scale (his remedies), he left Philadelphia at the end of the summer in resignation—haunted by the fear “that the plan should it be adopted will neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts [against] the state governments.”[12]

Madison exited the convention as he had entered it: convinced, unlike many, that what the United States had to fear were the encroachments of the states—past, present, and future—much more than encroachments from the as-yet-unapproved national government.[13] Time soon thickened things for him however, as within a few short years after ratification of the Constitution, and the first president and Congress duly-elected under it had taken their respective offices, Madison found that the balance in America was shifting at an alarming rate in the opposite direction.

Alexander Hamilton had hardly allowed the ink on the new Constitution to dry before he jumped head-long into the fray, sending several proposals to Congress that would not only address the country’s outstanding Revolutionary debt, but put the infant government’s “machine in some regular motion.”[14] Not only did he seek to create a national bank akin to England’s, but also called for a funding plan that would repay the current possessors of “final settlement certificates” issued to Revolutionary veterans at the conclusion of the war as payment for their service in full. Understandably doubtful that those certificates would ever be honored, most veterans had sold their certificates to financial speculators for what amounted to pennies on the dollar. Hamilton believed that the credit of the United States was dependent upon honoring those certificates, even if it meant that the speculators, and not veterans, would be receiving the lion’s share of payments.

Madison, hardly alone in being taken aback by this and Hamilton’s other proposals, argued that the public credit of the United States, though important, was not paramount in this case.[15]Justice was paramount—justice towards those veterans who had fought for American independence and to whom the certificates had been originally issued. His alternative was to fairly compensate the speculators, but also to compensate the original holders, who would then “receive, from their country, a tribute due to their merits, which, if it does not entirely heal their wounds, will assuage the pain of them.”[16]

Doing right by war veterans was but an immediate concern to Madison. What truly alarmed him—and what caused him to fear for the future of republican government in the United States once more—was the overarching character the Hamiltonian programs sought to instill in the national government. A national bank, a permanent funded debt, internal programs to develop domestic manufacturing and development—all items which, taken together, promised to institute a central government dominated by speculators and money-men. Instead of an agrarian republic, Madison feared he was watching the genesis of a northern oligarchy of capital no different than Great Britain’s. His imagination could “not attempt to set bounds to the daring depravity of the times. The stockjobbers will become the pretorian band of the Government—at once its tool & its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, & overawing it, by clamours & combinations.”[17]

In essence, what Madison felt himself to be witnessing was, distilled down to its basic form, a repeat of the behavior he had been repulsed by during the Confederation Period: self-interested, base conduct on the part of specific entities to manipulate public affairs to their own advantage. Before the Constitution it had been the individual states exploiting the national power vacuum to ignore their obligations and aggrandize themselves at the expense of the national interest. Now it was individual speculators and creditors who were seeking to profit at the federal trough, all the while controlling the levers of government through insulated networks of interest and venality.

Whether it was “schism” in the former case, or “consolidation” in the latter, imbalance was leading the United States down a road far away from the republicanism it had sought in the War for Independence. “Those who love their country, its repose, and its republicanism, will therefore study to avoid the alternative, by elucidating and guarding the limits which define the two governments; by inculcating moderation in the exercise of the powers of both.”[18]

Thus did Madison once more begin to mobilize in an effort to counterbalance an ascending public ill. Teaming with his hero Thomas Jefferson, the duo constructed an opposition party to Hamilton and his allies—much to the aforementioned chagrin of Hamilton and of history.[19] Having been the champion of centralizing policies during the Constitutional Convention and Ratification processes, he was now leading the opposition to centralizing policies from the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives.

This apparent switch would reach its one-hundred and eightieth degree in the wake of the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law during the presidency of John Adams—well after Hamilton had left office. Passed amidst the furor of increasing hostilities with France, the Acts made it a “high misdemeanor” to “write, print, utter or publish . . . scandalous and malicious . . . writings against the government of the United States.”[20]

Appalled at this blatant violation of free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment (written by himself), Madison, now retired from Congress, penned the Virginia Resolution in response. In it, he asserted that when the federal government has committed a “deliberate, palpable and dangerous exercise of other powers not granted” in the Constitution, “the states . . . have the right . . . to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.”[21]The man who had spent months pleading for a national veto on state laws now found himself a decade later arguing that the states essentially had a veto on national laws when those laws violated the Constitution.

Yet in standing athwart the centralizing policies of Hamilton and the Federalists—after championing centralizing policies in the Constitutional Convention and Ratification process –Madison had not changed so much as the balance of governmental forces had changed around him—he was in fact staying true to his individual desire to maintain a balance in the body politic. As he wrote after the Constitution had been signed,

The great desideratum in Government is, so to modify the sovereignty as that it may be sufficiently neutral between different parts of the Society to controul one part from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the entire society.[22]

In both cases, Madison had positioned himself to insure that American government was “sufficiently neutral” or balanced. He had organized the nationalist forces prior to and inside the Constitutional Convention; then had teamed with Hamilton to become the intellectual force at the forefront of the Federalist movement during Ratification when the states were exceeding their proper domain. As Hamilton and the Federalists gained an over-ascendance during the presidencies of Washington and Adams, he had teamed with Thomas Jefferson to become the main political organizer and intellectual force of the Republican opposition, making the latter “a check” on the other and helping to insure the country may have “more checks to oppose to each other [so that] we shall then have the more scales and the more weights to perfect and maintain the equilibrium.”[23]

In so doing, Madison was not only functioning as the main counterbalancing force in the American polity, but also serving as an individual manifestation of the core principles he had memorably expressed in The Federalist. Not only were factions—like the Federalists he helped lead prior to the Constitution and the Republicans after it—unavoidable, but in an extended republic like the United States “the greater variety of parties and interests [you have makes] . . . it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”[24]

In a “compound republic” like the United States, factions were also made to exist within government itself, with power not only divided between the national and state governments, but with power further divided by department within the national government itself, making ambition to “counteract ambition.”[25] Madison personified these ideas in the role he took developing a Federalist faction to write and ratify the Constitution so as to counteract the ambition of the states, just as he did in opposing Hamilton’s programs from the House of Representatives and in creating the Republican Party.

A faction and a check-and-balance unto himself, when Hamilton and historians ever after accused Madison of not having principle, not only were they uncharitable, they were wrong. From the Constitutional Convention through his time leading the Republican opposition, he occupied the same space: straddling the scales of government in America, throwing his weight in the opposite direction when he judged them to be tipping too far in the other.

James Madison was consistent—consistently America’s counterbalance.


[1]Coleen A. Sheehan, James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 6. For the conundrum that Madison has presented to historians, see Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 165-206, and Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 141-172.

[2]See Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), xiv-xv.

[3]“To Edward Carrington, Philadelphia May 26th, 1792,” in Joanne B. Freeman, ed., Hamilton: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1991), 736-751.

[4]“To Edmund Pendleton, New York, Feby. 24. 1787,” in Jack N. Rakove, ed., Madison: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1999), 61-63.

[5]See “To James Monroe, Orange Aug: 7th. 1785,” in Ibid., 36-39.

[6]See “Vices of the Political System of the United States, April. 1787,” Ibid., 69-80.

[7]“To George Washington, New York April 16 1787,” in Ibid., 81.

[8]“The Virginia Plan: Resolutions proposed by Mr. Randolph in Convention, May 29, 1787,” Ibid., 89-91

[9]“Remarks in the Federal Convention on the Power to Negative State Laws,” Ibid., 100.

[10]U.S. Const., Art. VI, Clause II.

[11]See Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship, eds., The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison (New York: The Modern Library, 2005), 13-91; Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (New York: Random House, 2010), 105-123, 144-229; Richard Brookhiser, James Madison (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 52-60; Ellis, Quartet, 115-153.

[12]“To Thomas Jefferson, Philada. Sepr. 6, 1787,” in Rakove, ed., Writings, 136.

[13]See “Speech in the Federal Convention on the General and State Governments,” ibid., 108-109.

[14]“From Alexander Hamilton to William Hamilton, 2 May 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[15]For a summary of Hamilton’s perspective, see Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 297-301. For Madison’s perspective, see Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early Americans Republic, 1788-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 136-145.

[16]“Discrimination between Present and Original Holders of the Public Debt, [11 February] 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[17]“From James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 8 August 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[18]“Government of the United States,National Gazette, February 6, 1792,” in Rakove, ed., Writings, 509.

[19]For an excellent summary and analysis of Madison’s rationale and role in constructing the Republican opposition to Hamilton and the Federalists, see Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1990), 304-336.

[20]”An Act in Addition to the Act, Entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States.’” Avalon Project, 2008, accessed August 7, 2018.

[21]“Virginia Resolutions Against the Alien and Sedition Acts,” in Rakove, ed., 589.

[22]“To Thomas Jefferson, New York Octr. 24. 1787.,” ibid., 152.

[23]“Parties, National Gazette, January 23, 1792,” ibid., 504-505.

[24]James Madison, “The Federalist No. 10,” in Robert Scigliano, ed., The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 60.

[25]James Madison, “The Federalist No. 51,” ibid., 331. There is at least some historical dispute of the authorship of Federalist 51, but the evidence points to Madison as being the author. See “Editor’s Introduction,” ibid., xxi-xli.

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  • Geoff, thanks for the well-written article on Madison. On the surface Madison is seen too often as a constitutional “turncoat” when in reality he was continually faithful to the principles for which he stood from the beginning.

  • Would you say your argument is a restatement and extension of Gordon Wood’s in “Is there a James Madison Problem?” (cited in your first end note [“Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 141-172])?

    • Yes and no. Wood and I seem to agree that there really is no “problem” as Hamilton or historians have alleged. In his chapter though, he attributes the change in Madison as a reaction to overly-idealistic notions of what the national government could be prior to the Constitution (a neutral, balancing arbiter between the states) conflicting with the reality of the national government as run by Hamilton and the Federalists. I interpret Madison’s change not as the end of a dream, but as part of his underlying desire to provide a balance in the face of extremes. He also showed this tendency in his partnership with Jefferson — throughout the entirety of which he usually provided a moderating influence to some of Jefferson’s more eccentric ideas. He was a ballast to Jefferson’s sails.

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