Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution


September 25, 2019
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution by Jeff Broadwater (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019)

Before getting into the latest book by historian and former attorney Jeff Broadwater, this reviewer had always had the impression that James Madison was essentially a protégé of Thomas Jefferson. It had always seemed that Madison was in Jefferson’s shadow. Broadwater makes it very clear, however, that the relationship was one of political equals and not of a protégé and a mentor.

Broadwater, professor at Barton College and author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder and James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, has written an informative study about the relationship between two seemingly different Founders. The difference appears to be in the documents that each is known for: Jefferson as the draftsman of the liberal Declaration of Independence, and Madison as the “father” of the more conservative Constitution. Broadwater asks how two sets of ideas were produced by these very close friends and professional colleagues. He goes on to explore the effect that both Jefferson and Madison had on each other politically and philosophically.

The book is arranged chronologically and the early history of the United States, from just before the Revolution through to the early Republic, serves as the backdrop of the narrative. Broadwater has essentially written a dual-biography, and the lives of both Jefferson and Madison are intertwined at various points. The early education and political influences of Jefferson are described in brief detail, followed by the younger Madison. The nature of Britain’s constitution and doctrine of parliamentary supremacy brought the two men together idealistically before the Revolution. Jefferson made a name for himself as a writer, arguing for British liberties for the colonists (“Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms”) and getting selected to serve in the Second Continental Congress. When Congress resolved in May 1776 that the colonies were to write new state constitutions, Madison was serving in the Virginia assembly. He contributed to the new state plan, focusing much of his energy on freedom of conscience, suffrage, and the election of the executive.

The second chapter, “A Happy Talent of Composition: 1774-1776,” describes the efforts that Jefferson made to draft the Declaration. Broadwater makes it clear that the Declaration was a necessity for the new nation, serving a constitutional purpose. Americans were a distinct people, and Jefferson’s document legitimized a new American government. After the Declaration, Jefferson returned to Virginia and joined Madison in the assembly, working in close collaboration on issues such as western settlement, repealing punitive British laws, and religious freedom. Both men had the same convictions when it came to religious toleration and freedom of conscience. They worked on the Bill for Religious Freedom, which “united Jefferson and Madison in a common cause. The question of religious liberty would also prove to be critical in shaping Madison’s thinking about how to protect individual rights and manage competing interests in a republican society.” (p. 62)

Although both men were close politically and personally, the Revolution split them apart for a time. Madison went on to serve in the Confederation Congress, trying to strengthen a national government, while Jefferson began his diplomatic career in France. Madison continued to apprise Jefferson of matters on the domestic front, and Jefferson observed the early events of the French Revolution. Madison became more of a nationalist as a result of his efforts in the Confederation Congress, and he would be instrumental in arranging the federal convention of 1787. Jefferson tried to convince Madison of his own constitutional philosophies in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, but Madison was in the thick of events in Philadelphia: writing and advocating the Virginia Plan and recording all the debates during the convention. He was ultimately not pleased with the new Constitution. Jefferson, from Paris, offered suggestions. Jefferson was sent copies of essays written by Madison in what became known as The Federalist Papers, and he celebrated the ratification of the Constitution since it earned the new nation much needed international respect.

When Jefferson returned from Paris, he was nominated to be the nation’s first Secretary of State. Madison was elected to the new House of Representatives, where he battled furiously with Anti-Federalists such as Patrick Henry and George Mason. Madison worked on adding amendments to the Constitution, including a Bill of Rights. By this point, both men had different views regarding the new government. Jefferson believed in constant change since that demonstrated progress. Madison, who spent a great deal of energy on the blueprint of the government, was much more cautious and welcomed stability.  However, their areas of agreement were more important than their differences: “Jefferson and Madison shared a commitment to civil liberties, especially an expansive view of freedom of conscience.” (p. 199) The last chapter gives a brief description of how the two continued working together during the Washington presidency (trying to thwart Hamilton’s bank plan), the Adams administration (advocating the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts), Jefferson’s own presidency (the Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act), and Madison’s tenure as chief executive (the War of 1812). In retirement, they wrote to each other about limited and gradual emancipation and the concept of judicial review. Concerned about his own reputation, Jefferson’s last wish to Madison was to “‘ . . . take care of me when dead.’” (p. 207)

Broadwater, a seasoned attorney, relied on a great deal of documentary evidence to present his portrait of the relationship between the two Founders. Not only were both men incredibly prolific letter-writers, but they left their own documents, pamphlets, essays and articles for anyone to access. It was obvious that Broadwater’s legal training was essential to comb through the many details of both Jefferson and Madison. The bibliography stands on its own as an excellent resource for any student, researcher or historian.

Overall, Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution is a valuable addition to the historiography of the writing of the Constitution. Jeff Broadwater’s method of showing how these two important intellectuals, philosophers and politicians worked with each other to not only begin a nation but also to get it working effectively is unique.


(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *