If you followed my book reviews last year, I’ve been keyed into the founding period of the United States, as I find the perilous nature of the country’s formation to be highly interesting, and informative. I’m not sure people quite appreciate just how fraught and tenuous the situation was at the founding of the country from the moment of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to when the United States Constitution was ratified in 1788 (and even thereafter). Or how radical a departure of societal and governmental organization the United States was from what preceded it. While there are all kinds of holes to poke in the fabric established at the founding, mainly the existence of slaves, and women being denied rights, I still think that radical departure from the norm of human societies up to that point should be recognized for how extraordinary it was.
And in my latest book read (well, listen since it was an audiobook) on the founding period was Chris DeRose’s 2011 book, Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights and the Election That Saved a Nation. The main thesis of DeRose’s book is that Virginia’s 5th Congressional House Race in 1789 between James Madison and James Monroe, between a federalist and an anti-federalist, was a pivotal turning point for the United States, and shored up its future as a free one, and the one we recognize today.
It should also be noted, as it was by DeRose, that there has not since been any House race that can match these two candidates in terms of credentials, nor in the fact that both went on to be presidents. I mean, Madison is essentially the father of the Constitution, and was so well-versed in the history of republics, governments, laws, and rights, that he would often be speaking to himself in letters ostensibly between President George Washington and the Congress. And Monroe was no slouch, either. He fought at such a young age in the American Revolutionary War, escaping certain death on the battlefield, and rose up the ranks of the military, and later public service.
The two friends turned political rivals were divided on a rather important question: To ratify the United States Constitution or not, and also, whether to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and if so, how to do it.
Monroe, Patrick Henry, and the other anti-federalists, believed that the Articles of Confederation were sufficient, and that the new scheme devised by Madison and others at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention gave far too much power to the federal government. As DeRose noted, it is extraordinary to consider that Monroe would later become president, and be the only president to date (one could argue about Trump on this one) who opposed the United States Constitution, but had to swear to uphold it while in office. The anti-federalists also worried, for good reason, that the existence of the presidency would pave the way to the presidency sliding into a monarchy.
Madison, and the federalists, however, saw that the country was not functioning at capacity under the Articles of Confederation. They were weak and exposed to foreign threats, both from the British, and from Spain playing off of land issues related to the Mississippi River. The federal government under the Articles had no way to compel the states to do anything. The Constitution would ensure a stronger federal government, a stronger revenue system, and still safeguard certain rights against government encroachment.
DeRose expertly sketched how pathetically weak the federal government was under the Articles of Confederation by pointing out, for example, that tiny little Rhode Island was bucking the government, and I learned, sea captains literally raised the flag of Rhode Island in defiance. In another example, a Sheriff in Chester, Pennsylvania was able to thwart the federal government’s edict regarding the British.
Interestingly, when it came time to campaign, Madison, who originally didn’t think it was worth risking more conventions to include a Bill of Rights, promised to do so through the new Congress, if elected to the House.
Just like today, the founders, contrary to popular myth-making and idolatry, were not in agreement, clearly, about the future direction of the country, or its organizing principles. There were stark lines between the federalists and the anti-federalists, which itself was a microcosm of divisions that still rear their head today: Between the North and the South (although, now it’s more like “rural” vs. “urban” or “coastal elites” vs. “flyover country”), and between the federal government and the states.
Before we got to the campaign for the election and its outcome, DeRose traced the history of both men, their rise to prominence, and the “peril at every turn” of the new country.
I particularly like pausing to think about three things when thinking about the founding: 1.) how young these people were that we’re talking about, anywhere between 17-years-old (fighting in the Revolutionary War) and 33-years-old (Jefferson’s age when writing the Declaration of Independence); 2.) how seemingly out of nowhere Monroe and Madison found their footing in the new country; as DeRose noted, both seemed destined for “unremarkable lives,” but through ingenuity, a duty to service and patriotism, happenstance, and certainly, the foundation laid by their ancestors, they rose to prominence; and 3.) how truly radical and extraordinary, despite his faults, George Washington was in the history of the world, not just the country. He not only relinquished power once (as a general), but twice (as president, establishing the norm of two terms).
To the Washington point, it really can’t be emphasized enough how important he was — as much as we want to avoid the great man theory of history — to the success of the new country. Aside from the aforementioned, how important the fact of him coming to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention was to its success. By having Washington at the Convention, it signaled to the delegates of the other states that the Convention was credible. They needed his buy-in.
Of course, it was all pretense anyway. Madison and the other federalists were ostensibly meeting to “revise” the existing Articles of Confederation, but they really sought to create a new constitution entirely.
DeRose spent considerable, and interesting time, going into the nitty-gritty of the debates the delegates had, particularly Madison and Henry, and again, I find it always worthwhile to remember how much they disagreed! Henry even disagreed with the preamble to the Constitution because he didn’t like that these delegates were appropriating the “people” for their bidding.
Moreover, DeRose highlighted the irony of the United States Constitution: Its success was largely thanks to Virginians Monroe (the father of the Constitution) and Washington (for his credibility), and the state itself ratifying it; and that the Southern states were particularly interested in having a strong national government at the time. Fast forward a mere 73 years later, and Virginia was one of the Confederate states that seceded from the Union in the American Civil War (and became the site of the capital, no less), and the South’s frustration was with a strong national government telling them what to do!
Another aspect of the Madison and Monroe campaign for the House was that it was a campaign at all! Before that, candidates didn’t really campaign for seats it seems. Instead, voters would vote based on the reputation and character of the person. But in this race, the two campaigned around the state, where Madison even got frostbite on his nose, and they campaigned on issues (the Constitution, and direct taxation). They also debated! For hours! Can you imagine that in the modern day? The other aspect of the time then that I couldn’t imagine today (although there’s a form of it in the Iowa caucus) is going to a polling place and announcing to everyone who I am voting for, and even offering a rational.
The best part? Even after Madison won the race comfortably, they remained friends for another four and a half decades. Which maybe is less common today, but it used to be the case that politicians could be “political rivals” while still being cordial with each other as human beings, and even be friends.
As DeRose argued in the book, Madison’s win then meant the passage of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and the country we know today. Because in DeRose’s argument, he can’t imagine anyone else who would be able to convince and compromise with so many varying factions on the Bill of Rights, and that it took a federalist to do it. So, it certainly wouldn’t have happened if an anti-federalist like Monroe was in office, and DeRose also doesn’t think any other federalist could have gotten the Bill of Rights (or the Constitution itself, for that matter) through the Congress and the states.
In fact, interestingly, while DeRose said Henry was often acknowledged as the greatest orator of his time, he quoted another figure who said that Madison was the greatest orator he’d ever heard, if you base oratory on the ability to persuade. On that score, nobody could touch Madison.
An aside here, but I also just find it really interesting how weird history is when you look closer: Madison and Monroe were both friends with Thomas Jefferson; Jefferson became president and served for two terms between 1801 and 1809; then, Madison served between 1809 and 1817; and finally, Monroe served from 1817 until 1825. Pretty wild, huh? And John Adams, the second president who preceded Jefferson, him and Jefferson both died on July 4th, 50 years to the date of Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. I love the historical poetry of that.
Anyhow, one of my key takeaways from learning about Madison is how vital religious liberty was to him. Like with the founding period itself, I think we forget, or are ignorant of, the history of humanity before the United States Constitution, or even the recent history before the Revolutionary War: That in the colonies under British rule, Baptists were literally beaten, punished, and jailed for praying differently, or as they charged them, “for disturbing the peace and order of things.”
Gotta love that First Amendment! And if I remember correctly from the book, Baptists were actually important to Madison’s victory in the House race.
If you’re as interested in learning more about the founding period of the United States, I highly recommend this rather unique lens DeRose provides, and the importance he placed on a single House Race as a being a bellwether for the United States. In general, DeRose said (and other historians have echoed this sentiment) less focus is placed on House races just by the nature of the beast: the Senate is seen as the more important house of Congress (a reversal from the founding period!), and of course, the presidency predominates.
But DeRose made a compelling and convincing case that, if nothing else, we should at least care about Virginia’s 5th Congressional House District race in 1789.
And as always with an audiobook, shout-out to Adam Verner for doing a commendable job reading the book.