The Founding Fathers, as a group, are an underrated lot. Even Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin sometimes don't get the respect they deserve; and many have never even heard of John Adams or James Madison. John Adams has been somewhat better-known since the HBO miniseries about him with Paul Giamatti, but even he is still unknown to many; and there has been virtually nothing made about James Madison. PBS has done documentaries about all five of the other Founders I mentioned, but they didn't do a single documentary about James Madison. They did one about his wife Dolley, which was quite good; but nothing about him that I can find (and I've looked). More than the other major Founders, James Madison doesn't get the respect he deserves.
Another measure of how overlooked Madison is can be found in the History Channel's "Founding Brothers" documentary, based on Joseph Ellis's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book of the same name. The documentary covers the presidencies of our first three presidents, which were Washington, Adams, and Jefferson; and they give some mention of Madison's role in these times. But they do not cover the administration of Madison, who was the only other Founding Father president. Perhaps they didn't want to get into the War of 1812 issue, since that's a subject for a documentary in and of itself; but for whatever reason, they neglected Mr. Madison's presidency. Thus, I am of the opinion that James Madison is the most underrated of the Founding Fathers; and I decided I'd write a little bit about this unknown genius.
It might be helpful to first talk a little about Madison's accomplishments. The most important of them - and Madison himself would have agreed about this - was his role in the Constitutional Convention. He wrote a document called the Virginia Plan which was, in effect, the first draft of our Constitution; and had an enormous influence on the final document. Anyone who's studied the Constitutional Convention knows that the document was a bundle of compromises; but no one had a greater influence on the final document than he did, and so he is thus rightly known as the Father of the Constitution. He's also notable as the one who kept the best record of what happened at the Convention itself, and his notes are quite literally the only record for much of what was said there.
Besides the Constitution itself (and the Bill of Rights), his greatest writing was his massive contribution to the Federalist Papers; a work written during the debates over whether to ratify the Constitution, which advocated swift ratification of the document as the "supreme law of the land." Co-written with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the Federalist Papers were not only the greatest argument for the necessity of the Constitution; but are also today the greatest source for interpreting those passages whose meaning is today debated. People have debated what the Constitution's words mean ever since it was adopted, and no source has been better at clarifying their meaning than the Federalist Papers, which reduce the many errors of interpretation of this document.
The biggest objection to the Constitution during the ratification debates was that it lacked a Bill of Rights. Although Alexander Hamilton deals with this objection in the Federalist Papers by saying that there was no need for a Bill of Rights, because all of the thirteen states already had one; James Madison never disagrees with the need for one in the Federalist Papers. (I'm not blaming Alexander Hamilton for arguing the wrong side of this issue; because even though I disagree with what he said, I think it was more important for him to argue for the Constitution at that time than to attack its greatest weakness.) But James Madison, most interestingly, asks rhetorically if "a bill of rights [is] essential to liberty," and follows it up by saying "The Confederation has no bill of rights" (Source: Federalist No. 38) - pointing out the irony of opposing the Constitution for lacking a Bill of Rights, when the existing system of government (today called the Articles of Confederation) had no Bill of Rights either. The opponents of the Constitution were, of course, right that the document needed a Bill of Rights; and it was probably more important for it to have one than for the weaker Articles of Confederation to have one; because the Articles had less power in government that needed to be checked in this way. But ironically, it was the Father of the Constitution himself - James Madison - who wrote the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which became the U.S. Bill of Rights - rather than the objectors to the Constitution, who had argued so strenuously against the Constitution for its lacking such a bill.
Baron de Montesquieu
Madison may have been the most original political philosopher among the Founding Fathers; because it was he who wrote the first draft of a Constitution that actually worked in practice. The ideas of separation of powers and checks and balances were not new ones, as they had been advocated by the French philosopher Montesquieu earlier in that century; but it was James Madison who designed a system of government that applied this principle effectively, moreso than any previous government had done - even the British one, which Madison used partially as a model. There are many Founding Fathers who were true geniuses, and would have scored high on today's standardized tests; but Madison may have been the most brilliant of them all. Reasonable people can disagree with this, of course; and I will not mind if your views on this differ from mine. But the idea that Madison was among the most brilliant is beyond dispute, and my vote for the most brilliant goes to James Madison.
Madison was a pupil of Thomas Jefferson, and played a role in the George Washington administration; but he famously drifted away from his former friend Alexander Hamilton - with whom he had co-written the Federalist Papers - when they became political enemies in the post-Revolution period. This is one of the few things about Madison in this period that is covered in the "Founding Brothers" documentary, as the documentary focuses a lot on the rift between the Founding Fathers of the Federalist Party (namely, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton), and those of the Democratic-Republican Party (namely, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). I think I tend to agree more with Jefferson and Madison on economics (especially the national bank issue), and more with Adams and Hamilton on foreign policy (especially the war between Britain and France, the two major superpowers of that time). Each side was better than the other on some issues.
As far as Madison's presidency goes, this is completely neglected in the "Founding Brothers" documentary; and one gets the sense they didn't want to cover the War of 1812, with its massive scope and controversial nature. This is not as much a problem as it could be; as PBS's Dolley Madison documentary covers how they were affected by the War of 1812, and PBS dedicated some two hours to the War of 1812 in an entire documentary about that subject. (More on that here.) But I would have liked some coverage of Madison's presidency; and I would like to see at least one documentary about his life, since I've not been able to find any (and I've looked). There's only the one about his wife Dolley; which is quite good, but doesn't cover him in much depth, making me wish there were something about his life.
Until something like this is made, my vote for the most underrated would go to James Madison. Few people even know his name, and still fewer know why he's important. But James Madison was vital to this country's founding; and we are still living in the working and functioning government that he created. He's not the only one who founded this country, of course, or even the only writer of the Constitution; but he is definitely the one who most deserves the title "the Father of the Constitution," and this alone would make him a great man in my book.
Footnote to this blog post: There is a docudrama about the Constitutional Convention, in which James Madison is a major character. Its name is "A More Perfect Union," and it came out in 1987 - the bicentennial year of the Constitution (signed in 1787). This docudrama isn't about Madison per se, but he does have a starring role in it, so I thought I'd mention this as a footnote. Here's the link to it if you're interested.
"A More Perfect Union" movie
"Dolley Madison" movie
"War of 1812" program
My Constitution post
My Bill of Rights post