A look back at James Madison, a minority rights activist who protected slavery


Born on a 4,000-acre plantation in Virginia that numbered more than 100 slaves, Madison moved to Princeton in 1769 and immersed himself in his studies with abandon, completing two years of study in one. Drawn to the Boston Tea Party and the growing rebellion against Britain’s violation of individual freedoms, Madison became a passionate advocate for dissent and religious freedom. He believed that religious diversity in the North fueled the kind of protest that was rare in the South, where the Church of England and the persecution of other religions reigned supreme.

Feldman painstakingly renders the deliberations on drafting the constitution of the emerging nation down to the smallest detail, as if to reflect the onerousness of the task. The debates are so well told that they seem to take place in real time.

Feldman understands how the writers were distressed by how slavery would mar the character of the Constitution and even of the writers themselves. Luther Martin of Maryland argued that slavery was “incompatible with the principles of the Revolution and dishonorable to the American character.” “And George Mason of Virginia, who owned some 300 slaves, nonetheless called the founders trafficking,” fearing slave revolts and the negative impact on white productivity. Predicting the conflicts to come, he warned: “By an inevitable chain of cause and effect, providence punishes national sins with national calamities.

Although Madison recognizes the immorality of the institution, he cares less about decorum and more about the public perception of the new nation. He said that he “thought it wrong to admit in the constitution the idea that there could be property in men. “a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation not exceeding $ 10 for each person.”

Feldman writes: “Madison’s position reflected the twisted moral logic of slave owners enacting a constitution protecting slavery while claiming to oppose that very institution.”

Feldman argues that while some of the editors were ashamed of their association with slavery, which many civilized nations had already begun to abandon, “they just weren’t ashamed enough to do anything about it, at least. not so long as their livelihoods and those of their families depended on slave labor. ”

While Feldman points out the irony of the founders’ efforts to create a nation based on ideals of freedom, as well as Madison’s commitment to upholding minority rights, he sometimes seems to miss the elephant in the room. Feldman writes that Madison’s arguments in favor of a bill proposed by Thomas Jefferson establishing religious freedom applied to all Virginians, not just dissenters, but fails to note the violated rights of slaves. And although he notes that Madison recognized the humanity of enslaved Africans, he seems to accept Madison’s uncharitable view of Native Americans at face value. Without further details, Feldman writes: “He called the Shawnees a ‘treacherous people’ and considered all Indians to be savages.” However, Feldman does not seem to have considered the possibility that Madison simply chose to deny the humanity of Native Americans as they valiantly resisted the invasion of white settlers.

Yet Feldman goes further than many other scholars to insert slaves into the narrative, sometimes providing their names, circumstances, and movements as he diligently traces Madison’s evolving ideas about the political system he created and the institution that has forever marred its heritage.

Feldman also takes a close look at Madison’s friendships with Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, all of which escalated into political acrimony. And we’re given a glimpse into his romantic life: of the socially awkward 32-year-old courting 15-year-old Kitty Floyd breaking up their engagement. Feldman later humorously recalls how Madison, 46, and still single, pursued the affection of Dolley Payne Todd, 23, a widow and mother of a young child who had recently lost her husband and another child to the yellow fever. The 5-foot-4-inch Madison appeals to a friend to convey his affection for the wanted 5-foot-7-inch widow, who becomes his wife and political partner.

For much of her political career, Madison avoided social life in Washington, preferring to write letters in face-to-face contact. However, after Jefferson appointed him Secretary of State, his wife assumed a central role in Washington, where she often hosted dinners at their homes or at the White House. The sociable Dolley proved to be a valuable asset to her husband. ” Under Dolley’s tutelage, ” writes Feldman, ” Madison developed what would become a long-standing habit of witty storytelling after dinner, the perfect venue for her particular brand of dry wit. . ”

Following the election of James Madison as president, the couple hosted the first inaugural ball and Dolley would become the first of many first ladies known for their fashion sense.

” The Three Lives of James Madison ” widens the window into the character and the far-sighted vision of Madison and the men who founded America. Like the nation they wanted, their brilliance and idealism were irrevocably tarnished by their moral flaws.