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Mr. Madison, in retiring for a time from public office, did not lose his interest in public affairs. Of few Americans can it be said with more truth that he had a genius for politics, and the subject, wherever he might be, was never out of his mind. There is not much else in the volumes of his published letters, while there is just enough else to show that in these he said all he had to say about anything. His more ambitious writings, the papers in "The Federalist," the essay on The British Doctrine of Neutral Trade, his controversial articles in the newspapers under various pseudonyms, are all political, all able, and all of great value as a part of the history of the times. Those which are controversial, however, must be taken, like his letters, as aids to knowledge rather than as definite conclusions to be accepted without question. It does not detract from the value of these letters, however, that they are written from the point of view of a party leader. Affairs of only temporary importance sometimes loom up before him merely because of their influence upon some immediate party movement; and others, of far-reaching conse[226]quences, which have no such bearing, escape his notice altogether; but the reader soon learns that he may, at any rate, confide in the sincerity of the writer, and accept as freely the reasons given for his course as they are frankly stated.

Of the literary value of his writings, aside from their historical interest, there is not much to be said, though Mr. Madison always wrote, even in his letters, as if writing for posterity. He was not felicitous in the use of language; the style is turgid, heavy with resounding words of many syllables, unillumined by any ray of imagination, any flash of wit or of humor; and the sentences are often involved and badly put together. But there is a genuineness, an evident sincerity of purpose, in all he wrote, and occasionally an expression of deep feeling, which are always impressive. We search for glimpses of his private life and character in such letters, for they are not easily apparent. In one sense he had no private life, or, at least, none that was not so subordinate to his public career that there was little in it either significant or attractive. There is, in this respect, a marked contrast between his correspondence and that of Jefferson. There was, possibly, a little affectation in Jefferson's frequent assertions of his intense desire for the quiet of the country and the tranquillity of home, and of his distaste for the turmoils and anxieties of public office. But he was certainly fond of country life, with the leisure to potter about among his sheep and his trees; to[227] watch the growth of his wheat and his clover; to contrive new coulters for his plows; to talk of philosophy, of the Social Contract, of mechanics, and of natural history: if he was averse to public life, it was not because political power and distinction were a burden to him, except as they brought with them strife and unpopularity, which truly his soul loathed for himself, though he rather liked to set other people by the ears. His private life was unquestionably as full of interest to himself as it is entertaining to look upon in the unconscious revelation of his own letters.

But with Madison it was apparently quite otherwise. He unbent with difficulty. Always solemn and dignified, it was rather painful than pleasant to him to stoop to the petty matters of every-day existence. He had no small affectations, and was not forever asserting that he was without ambition; as if that, without which nobody is of much use in the world either to himself or to others, were a weakness akin to depravity. With brief intervals, covering only a few months altogether, he was where he best liked to be, from his entrance upon public life in 1775 till he stepped down in 1817 from that political elevation beyond which there are no ascending steps. During these forty-two years he found a certain enjoyment in a country home for a little while at a time, but it was chiefly the enjoyment of needed rest from official labor. The price of tobacco and the promise of the wheat crop interested him then, but only as they inter[228]ested him always as a source of his own income, and as the index to the general prosperity. At the end of a letter upon political matters, he announces with satisfaction that his merino ewe has dropped a lamb, and both mother and offspring are as well as could be expected; but it was probably Mr. Jefferson's gratification rather than his own that he had in mind, for it was Mr. Jefferson who had imported the sheep. Again, in a similar letter, he takes a little remaining space to express a hope that Mr. Jefferson may permit the use of the rams of that flock to improve the breed of the native stock; not, apparently, that he cared so much about wool as that he wished to show a courteous and friendly interest in one of Mr. Jefferson's many projects for the improvement of things generally.

It was probably during the year of comparative leisure after he left Congress that Mr. Madison built his house at Montpellier, though some question has been raised on this point. He certainly was building a house at that time, and it is not likely that he ever employed himself in that way more than once. Scattered among discussions of Alien and Sedition Laws, the war in Europe, free goods in neutral ships, and other public topics, are brief allusions to lathing nails which he depended upon Mr. Jefferson to supply; that gentleman having recently set up a machine for their manufacture, which, however, like a good many other of his contrivances, seems to have had a[229] hitch in it. So also he asks the Vice-President to see to it that, when the window-glass and the pulleys are forwarded, the "chord" for the latter shall not be forgotten; and orders for other articles, only to be found in Philadelphia, are sent to his obliging friend. Mr. Jefferson, it is easy to believe, found them rather the most interesting part of the political letters to which they were appended; and he was quite willing, no doubt, to relieve the tedium of presiding over the Senate by searching through the Market Street shops for the latest improvements in builders' hardware. To Mr. Monroe, Madison wrote that, as he is sending off a wagon to fetch nails for his carpenters, "it will receive the few articles which you have been so good as to offer from the superfluities of your stock, and which circumstances will permit me now to lay in." Evidently he was getting ready to go to housekeeping with his young wife. Monroe's stock of household goods had been replenished, perhaps by importations from France on his recent return, and he was disposing of his old supplies, by gift or sale, among his neighbors. Madison, at any rate, sends this modest list of what he would like to have: "To wit, two table-cloths for a dining-room of about eighteen feet; two, three, or four, as may be convenient, for a more limited scale; four dozen napkins, which will not in the least be objectionable for having been used; and two mattresses." It was not an extravagant outfit, even though it had not been meant for[230] one of those lordly Virginia homes of which some modern historians give us such charming pictures. "We are so little acquainted,"—Mr. Madison continues in that stately way which nothing ever surprised him into forgetting,—"we are so little acquainted with the culinary utensils in detail that it is difficult to refer to such by name or description as would be within our wants."

But pots and kettles,—though that may not be the name they were known by in Virginia,—table-cloths and mattresses, however moderate in number, are sure indications that the house, which was to be his residence when he should be content to retire from public service, was finished early in 1798. He had rested long enough, and was busy that year in attendance upon the state Assembly at Richmond, to which he consented the next year to be returned as a member. Perhaps it was because he could not keep longer out of the fray. Perhaps he felt called to a special duty. Affairs, foreign and domestic, were in a critical condition. France, in her resentment at the Jay treaty, had committed so many fresh outrages upon American commerce; had so exasperated the American people by these outrages; and, by refusing to receive the ministers from the United States, had so insulted them and the government they represented in the proposed arrangements,—disclosed in the X. Y. Z. correspondence,—that all friendly relations between the two countries had ceased, and it had seemed impossible that war could be avoided.

[231]For a while the popular sympathy was entirely with Mr. Adams's administration, and the promise could hardly be fairer that the Federalists, if they managed wisely, might remain in power and be sustained by the whole country. But in some respects they were as unwise as in others they were unfortunate. President Adams, though possessing many great qualities, was of too irascible and jealous a temper to be a successful leader or a good ruler. But there were other men of distinction among the Federalists who were hardly less fond of having their own way than the President was of having his. The incompatibility of temper was not altogether on one side in that family quarrel. But all were equally responsible for such a blunder as the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Laws. The provocation, it is true, was unquestionably great. Refugees from abroad had crowded to the United States, many of whom were professional agitators, and some were very sorry vagabonds. Whatever reason they might have had for fomenting discontent with government in England or in France, there was nothing to justify any such violent measures in this country. But from their conduct as political partisans, particularly as newspaper editors, they soon came to be looked upon by the Federalists—for they all joined the other party—as a dangerous class. There grew up a feeling that it would be wiser for civil affairs to remain, in city, state, and nation, in the hands of those who were born and[232] educated under republican institutions, and not to fall altogether under control of those who were alien in blood and religion, and who were inclined to look upon politics, not in the light of the citizen's duty to the common weal, but as an easy and profitable calling where the least scrupulous scoundrel could gather the largest share of spoils. It may be that the authors of those laws were so determined to forestall the apprehended evils of such a dispensation because use had not accustomed them, as it has later generations of American citizens, to live under it in humility if not content. Or, perhaps, they wanted that profound faith of our time that the longer this subversion of government is submitted to, the easier it will be to get back to the rule of the honest and wise.

But, at any rate, whatever their reasons, they meant by these laws relating to aliens to put the acquirement of citizenship under more stringent regulations, and to check the growth and promulgation of seditious doctrines. If it be true, as is sometimes maintained with some plausibility, that citizens, to be intrusted with self-government, should be endowed with a certain degree of intelligence and virtue, then the aim of the framers of the laws, in the first case, was a good one; and, in the second case, the country has had some experience in later times which tends to show that they were not altogether wrong in believing that doctrines and practices which may lead to insurrection[233] and civil war might best be met, so far as is possible, at the outset. Nevertheless, the laws, under the circumstances of the time, were ill-considered and injudicious. For one reason, they put an efficient weapon into the hands of the opposition at a moment when it was at a loss where to turn for one. "Anglicism" and "British gold" were blunderbusses which, in the present popular irritation against France, had for a time lost their usefulness, and were apt to miss fire. But an appeal to a generous and impulsive people on behalf of the unfortunate refugees, who had fled from the tyranny of the Old World to find liberty and a home in the New, was sure to be listened to. A good many, besides those who assumed that republicanism and the rights of man were in their special keeping, believed that an unfortunate class had been dealt with hastily, and even cruelly. The clamor, once begun, told heavily against the Federalists. They could be denounced now, not only as the enemies of liberty in France, but as refusing it to men of any nation or any race who should seek it in the United States,—it being, of course, understood that races of black or yellow complexion need not apply. It was, indeed, advanced as an argument against one of the acts,—which gave the President power to order out of the country all aliens whose presence he thought dangerous,—that it might be used to prevent the importation of persons from Africa. On this point Mr. Gallatin, a native of Switzerland, was exceedingly anxious[234] lest there be a violation of the Constitution. But the outrage upon the rights of man here apprehended was the right of white men to make black men slaves.

Against the enactment of these laws Mr. Jefferson did nothing as Vice-President. But whatever was his motive for official inaction, it was not because he approved them. He wrote the Kentucky "resolutions of '98,"—the strongest protest that could be made against them, and to be thenceforth held by nullifiers and secessionists as their covenant of faith. But he acted secretly, taking counsel only with George Nicholas of Kentucky and William C. Nicholas of Virginia (brothers), and, Hildreth says, "probably with Madison." The resolutions were to be offered in the Kentucky legislature by George Nicholas, and, with some modifications, were passed by that body in November. A year afterward other resolutions were passed to reassert the opinions of the previous session, and to record against the laws the "solemn protest" of the legislature; and further declaring "that a nullification by those sovereignties [the States] of all unauthorized acts done under color of that instrument [the Constitution] is the rightful remedy." In the resolutions which Mr. Jefferson had prepared for Nicholas the year before, this essential doctrine is found in that portion which Nicholas had omitted, in these words,—"where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy."[235] As originally prepared, the resolutions were found in Jefferson's handwriting after his death. Hildreth's conjecture that Madison, as well as the brothers Nicholas, was consulted in the preparation of these resolutions, rests only on circumstantial evidence. The Kentucky resolutions were passed in November; those of Virginia in December; the former were written by Jefferson, the latter by Madison; and the doctrines in each are essentially the same. It would have been a perfectly natural thing for the two friends to consult together upon a measure of so much importance; there is no reason why they should not have done so; and these coincidences suggest that they probably did. Jefferson clearly shirked the responsibility of an act which he knew would endanger the union; but Madison made no secret, so far as can be seen now, of his going to Richmond, though not a member of the Assembly, apparently for the express purpose of writing these resolutions and urging their adoption. But Jefferson was not a man of courage even in doing that which he believed to be wise. In Madison it was only the conscience that was timid; and having once convinced himself that the thing he proposed to do was right, he was always ready to face the consequences. It may be that neither of them foresaw that the real importance of this particular act was rather prospective than immediate; and if so, their conduct is to be measured by its instant purpose. If Jefferson meant then and there to[236] dissolve the union, or even to weaken the constitutional bond that held it together, he was not overcautious in keeping out of sight. But if Madison's intention was to strengthen the union by withstanding what he believed to be a perilous violation of the Constitution, then his courage, though it is to be commended, is not to be wondered at. That, he said, was his motive, and to defend the resolutions and his own part in regard to them was the chief interest and serious labor of the latter years of his life. He was elected a member of the Assembly for the session of 1799-1800, probably because he and his friends thought his official presence desirable when the subject should again come up for consideration at the reading of the replies from other States, to all which the resolutions had been sent. The report on those replies was also written by him, and the position taken the year before was therein reaffirmed, explained, and elaborated at length.

In 1827-28 the doctrines of nullification and of secession were assumed to be the legitimate corollary of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798 and 1799. Jefferson was dead; but Madison felt called upon to deny, in his own defense and the defense of the memory of his friend, that there was any similarity between them. From 1830 to 1836 his mind seems to have been chiefly occupied with this subject, upon which he wrote many letters, and a paper of thirty pages, entitled "On Nullification," which bears the date of 1835-36, the latter year[237] being the last of his life. He resents the charge of any political inconsistency in the course of his long career, and most of all such an inconsistency as would impugn his attachment to the Constitution and the union. The resolutions of 1798, he maintains, do not and were not meant to assert a right in any one State to arrest or annul an act of the general government, as that is a right that can only belong to them collectively. Nullification and Secession he denounces as "twin heresies," that "ought to be buried in the same grave." "A political system," he declares, "which does not contain an effective provision for a peaceable decision of all controversies arising within itself would be a government in name only." He asserts that "the essential difference between a free government and governments not free is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them, therefore, can have a greater right to break off from the bargain than the other or others have to hold them to it.... It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion." What,—he writes to another friend,—"what can be more preposterous than to say that the States, as united, are in no respect or degree a nation, which implies sovereignty, ... and on the other hand, and at the same time, to say that the States separately are completely nations and sovereigns?... The words of the Constitution are explicit, that the Constitution and[238] laws of the United States shall be supreme over the Constitution and laws of the several States; supreme in their exposition and execution, as well as in their authority. Without a supremacy in these respects, it would be like a scabbard, in the hand of a soldier, without a sword in it." Abraham Lincoln might have said this twenty-eight years later when he determined that his first duty as President was to suppress insurrection.

Such is the drift of the many pages Mr. Madison wrote upon the subject during the last five or six years of his life. He looked then, whatever he may have thought in the closing years of the preceding century, upon the United States as a nation, and not as a confederacy having its parts held together only by "a treaty or league" called a constitution. But his object is to show that there is nothing inconsistent in the resolutions of 1798 with these opinions upon the sovereignty of the United States; that he held them just as strongly then as he held them now; and that they, and he as their author, looked to the States as a whole, not to a single State, to find and apply a remedy, in a constitutional way, for an unconstitutional measure of which an administration of the government might be guilty. His position is maintained with all the acuteness, ingenuity, and logical skill which mark his earlier writings. There is no sign of failure of mental power, of which those accused him who could not answer him. Such an imputation he resented with as much indignation[239] as he did a charge of inconsistency, which here could only mean falsehood. There is no possibility, then, of misunderstanding his opinions during the last six years of his life; and the world has no right to doubt his repeated and earnest assurances that these were his opinions when he wrote the resolutions of 1798. It can only be said that the construction he gave them thirty years afterward is opposed to the universal understanding of them at the time they were written.

But if his defense of himself be considered complete, it is not even specious when presented on behalf of Jefferson. Mr. Madison wrote in 1830: "That the term 'nullification' in the Kentucky resolutions belongs to those of 1799, with which Mr. Jefferson had nothing to do.... The resolutions of 1798, drawn by him, contain neither that nor any equivalent term." It was not then generally known, whether Mr. Madison knew it or not, that one of the resolutions and part of another which Jefferson wrote to be offered in the Kentucky legislature in 1798 were omitted by Mr. Nicholas, and that therein was the assertion already quoted,—"where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy." The next year, when additional resolutions were offered by Mr. Breckenridge, this idea, in similar though not in precisely the same language, was presented in the words, "that a nullification by those sovereignties [the States] of all unauthorized acts, done under color of that[240] instrument, is the rightful remedy." In 1832, this fact, on the authority of Jefferson's grandson and executor, was made public; and, further, that another declaration of Mr. Jefferson's in the resolution not used was an exhortation to the co-States "that each will take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts nor any others of the general government, not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories." All this must have been known to Mr. Madison then, if not before. Yet, three years later, in that paper "On Nullification" which has been mentioned, he wrote: "The amount of this modified right of nullification is, that a single State may arrest the operation of a law of the United States.... And this newfangled theory is attempted to be fathered on Mr. Jefferson, the apostle of republicanism." It would be charitable here to believe that there was some lapse of memory in these latter days, and that he had forgotten that Jefferson was, above all things, his own words being witness, the apostle of nullification.

The Alien and Sedition Laws—of which the more obnoxious of the former was never enforced, and the latter expired by limitation in two years—had their influence in the presidential election of 1800. But it was due more to differences between the President and some of the leaders of the Federal party that that party lost its hold upon power, never to be regained. With the election of[241] Jefferson, Madison entered upon another sphere of duty, which was politically a promotion, but where his influence, if it was so large, was not so evident as when an active leader of his party. It was at Mr. Jefferson's "pressing desire," Mr. Madison himself says, in a letter written many years afterward, that he took the office of secretary of state. In the same letter he explains that he had declined an executive appointment under Washington, because, in taking a seat in the House of Representatives, he would be less exposed to the imputation of selfish views in the part he had taken in "the origin and adoption of the Constitution;" because there, if anywhere, he could be of service in sustaining it against its adversaries, especially as it was, "in its progress, encountering trials of a new sort in the formation of new parties attaching adverse constructions to it." The latter reason seems to be one of those happy after-thoughts which public men not unfrequently flatter themselves will anticipate a question they would prefer should not be asked. Mr. Madison was a member of the First Congress from the first day it met, before the new Constitution had encountered new trials from new parties by any constructions either one way or the other.


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