JAMES MADISON and the Struggle for the BILL of RIGHTS
By Richard Lubinsky
The above titled book was published in 2006, so you are already ten years behind if you have not read it. But if you get it now, it will be worth your while if you cherish the Bill of Rights like I do. From the opening page to end of the Epilogue there are 264 pages packed with details about James Madison’s work on the Constitutional Convention and the ratification in Virginia and other states, plus the election of Madison to the First U. S. Congress and his more than two year effort to pass the Bill of Rights.
Remember that the Continental Congress was meeting in New York City for several years during the Revolutionary War. James Madison was from Orange County, Virginia, a several day trip to New York and a trip that Madison dreaded because of his long-time illness that comes to light in this book. Madison had a gastrointestinal problem that frequently caused diarrhea and other discomforts that were embarrassing to him during long trips on a stage coach or other conveyance with a couple of other people. For me this was the first glimpse of the personal fortitude that Madison had in dealing with his personal health problems while he was the instigator and daily shepherd of the assembly of the Constitutional Convention, the adoption, the ratification, and the struggle to adopt a Bill of Rights.
The advance praise for the book comes from James Madison organizations and individual historians like Garry Wills, Philip Bigler, Charles F. Bryan, Jr. and David B. Mattern on the book cover. I am confident that if you read this book it will open your eyes to the divergence of views about adopting the Constitution in the first place to the switch by Madison from opposing a Bill of Rights to being the only real champion of adopting the Bill of Rights. This took Madison over two years of meticulous letter writing and personally speaking to hundreds of people.
You will learn that Madison was not a dynamic speaker like Patrick Henry. Madison was a soft voice of reason who preferred to work behind the scenes, but if called upon to address a legislative body, he could hold his own with detail after detail. Madison was particularly good in legislative committees where a few people often recognized his intelligence and deferred to his solutions for the problems under discussion.
The beginning of the book was somewhat dull to me, but essential to understand what was happening during the constitutional developments. I began making notes at page 174 when Madison’s election to the first U.S. Congress was described. Madison detested having to give up his work with the Continental Congress in New York and come home to Virginia to run for office to the House of Representatives. He did not like to ask for votes or do things like make promises. He thought everyone should know what he stood for and accept him for those characteristics.
There were secret political goings-on that prevented Madison from being nominated for the U.S. Senate from Virginia. Some people tried to get Madison to run for Congress in a district where he did not live because those people want him to represent them. Patrick Henry, a former governor of Virginia and an ardent Anti-Federalist, had succeeded in designing districts for the ten Virginia House seats (Virginia was the largest state in the Confederation at the time. Remember it included today’s West Virginia and Kentucky) that would place Madison in a district that Henry thought Madison could not win. Henry was against the adoption of the new Constitution because he thought that the document took too many powers away from the individual countries, such as Virginia. This is the first book that I have read that shows the people of the time flat-out described the states as “countries” and it is obvious to me now that all of the thirteen colonies thought of themselves as individual countries at that time.
But finally Madison was persuaded to come home four or five weeks before the election to campaign in ten inches of snow in the hills and hollers of Virginia. Madison managed to show up in county seat after county seat and talk to the people. Madison was frost bit a little during his travels in the counties of Orange, Louisa, Culpepper, and others, but he won the election over his friend, James Monroe, another individual who needs to be explored more by serious constitutional learners and scholars. Only 44% of the eligible voters came out in Madison’s district that first Virginia election, and in his district Madison was the victor.
Madison and Monroe were so close that they invested in land together and invited Thomas Jefferson to join them in a venture at one time. Madison made more money in land, perhaps, than he did from Congress or his estate at Montpelier. This was another interesting discovery in the book.
In that first election the Sheriffs of each county took down the voters’ preferences orally and made a record. Because of the bad weather, some Sheriffs took votes for three days because it took some hearty souls that long to get to the county seat to vote at considerable risk.
Think of this and contrast it with how easy it is to vote in the 21st Century. We are now coddled, one might say, with our voting machines and fraud prevention systems that sometimes allows double voting, false registrations, and other devious election irregularities.
Another item that piqued my interest was the beginning of Chapter 8 where it is disclosed that New Yorkers wanted to make that city the permanent capital of the United States. I live in Florida in a district where most of the voters are from a single ethnic group who used to live in New York, mostly New York City. My neighbors are democrats and I am a republican, so this struck me as especially interesting. Also my family and I lived in the Philadelphia area for five years during which time I accompanied my three boys and other Cub Scouts to the Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was debated and signed on several occasions. The place still has the ability to produce memories and dreams of the 1770s.
Here is some detail about this time period that I learned from the book that will give you a good example of Labunski’s writing style:
“Even the state’s Anti-Federalists, many of whom had wanted to prevent ratification at the New York convention in July 1788, agreed to approve the Constitution only because Federalists had strongly hinted that the city would likely become the permanent seat of government. Anti-Federalists knew that if New York did not join the union, its largest city would have no chance of hosting the new government.
“New York officials worried with good reason, that Philadelphia would persuade lawmakers to return to that city, which was the home of the First Continental Congress in 1774 and where the Confederation Congress had met for nine years. Representative John Page of Virginia said that New York ‘is not so half as large as Philadelphia; nor in any manner to be compared to it for Beauty & Elegance.’ Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician, who wrote a long letter to John Adams in early spring to remind him of his home city’s many amenities and virtues, including ‘Philadelphia is the centre of the State of the Union: she is wholly & highly Federal.’ Another Pennsylvanian Timothy Pickering, said that ‘In Philadelphia, the Congress will find convenient lodgings & public buildings – provisions good, elegant, plenty & cheap -- & the most extensive libraries adapted to the use of public bodies, that are to be found on the Continent.’ Those libraries appealed to John Adams, who as vice president would be expected to be involved in the selection of a permanent capital. He told Benjamin Rush that “I love Philadelphia quite as well as New York, and the noble Libraries there [in Philadelphia] would be Strong temptation to me.” [footnotes omitted.]
Around page 180 I was interested in the reference to Representative Elias Boudinot from New Jersey as he is another founder I have recently studied and written about in regard to his religious beliefs. Boudinot, earlier under the Continental Congress he was the second president of the Congress when the country only had officers of the Congress. We only had three of those presidents as I understand it. Boudinot told his wife in a letter that when they arrived in this “dirty city [New York City]” -- “The difference of the wholesome Country Air, from the Stench of the filthy Streets was so apparent, as to effect our smelling Faculties greatly.” My own visits to New York City from the 1960s to present day did not exhibit what Boudinot found upon his arrival, so the years have allowed New Yorkers to make appropriate improvements.
I cite Boudinot for another reason at page 220 of Lubanski’s book where it is disclosed that Elias Boudinot was the chairman of the House Committee of the Whole when Madison was introducing the Bill of Rights in August. Someone raised the issue of whether the committee of the whole had to recommend the Amendments to the full House by a two-thirds vote. “The chairman, Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, ruled that a simple majority was sufficient, and his decision was upheld by a vote of the members.” [Footnotes omitted.]
This book covers the complicated story of the adoption of the Bill of Rights from 40 or more amendments to the twelve submitted to the states by President Washington to the final ten amendments ratified and adopted as additions to the Constitution. There were complications throughout the debates over the amendments as to whether they would be incorporated into the Constitution or appended to the end of the document. We know now that the ten amendments were added to the end and the Supreme Court is still interpreting what the founders meant by each Amendment.
You will not waste your time or money reading this story that can lead you to many other wonderful tales and happenstances about the Bill of Rights. If we let our children graduate from college, perhaps even high school, without knowing what is in this and similar books, we have to accept a degree of blame for letting them down.
Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN: 13: 978-0-19-518105-0 and ISBN: 10: 0-19-518105-0
William J. Skinner, Revised 9-3-2017