James Madison: Political Philosopher, Practical Politician

Robert Allison / Suffolk University

James Madison’s years in the White House actually diminished his political reputation. Madison was one of the architects of the United States Constitution, creating its structure out of his study of political philosophy from the ancient Greeks and Romans through the Enlightenment, but more importantly through the understanding of politics earned in the brawls of the Virginia legislature. He understood ambition and corruption, and so rather than design a system for high-minded statesmen, he shaped one for people as they are.

A shy and timid speaker, Madison lived his political life in the shadow of others: Thomas Jefferson, whom Madison served as a faithful lieutenant (though John Adams thought Madison’s ideas were sounder than his mentors); Alexander Hamilton, his Federalist co-author and later chief political opponent (a French observer said that Madison was “less brilliant” than Hamilton, but “more profound”); Patrick Henry, whom Madison challenged both in the Virginia ratifying convention and the state legislature (where Madison succeeded in getting the Statute for Religious Freedom passed over Henry’s opposition); and even his vivacious and charismatic wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, known during his term in the White House as “The Presidentess.” (In fact, during the War of 1812 the British boasted of capturing Dolley—not her husband—and parading her through the streets of London.)

In this lecture, Professor Allison will explore some of Madison’s most important political writings—on religious freedom, the structure of the union, freedom of the press, and the nature of power—and ponder this unlikely politician who understood politics—then and now—better than we do.