Professor Sheldon’s The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson was one of the more interesting political philosophy books that I have read. While political philosophy is an area of the political world I know less about than I probably should, I do find some books about it interesting.
The problem is, some are quite dense and difficult to really get into, even if the author is obviously a genius and the content of their works is as accurate as it is important to read and learn. Leviathan is a particularly good example; it’s a book everyone should read but it is a difficult slog to get through. Luckily, as I can confirm after reading The Political Philosophy of James Madison, Professor Sheldon’s books are not that.
Well, they are in part; like The Prince, Leviathan, or The Virtue of Selfishness, they are incredibly important books about political philosophy that you should read so that you are a well-read and knowledgeable citizen of the American Republic. But they are not boring or difficult to read, unlike all three of those books. In fact, I can say with certainty that The Political Philosophy of James Madison is an interesting book that every American needs to read right now, for reasons I will get to in my analysis of it.
Summary of The Political Philosophy of James Madison by Garrett Ward Sheldon
The Political Philosophy of James Madison is, as you might expect, about Madison’s political beliefs and how he came to them. Given that he was a Founding Father, the author of the Constitution, an author of The Federalist Papers, and one of the pre-eminent Virginians from the early American time period, understanding how he thought and what he envisioned for America is singularly important.
To help the reader understand Madison’s political thoughts, Sheldon begins with a brief introduction to it and the ideas that will be discussed. According to him, Madison’s political views changed over time, shifting between aspects of American nationalism, Lockean liberalism, and Classical Republicanism, yet were held together and coherent because of their grounding in Protestant Christianity, specifically Calvinist culture and theology.
Additionally, although being associated with Jefferson, who had, at times, radical views on liberty, and being a key opponent of the Federalist Party, Madison was no anarchist; while his views on what measure of national control was acceptable, he never shifted away from the basic premise that the national government should remain, to some degree, supreme.
After that brief introduction to Madison and his political ideas, Sheldon shifts to the first real chapter of The Political Philosophy of James Madison, which is on the intellectual underpinnings of James Madison’s political thoughts. To Sheldon, the root of many of those thoughts was Calvinist theology and his belief that it and reason complemented each other. For example, Madison’s writings, even later in life, reflected his Calvinist upbringing; they lacked the rhetorical flair of Jefferson and were instead well-grounded and ordered.
According to The Political Philosophy of James Madison, that attachment to Calvinism came in part from Madison’s childhood, and the rest as a result of his education at Princeton, where he was one of the brightest pupils of the famed Dr. Wintherspoon. The most important takeaway of that education is what Madison learned about human nature: humans are sinful but redeemable.
Hence the system of republican government with divided power that Madison created; interests are pitted against each other but the saving light of man is able to shine through, which lets us maintain our self-government focused system. Sin, to Madison and other Calvinists of his era, was undeniable yet able to be mastered, at least in the political sphere, by pitting the self-interested parties against each other.
From the topic of Madison’s intellectual foundations, namely the Classics and Witherspoon, Sheldon turns to how Madison saw the confluence of religion and politics. Although deeply religious, Madison believed, as did Jefferson, that having a state religion, like Virginia did at the time, was abominable and led to a weakened sense of virtue and faith. Because Madison saw virtue as integral to the survival of a republic, he also saw religious freedom as necessary to the survival of the republic; without it, citizens would not live the upright lives they needed to.
Next in The Political Philosophy of James Madison is Madison’s conception of federalist nationalism. As a Congressional representative during the American Revolution, Madison saw firsthand how dangerous it was to have a weak national government during wartime. For example, because of the restrictions imposed on it by the Articles of Confederation, the national government was unable to raise the funds required to supply the Continental Army; it could have been defeated because of the intransigence of Rhode Island. Furthermore, his belief in the need for a government that could constrain man’s wickedness was confirmed by British conduct during the war, which he saw as utterly barbarous
As if all that weren’t enough to push Madison toward a belief in a stronger federal government, his post-war efforts to service the national debt were hamstrung once again by intransigent states like Rhode Island that refused to agree to even the most modest of revenue-gathering plans. Madison saw the ability of minor parties to cause major problems as just as worrisome as the efforts of large ones to cause problems. The tyranny of the minority was just as much of a problem as the tyranny of the majority; both needed to be constrained in a way that a disorganized confederacy could not.
The next chapter of The Political Philosophy of James Madison is entitled “Lockean Liberalism Realized” and is about Madison’s central role in developing and ratifying the US Constitution.
Thanks to the effects the war had on his outlook, Madison was more willing to embrace a larger federal government than other Virginians, such as Patrick Henry. His unique blend of Christian realism and nationalism led him to recognize that an ideal government was one that would “protect individuals against state or community violation.” Relatedly, he saw one of the greatest sins and problems of local rule as the problem of large majorities being envious of their more prosperous but far fewer in number economic betters. The solution was a system that would defend the rights of all: the system created by the US Constitution.
Madison was not only one of the key architects of the Constitution, but he was also one of its strongest defenders. After the Constitutional Convention, he worked with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton to create The Federalist Papers, which stood up to the anti-Constitution sentiment expressed by men like Patrick Henry and tried to assuage their concerns about the potential for tyranny created by the Constitution. Their arguments, the compilation of what the loosely-affiliated anti-federalists were for, can be found in The Anti-Federalist Papers.
While the anti-federalists did enjoy some level of popular support, Madison’s vision eventually won out, not least because of his masterful defense of the ideas in the Constitution, such as in Federalist #10, where he discussions factions and how the Constitution would temper them. Furthermore, his recognition that it was imperfect helped convince others that it was the best they could hope for, although perhaps not the best possible document each man among them could construct. In short, most of his beliefs about the Constitution were shaped by the same forces that drove his ideology from the beginning, namely Christian realism (recognition in the self-interested nature of man) and nationalism.
However, his pro-national government beliefs did not remain at the same level for long, much less forever. The Washington and Adams presidencies followed the ratification of the Constitution and, thanks to what Sheldon describes in The Political Philosophy of James Madison as Madison’s perception of “a new outcropping of evil in American politics, now from an exaggerated national power in the service of arrogant and prideful federal leaders,” Madison shifted back toward classical republicanism and a belief in a more restrained government.
His classical republicanism was steeped in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and centered around the belief that institutions such as a large standing army, high taxes, and a powerful central executive would gradually corrupt a republic. During this period of his life and the American republic, Madison’s beliefs shaped into an ideology formed by a combination of Christianity, Lockean Liberalism, and classical republicanism, which allowed him to justify his support of the Constitution while also pushing back against federal leaders. That newfound ideology was best defined in his “Virginia Resolution” and address on it, in which he attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts that the Adams Administration passed.
But, like all politicians, Madison became a bit more comfortable with power once in it, which brings us to the “Nationalism Revisited” section of The Political Philosophy of James Madison. After Jefferson won the 1800 election and returned to power, sweeping out the federalists, Madison came to the presidency with him and became Secretary of State. When Jefferson’s two terms were over, Madison was elected president. During that time, both men wielded far more power than their previous statements would have led non-cynical onlookers to believe they would, the Embargo and Louisiana Purchase being the prime examples of that.
That isn’t to say Madison or Jefferson were despots. They weren’t. As Sheldon says of Madison, “throughout this period, however, Madison’s Calvinist realism prompted him to balance decentralized, state control over internal policy…with centralized, national authority over external affairs.” The underpinnings of those two beliefs were classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism, respectively.
One such example of Madison attempting to balance those seemingly irreconcilable aspects of American governance was his defense of the rechartering of the national bank in 1815. While such an action wasn’t enumerated in the Constitution, he felt it was technically allowed under Article 1 and necessary to the survival of the republic, as long as the republic was governed by virtuous men. He knew such a belief was incongruous with his political philosophy, yet he supported it because he knew it was the right choice.
Finally in The Political Philosophy of James Madison are Madison’s post-presidency years, in which he remained a major political figure and worked with other notable Virginians such as John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson. During those years at Montpelier, he worked to abolish slavery by sending freed slaves back to Africa, extend voting rights to more free men, tried to balance his legacy, which spanned multiple sides of the debate over federal power, and came out firmly against the concept of nullification. To the end, he remained a realistic, Christian, and practical man who placed an emphasis on federalism balancing central and state interests.
My Take on The Political Philosophy of James Madison by Professor Garrett Ward Sheldon
That was a bit of a long summary of The Political Philosophy of James Madison, but I think it was necessary to fully explain how the creator of the Constitution thought.
That necessity comes from where America is now. As Professor Presser noted in his piece, the rule of law in America is fading quickly. Our president, Joe Biden, is one of the most corrupt and lecherous politicians to ever sit in the Oval Office. Sundry issues have brought the American republic to the brink. Looking out over the short term future, it appears to be a gelid, rocky path past danger rather than a bountiful valley of opportunity.
But, as long as the Constitution is in place and there are a few brave paladins of the American spirit willing to defend it, the quiddity of our great nation will remain the same. As long as there is some way to recover the necessary virtue, all is not lost.
That’s why The Political Philosophy of James Madison is a book we all need to read right now. We need to recover the American spirit that now appears to have been lost in the orchidaceous wealth and denigrated morals of modern America. Our national spirit of virtue, individualism, and patriotism must be recovered.
The Political Philosophy of James Madison charts a course of how to do so. That’s not the purpose of the book; it is meant to be a description of, well, Madison’s political thought. But, by learning how Christianity inspired Madison and a nation to embrace a unique balance of classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism, I think we can inspire modern Americans. It’s the only viable path forward, as Ben Shapiro describes in How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps.
In addition to that prime importance, The Political Philosophy of James Madison is an interesting and easy book to read. Sheldon uses common language rather than the vague and meandering words so common in academic writing and the book is short, at only 120 pages.
Even better, it lacks the one problem I found with The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson! There are no footnotes, only endnotes, a stylistic shift that pleased me greatly.
In fact, thanks to that change, I found there to be no problems with The Political Philosophy of James Madison worth remarking upon. It’s interesting and enlightening, important and attention-grabbing. Just what any patriot should be looking for during these dark days.
By: Gen Z Conservative