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on December 23, 1998
This is an excellent book for those who wish to understand Madison's view of the purpose of the Constitution and his perception of how it should be used by posterity. Madison insisted that anyone who was responsible for making laws should have a full understanding of the Constitution's content. McCoy, in a straightforward and clear writing style, clearly presents Madison's perspective and his dilemmas'--the issues of a republic vs a democracy and an ideal of the natural rights of man vs the existence of slavery. McCoy examines the philosophical background from which Madison's beliefs evolved as well as how his ideas contrasted with his contemporaries. He also documents in great detail the 'students' of Madison and how they interpreted his legacy. But his discussion of Madison as slaveowner and believer in the natural right of man to liberty and the hardening attitude of the South during his lifetime makes this book excellent.
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VINE VOICEon August 6, 2006
This book seems to me to have two main purposes. The first is to present Madison's ideas about constitutional interpretation. The second is to show how Madison applied those ideas to the related issues of nullification and slavery. In order to serve these purposes McCoy choose to focus on the final and private portion of Madison's life and on the subsequent careers of three proteges of Madison's: Nicholas P. Trist, William Cabell Rives and Edward Coles.
The result is an altogether magnificent accomplishment-extremely well written, deeply researched and ultimately quite convincing.
There are many reasons why issues of constitutional interpretation came to the fore after Madison retired from public life. Madison, in his last major act as President vetoed an internal improvements bill on constitutional grounds (pp. 92-95). In the following years, there were many debates about the constitutionality of the Bank of the U.S., Georgia's policies toward the Cherokees, the tariff and the idea of nullification.
Certain principles of Madison's approach emerge from McCoy's exposition of this history.
The Constitution had been ratified by the people of the several states in state conventions. Thus the national government had the same origins and authority as the state constitutions. The people of the several states by that ratification had delegated to the Federal Government certain specified areas of sovereignity. Within those limited areas the national government was supreme(p.135-6). The Supreme Court is the proper
authority for determining the dividing line between the authority of the states and the federal government (p.70 and see Federalist 39).
Madison throughout his life was a strict constructionist or a textualist. He had been so during his early 1780's stint in the Continental Congress and was still so in the 1830s. He strongly disapproved of loose construction of the general welfare clause (pp.77-8). He felt the same way in re the necessary and proper clause. Madison felt that the Marshall Court had opened a Pandora's box with its reasoning in McCulloch vs. Maryland (pp99-102).
He was equally faithful to the idea of majority rule when it came to interpretation. He thought that if measures "reflecting a particular understanding of the Constitution were uniformly sustained by successive legislatures, and their constitutionality openly debated and acceded to, especially by other divisions and levels of government, such legislation constituted binding precedent" (p.80). The question, of course, is what length of time was required. McCoy sees this tendency as part of Madison's desire for stability (p.128) as well as for majority rule.
On the other hand, Madison was always alert to the dangers of majorities being uncontrolled. He felt that "perhaps the greatest danger" to strict interpretation of the Constitution was the "the usefullness and popularity of measures". Measures that were popular and useful were inevitably seen as constitutional by politicians (p.102).
A state does not have the right to "act within its borders against federal laws that it judged unconstitutional"(p.145). This is the way he saw it at the end of his life and that is the way he claimed he wrote it in the Virginia Resolution of 1798 and the Report of 1800. These papers had only attempted to rally and organize public opinion. Madison felt that they had been successful in light of the results of the 1800 election.
It should be clear how different Madison's theory is from that of Calhoun. Calhoun fully espoused the compact theory of the Constitution. This theory sees the Constitution as being the creation of the States. The individual states retain their full sovereignity within their borders and within their respective governmental areas. South Carolina regarded the tariffs as both unconstitutional and vicious. They saw themselves and the South as a whole bearing the majority burdern of the expense of running the federal government while being a minority of the population.
Calhoun's solution was nullification. It works like this:
1. A state nullifies a federal law as unconstitutional.
2. ¼ of the other states support it thus forcing the federal government to
3. Seek a constitutional amendment approving of the disputed authority and
4. If ¾ of the states approve the amendment, that authority belongs to the federal
government but
5. The dissenting states can either acquiesce to that decision or secede.
To Madison, this was a madness ignorant of history. He felt it would return us to the state of the nation circa the 1780s when the power and willfulness of the states had all but destroyed the Union (pp.132-3). He also reminded Calhoun that that same history had taught majority abuses within a state were often as tyrannical and abusive as majority abuses within the nation (p.138). Ironically enough the nullifiers with South Carolina imposed a test oath on all government officials (except the legislature) within the state and determined that anyone who refused the oath would lose their office.
McCoy's delineation of Madison's position on the Missouri Compromise, the Bank Bill, the nullification controvery, the tariff, internal improvements and so on are exemplery. He is lucid and very readable.
However, on the issue of slavery, Madison's thinking was much more muddled. He was not comfortable with the issue and never really resolved it in his mind. He was a proponent of the voluntary exportation of freed slaves back to Africa even though few had any desire to go back to someplace they had never known (the vast majority of the slaves at this period had been born in the US). As for his own slaves, it appears he was more concerned about the financial security of Dolly Madison then their freedom. In fairness to Madison, it should be noted that many of his slaves were elderly at the time of his death and freeing them might actually have been a worse fate (and what does that statement say about our country?)
McCoy traces out the slavery issue through the careers of Madison three disciples. Coles, who became one of the early governors of Illinois, actually freed his slaves when he left Virginia (although he too was for the exportation scheme). Rives was perhaps the most Madisonian of the disciples. After actually voting for Jackson's Force Bill as a Virginia senator he was exposed to all sorts of verbal and even physical abuse (p.337). Rives was to live until the late 1860s. His life and thinking are the subject of McCoy's final chapter. This is arguably the richest part of this book although it defies (for me) easy exposition.
McCoy brings out much of the tensions that existed toward slavery in Madison's variant of republicanism. It was never admitted but in many ways the slaves served as the underclass that was needed to do the lowest tasks of society. They were also easy to justify excluding from the governance of the "democratic republic" (p.349-350). Madison never ceased to deny this. In this sense (alone), Calhoun was more honest.
I know I have gone on too long but this is a very rich book. To be honest, I wish McCoy would consider expanding it into a multi-volume biography of Madison. We need a new standard biography that reflects the scholarly endeavors of recent decades.
But for anyone who wants to understand the rich complex imperfect thought of the greatest theoretical politician America has ever produced, this book is a necessary read.
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on August 19, 2002
This is a fine work of scholarship in the area of intellectual history. McCoy offers a penetrating exposition of the ideas of one of this country's most important intellectuals, and explores Madison's great achievements as well as some of the disturbing contradictions within his thought, especially concerning the question of slavery.
Madison, of course, opposed slavery, but had great fears about the dangers of emancipation, and thus ended up endorsing colonization, a position now long since discredited. McCoy's treatment of this issue is insightful and relevant to any discussion of the later sectional crisis. The contradiction between slavery and the principles of American republicanism were real, as Madison understood very well, and ultimately were more or less resolved in the kind of war that Madison had feared.
Madison's concerns about the importance of public support for education, and the opportunities and dangers of industrialization and unemployment reveal a man both principled and pragmatic in his approach to new developments in the rapidly growing Republic. McCoy shows us an intellectually vigorous Madison who was skeptical about human nature, committed to republican institutions, and alert to the need to accommodate the new realities created by social and economic change. In McCoy's treatment, Madison was a principled thinker, but never an ideologue who might prefer the consistency of a philosophical system over the experience of reality.
McCoy's chapter on Madison's view of the 1832-1833 nullification crisis is also especially informative. Although Madison is often cited as a supporter of state nullification, based on a careless reading of his 1798 Virginia Resolution (that is often paired with Jefferson's more explicitly nullificationist 1798 Kentucky Resolution), in fact Madison was opposed to the South Carolina anti-tariff movement, and argued that while high tariffs might be a bad idea, they were not unconstitutional -- indeed, "no great constitutional question" was involved.
Worse, according to McCoy, Madison feared that the logic of nullification would lead to "a rupture of the Union; a Southern confederacy; mutual enmity with the Northern; the most dreadful animosities and border wars, springing from the case of slaves; rival alliances abroad; standing armies at home, to be supported by internal taxes; and federal Governments, with powers of a more consolidating and monarchical tendency than the greatest jealousy has charged on the existing systems" (Madison, quoted in McCoy, p. 134).
The book is well-documented from primary sources -- especially letters and personal papers -- but it would be nice if McCoy had included at the conclusion a complete bibliography, along with some commentary on how his findings related to the current literature on Madison, but that is a quibble; this is not a doctoral dissertation but a serious study, accessible to the ordinary reader, of a key founder of the Republic whose adult life spanned the colonial period in the 1770s though the Jacksonian era in the 1830s.
Madison, for all his strengths and limitations, remains one of the great political thinkers in American, and indeed, world, history. He is justly seen as the father of the Constitution. This book is a great introduction to the ideas and experience of "the last of the fathers."
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VINE VOICEon January 30, 2009
Drew McCoy offers an interesting account of the last years of James Madison and his take on the politics of the 1820s and 1830s. With an intense focus on Madison's proteges, McCoy seems to lose sight of Madison and seems to see that statesman solely in the light of the coming storm over slavery and the power of the federal government. This is somewhat troubling though it must be said that McCoy's excellent sketches of Edward Coles, Nicholas Trist (if the name means anything, Trist was a diplomat who helped negotiate the end of the War with Mexico) and, best of all, William C. Rives (who really needs a modern biography) makes up for the problems. If you want a solid take on Madison's influence after his passing, "The Last of the Fathers" does well though it highlights some issues (slavery, federalism) while ignoring others (democracy, modern industrial capitalism vs. agrarianism, foreign policy).
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on December 29, 2010
In this work, Drew McCoy traces James Madison towards the end of his life. Madison is the only one left, Jefferson has been gone for over half a decade and James Monroe has been gone for just that. The nation that they built is being run by a new generation, it is larger, it is more powerful, and it is, strangely enough, even more divided. Yet, Madison is as active as ever, the former president, finds himself getting back into the political arena to fight again. The issues drive Madison, nullification is the primary target, and Madison himself feels somewhat responsible for this, since the nullifiers quote his work. He also tries to find a solution to the slavery problem and wipe it out forever. One of these he is incredible helpful the other he is not.

The nullifiers, looking for support, had approached Madison, but Madison would have none of it. The nullifiers had thought he would be on their side, since it was his earlier work they were quoting. McCoy shows that Madison took them head on writing letter after letter and paper after paper, trying to convince the American people that the nullifiers were completely wrong about their position.

"Nullification defied more. However, than the irrefutable history of the formation of the regime; it contravened as well the fundamental tenet of republican government: that the will of the majority must ultimately prevail. On the ground of principal alone, Madison reflected a theory that implied that a single state `may arrest the operation of a law of the United States, and institute a process which is to terminate in the ascendancy of a minority over a large majority, in a Republican System, the characteristic rule of which the major will is the ruling will.'" p.136

As a result, the nullifiers would turn on Madison; they would insult him, belittle his accomplishments, or try to say he was too old to understand his own self. Fortunately for Madison, over the years he inspired many people, some of whom became public servants themselves and would fight for him and his cause.

"Perhaps Madison braved a wry grin as he read the report of the Brodnax speech in the Enquirer. But if he were in a mood to relish irony, he must have enjoyed much more the comments of delegate Wallace, who blasted the youthful arrogance of Madison's many detractors. `His commentary on his own Report,' the delegate from Fauquier County complained, `has been tauntingly spoken of as a mere letter, by those who were in the feebleness of infancy, when this venerable sage, in the vigor of his perfect manhood, stood on the battlements of constitutional liberty, their ablest and most successful defender.' It seemed, Wallace quipped, that `the order of nature is reversed: Youth has become the season of wisdom and experience, and age the period of rashness, ambition, and folly.'" p.154-5

While he was good on nullification, he was bad the cause of abolition. Although to quote a later U.S. President, Madison's errors were of his judgment not his intent. In order to rid the world of slavery he would support two ideas that he felt would solve the problem. In Madison's estimation slavery was most oppressive in areas where the free to slave ratio favored the slaves and least oppressive when slave population was very small. This is why slavery was easily rid of in the Northern states, because their slave populations were small, and slavery was even more oppressive in the Caribbean than the American South, because their free populations were small. White settlers moving west not being allowed to take any the slave population with them was making the White population the minority in some areas. The solution, according to Madison, was diffusion and colonization. Allowing the slavery to be legal in the old Southwest, would shrink the slave population in each state allowing slavery to disappear. The former slaves would be allowed to form their own country by building a colony in Africa. Both these ideas were foolish and unrealistic but Madison really believed in them, it was Madison at his worst. Fortunately, others, like General Lafayette, saw through the ridiculous idea.

"But Lafayette would not buy this bill of goods, even from Jefferson. He politely but firmly demurred: `Are you Sure, My dear Friend, that Extending the principle of Slavery to the New Raised States is a Method to facilitate the Means of Getting Rid of it? I would Have thought that By Spreading the prejudices, Habits, and Calculations of planters over a larger Surface You Rather Encrease the difficulties of final liberation.'" p.270

McCoy presents a window into the last years of a legend who is still fighting for the nation that he had help found. Madison is probably one of the most under appreciated historical figures. The United States owes to him a great deal, for the Republic might not have stood without him. However, with that written, McCoy's Last of the Fathers is only for advanced readers, who must really enjoy James Madison and constitutional theory. This is a book for graduate students in constitutional studies.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 25, 2009
This very thoughtful and well written book is an illuminating study of Madison in retirement. While this appears to be something of only antiquarian interest, McCoy uses Madison's retirement experience and his responses to contemporary problems to explore both crucial features of Madison's thought and the early Republic. McCoy discusses also the careers of some of Madison's legatees in the same way. The first aspect is McCoy's demonstration of the remarkable continuity of Madison's thought. Using examples from both Madison's post-retirement experience and his earlier experiences, McCoy emphasizes 2 crucial aspects of Madison's beliefs; his commitment to republicanism based on popular sovereignty and a Humean concern with social stability. McCoy shows nicely how these 2 aspects interacted, often very fruitfully, in Madison's attempts to construct and maintain a viable republic. McCoy shows also how Madison's thought and actions contained some ironic elements. A classical republican who believed strongly in the role of elite governance, Madison played an important role in establishing the society of the early American republic that would be much more egalitarian and self-interested than he anticipated. An opponent of "faction," he was a crucial figure in the emergence of the party system which developed in large part as a response to Madison's fears of Federalist tendencies towards "aristocratic" government.

McCoy is illuminating also on a number of other issues. Madison's views of the constitution, for example. He was not a strict constructionist but rather advocated a historical approach to constitutional interpretation in which constitutional interpretation was to be based on the actions of the constituional convention, the ratification conventions, and the actions of the early Congresses that implemented the constitution. While disagreeing with many of the actions of the Marshall Court, he was more willing to acknowledge the authority of the Supreme Court as a constitutional arbiter than Jefferson. Madison's views generated some controversy and impaired his reputation during the Nullification Crisis, when his defense of the Federal government attracted the opprobrium of a younger generation of southern politicians. As with his attempts to balance the commitment to republicanism and social stability, Madison was attempting to steer a middle course with an almost Burkean respect for past accomplishments.

A similar and generally less successful effort characterizes Madison's attitudes towards slavery. Madison recognized the perils that the existence of slavery posed for his republican ideals. He seems to have been less overtly racist than Jefferson. His efforts at moderation, and probably also his classicial republcian commitment to a life of relative leisure that would allow disinterested public service, however, seem to have precluded a realistic appreciation of the problems of slavery. His preferred solution, favored as well by Northern moderates like Lincoln, as the impractical alternative of African colonization. As McCoy and others remark, Madison's inability to face the slavery issue objectively gives his life a tragic tragic shading, though considerably less tragic than the fate of his slaves. McCoy's treatment of this emotionally loaded topic is exemplary.

McCoy also discusses the careers of 3 self-proclaimed disciples of Madison; Nicholas Trist, Edward Coles, and William Rives. The career of each shows the difficulties of a Madisonian - classical republican approach to public life in the first half of the 19th century. These discussions cast consideable light on the evolution of American society and politics in the first half of the 19th century. This book is a model of how an apparently narrow topic can be used to understand a broad range of important historical phenomena.
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on February 21, 2014
I could not put this book down. It is, among other things, the story of Madison's defense of "the" (his) Constitution in light of conflicts over policy-making and legislation to deal with the emergence of the America Tocqueville describes; burgeoning agricultural production with limited markets, the want and hate of manufacturing, trade policy (tariff), and a detailed study of Madison's philosophical/moral position on slavery and how to eradicate it. Importantly, as McCoy tells us, we live in a different world than the one Madison had hoped for us. In a way, we live in a republic that has no adherents to republicanism (you gotta read it to find out--but you too may feel some plucking on the strings of your moral instrument).
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on September 13, 2012
For someone such as myself who has read this book three times, for various academic purposes, I can't help but be struck by an overwhelming feeling for it. History is as much about good story telling as it is about convoluted analysis. Fine story telling this is, but as far as the opinion changing/shaping effect (which is the sad state of history scholarship [read: journalism] these days), it leaves me dissatisfied. However, if one were to quickly skip to the epilogue you would find a brief allegory for the entire book. As Old Man Madison is exhumed and his dusty old corpse moved for reinterment, except for a brief depression in his cheek, the nation's fourth president had not changed. And there you have the crux of the book: 20 years before exhumation, 19 from retirement to death... and he didn't change. I'm leaving out many details, as other reviewers have hit upon, but since the study of history is the concise delivery of the point and not the facts (you can get those anywhere, really), one is equally, if not better, served by reading Banning's Sacred Fire of Liberty.
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on January 21, 2014
Looks at Madison's retirement years, when he continued to write and reflect upon his creation, the Constitution. Examines the work of several Madison proteges, including Edward Coles and William Cabell Rives.
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on February 4, 2014
I hate having to do assigned reading for college. This is the book my professor made the class read for a grade. If you're a history nut who cannot get enough information about American politicians, this is a great read. If you're like me, a student, looking for an interesting book to read for a grade, you're going to have a bad time.....
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