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Gary Rosen. American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding. Lawrence:
University Press of Kansas, 1999. xii + 237 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-0960-4.
Reviewed by Peter McNamara (Department of Political Science, Utah State University)
Published on H-SHEAR (May, 2000)
The Madisonian Founding
inadequate this framework is for understanding Madison
and the Founding. Thomas Pangle, Paul Rahe, Michael
Zuckert and others have made this general point before.
What makes Rosen’s study stand out is his focus on the
problematic and critical case of Madison who has been
categorized by some scholars as a liberal and by others as a classical republican. Rosen presents convincing evidence to show that Madison was a liberal but, as
Rosen hastens to add, Madison’s liberalism should not
be equated with a “stark world of possessive individuals,
utterly indifferent to public things” (p. 5). Liberalism, as
Madison understood it, requires a certain version of both
virtue and republicanism to sustain itself.
The aim of Gary Rosen’s study American Compact:
James Madison and the Problem of Founding is to “rehabilitate Madison as a constitutional thinker and statesman.”
To accomplish this goal, Rosen thinks it necessary to do
two things: first, to demonstrate the consistency of Madison’s “most controversial public acts” and, second, to establish a deeper appreciation of Madison’s “originality as
a political theorist” (pp. 2-3). It may not have been necessary to set such a high standard for Madison’s rehabilitation, if indeed he requires rehabilitation. Nevertheless,
this is an important book that significantly deepens our
knowledge of both Madison and the Founding.
According to Rosen, we must first come to understand Madison’s depth and originality as a political
thinker before we can come to see the consistency of his
statesmanship. What has stood in the way of such an
appreciation has been the tendency of students of the
Founding to use “ideological shorthand . . . as a substitute for delving into Madison’s theoretical claims” (p.
178). Rosen has in mind the “ideological school” of historians who present the Founding period as a struggle
between, on the losing side, a “classical republican” tradition that equated a self-sacrificing idea of virtue with
republican citizenship and, on the winning side, the modern forces of individualism and the market or, in short,
“liberalism.” The powerful and in some ways charming
idea of a lost but virtuous past has exercised a wide influence among scholars and political commentators. As
Rosen notes, we see versions of it embraced by such disparate social critics as George Will, Robert Bork, and
Benjamin Barber. Rosen is at his best showing just how
Rosen argues persuasively that we can discover the
key for unlocking Madison’s thoughts on virtue, republicanism, founding, and constitutional government in his
rethinking of the idea of the “social compact.” Madison
understood the social compact (or social contract, as it
tends to be called today) in the liberal manner as it was
expounded by Thomas Hobbes and especially by John
Locke. The social compact doctrine begins by positing
a “state of nature” where free and equal individuals live
without any common authority. The precariousness of
such an existence compels these individuals to seek the
protection of society and government. The social compact that makes this possible takes place in two stages:
an initial unanimous decision to form a society is followed by a second stage in which the majority decides
on a particular form of government. Free and equal individuals possess rights, one consequence of which is
that society and government serve the essentially instru1
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mental role of securing these rights. Although Madison
never questioned the idea that civil society exists to secure rights, the practical political situation of an independent America forced him to think seriously not only
about the Hobbesian and Lockean accounts of the transition from the state of nature to civil society but also about
their basic accounts of human nature. To begin with,
the abstract and skeletal nature of the standard accounts
left many questions unanswered. For example, neither
Hobbes nor Locke suggests just how deliberations about
entering society and choosing a government might take
place. Nor do they say anything about the kind of peculiar situation in which the newly independent colonies
found themselves. The Revolution, to Madison’s mind,
brought about no simple return to a pure state of nature.
The Articles of Confederation were debated and ratified
not by individuals newly united in society, but by individuals who were already citizens of states and also members of less defined but nevertheless formidable interest
Federalist, Numbers 37-40 in order to make clear Madison’s thinking. Three important points emerge. First,
“Madison came to view constitutional conventions as a
counterpoint to the people and to popular political institutions, as an opportunity to transcend sovereign pride
and narrow interest” (p. 71). More precisely, “the Convention was not simply a substitute for the unwieldy deliberation of the people as a whole; it represents a qualitatively distinct form of political intelligence” (p. 72).
Rosen points to Madison’s high praise of the participants at the Constitutional Convention. The actions of
these “constitution-making gentleman” (p. 83), as Rosen
calls them, deserve to be put on a level with or, perhaps,
even above the actions of the great lawgivers of antiquity. Second, the greatest tasks before the convention
required that the participants exercise “prudence.” Rosen
describes Madison’s prudence in Aristotelian terms as
the intellectual virtue that is connected with the choice
of means to certain moral ends. Prudence operates as
the critical supplement to theory or scientific knowledge.
However much Madison and his colleagues may have
learned from political philosophers, the crucial choices
facing the Convention involved not theory per se but the
application of theories to the America situation. These
choices, according to Rosen, were not simply technical
questions. Whatever course the Convention took, it had
to comport with the moral end in view, namely, “the
republican view of justice–that is, to the claims of the
people to self-government” (p. 97). Rosen’s third claim
about the Madisonian understanding of Founding follows
from this last point. The “extraordinary” Constitutional
Convention, which brought together a prudent few who
on tenuous authority chose to deliberate without restrictions and in secret, could not serve as the model for everyday politics. Like Sparta’s Lycurgus, the Convention
would have to cease with the making of its recommendations and have no authority under the regime it devised (see p. 112). The theory of the Madisonian Founding emerges as a complex blending of the claims of the
few and the many whose efforts must be encouraged and
resisted in precisely the right amounts. Specifically, the
just but controversial claims of the prudent few must be
balanced against the people’s capacity for and claims to
self-government. Madison thought this could be done by
allowing for a (more or less) popular ratification of the
Constitution and by allowing the people to participate in
the operations of the government so established. Rosen
argues that we ought to see Madison’s assertion that the
ratification process fixed the meaning of the Constitution in decisive respects–its broad outlines and limits, in
particular–as part of Madison’s effort to honor the peo-
In addition to gaps in the standard accounts, Madison identified two serious problems or paradoxes. The
first paradox or contradiction is inherent in the move
from stage one–entering society–to stage two–choosing
a government. The motives for making the move from
the state of nature to society are widely and more or less
equally felt. The insecurity of the state of nature compels
us to enter society. But once we come to debate about
forms of government, something that is possible only
when there is peace, the natural inequalities that give rise
to different interests and passions make agreement and
even rational debate difficult. Hobbes and Locke were
aware of this problem, but Madison thought they had
greatly underestimated the threat it posed to establishing good government.
The situation was particularly acute in the new
United States. The diversity of interests that would be an
advantage for a large republic (as Madison so famously
argued in The Federalist, Number 10) was a great obstacle
to the establishment of that republic. There was a second paradox or contradiction in the account of choosing a
government. Hobbes’s and Locke’s accounts of the transition seem to suggest that deliberations about forms of
government are within the capacities of most citizens. It
became increasingly clear to Madison that the people as
a whole are simply incapable of making informed choices
about such complex and delicate matters.
The solution Madison hit upon was the constitutional
convention. Rosen makes an exhaustive analysis of The
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ple’s right to self-government.
lems are particularly evident in his fast-moving chapters
dealing with Jefferson and Hamilton, Madison’s PresiIn unfolding Madison’s complex idea of founding, dency, and the Madisonian “regime” today. Let me begin
Rosen clarifies a number of important elements of Madi- though with a relatively small point, namely, Rosen’s acson’s thought that have vexed those attempting to clas- count of prudence. Rather than turning to Aristotle to desify him using the classical republican-liberal framework. velop his argument, he might just as easily have turned
First, “like other members of the founding generation,
to Hume or especially Montesquieu’s account of “mod[Madison] saw Hume and Montesquieu primarily as poeration.” The artful balancing of competing fundamenlitical scientists, authorities to be consulted on the instru- tal priorities such as liberty and stability that Madison
ments of government but not its origins and ends” (pp. and other participants at the Convention were forced to
engage in sounds much like the “moderation” that MonMadison never was or became a “conservative.” He tesquieu ascribes to the “legislator” in the Spirit of the
remained a Lockean liberal. Second, Madison’s dedi- Laws (see especially Book 29, Chapter 1; on the kinship
cation to republican government was derived from the between prudence and moderation, see Thomas L. Panprinciples of the social compact. Locke and especially gle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral ViHobbes avoided what Madison saw as this necessary sion of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke
implication of the social compact. Somehow Hobbes [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988], pp. 89-94.).
thought that the pride that would inevitably arise when Viewed in this light, Madison’s founding seems more
the people took charge of their political destiny could technical or theoretical than aristocratically prudential.
simply be extinguished for the sake of social peace. Madi- It might be the case that, notwithstanding the high-flown
son understood that such pride would have to be ac- rhetoric of The Federalist Number 38, Madisonian prucommodated. Third, there is no incompatibility between dence occupies something of a gray area between MonMadison’s liberalism and his frequent claim that virtue tesquieuian moderation and Aristotelian prudence.
is a prerequisite for republican government. Madison
Second, and more importantly, Rosen’s account
understood virtue in the modern way as a thing neces- tends to collapse the distinction between Framers (those
sary for the accomplishment of liberal ends rather than
who took part in the Constitutional Convention) and
for the perfection of the soul. Liberal virtue, so to speak,
Founders (those who may or may not have been in
resembles a particular kind of “public virtue,” the virtue Philadelphia, but who nevertheless played an important
appropriate to a particular regime (pp. 54-55). Virtue part in the creation of the Republic). Thomas Jefferson
and republican pride are connected: “Virtue would seem and John Adams, to name two very important examples,
to depend on the pride that human beings take in over- were Founders, but not Framers, strictly speaking. Rosen
coming their justifiable wariness of one another and on
and his Madison reduce the Founding to a Founding “mofinding a means other than absolute government to rement” (p. 127) apparently stretching from the Convenstrain themselves. It enhances their self-regard because tion to Ratification. This view goes along with Rosen’s
it shows them to be capable of maintaining something of disinterest in Madison’s substantial role in the policy distheir natural equality without a constant reliance on fear” putes and the debates about the how the “superstructure”
(p. 57). By showing how Madison brought liberalism, of the new government would operate during the 1790s.
virtue, and republicanism together, Rosen demonstrates
Rosen’s general argument here owes much to Martin Dithat rather than being part of the problem or a mere
amond (see pp. 81-82, 114), who held that there is a great
“backward-looking historical curiosity” (p. 179), Madi- disjunction between the politics of the Founding and the
son’s social compact theory directly engages today’s de- kind of politics that follows it. Post-founding politics is
bates among liberals, conservatives, “strong democracy” system politics or, to be precise, the politics of a “disintheorists, and communitarians.
terested system” (p. 70) in which the pursuit of interest is
rendered safe by means of clever institutional design. The
real issue is, according to Rosen, who establishes the disinterested system. This may have been Madison’s view,
but, granting that it was for the moment, is it an accurate view of the Founding and at least some of the politics that has followed it? The Presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt would seem to sug-
Rosen’s account of the way in which Madison
brought “new realism and practicality” (p. 124) to the
idea of the social compact more than makes good on his
promise to show Madison’s originality as a political theorist. Yet, there are problems with other parts of his argument that bear on his promises to show Madison’s consistency and to rehabilitate his reputation. These prob-
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gest otherwise. Rosen notes that Madison was surprised
to find that there were still explosive constitutional issues to be settled during Washington’s Presidency (see
p. 156). To explain this Madison eventually had recourse
to the idea of a “aristocratic plot” against republicanism
(p. 151). How plausible was this recourse, then or now?
versy that might have brought the Constitution into disrepute. (Madison strenuously objected to John Marshall’s
use of the occasion of McCulloch v. Maryland to give
Supreme Court sanction to Hamilton’s principle of broad
construction of the “necessary and proper” clause.) Remaining faithful to the Constitution as understood at
Ratification, Madison resisted the Federalists’ attempts
The third respect in which Rosen is less than comto extend indefinitely the period of constitution-making,
pletely convincing is on the difficult issue of Madison’s just as he later resisted popular pressures to expand the
reputation, especially the consistency of Madison’s most government’s powers. Rosen gives as an example of
controversial public acts. His effort should be placed Madison’s resistance to popular pressure his vetoing of
alongside Lance Banning’s The Sacred Fire of Liberty: the bonus bill providing for the building of roads and
James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Repubcanals. He justified his veto of this popular measure on
lic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995). Both
the grounds that it neither fell within the enumerated
make a good case that Madison was never an ardent na- powers of Article I, nor was it “necessary and proper.”
tionalist like Hamilton. His break with Hamilton was al- Madison, Rosen suggests, wanted to provide an example
most predictable and not a surprise, let alone a betrayal. of strict constitutional fidelity to offset any appearance of
This insight, however, hardly settles the matter. To be- waywardness arising from his support of a national bank.
gin with, Rosen acknowledges that Madison did change
But after having strongly endorsed the utility of nationcourse a number of times in his career, sometimes sigally sponsored internal improvements, Madison surprisnificantly and abruptly (consider the following: cf. p. 33 ingly refrained from advocating a constitutional amendand p. 71; p. 49; cf. pp. 52-53 and pp.144-45; pp. 169-77). ment to make them possible. Apparently, he was relucRosen rightly praises Madison for risking his reputation tant to make a popular appeal for constitutional change,
for the sake of a deeper consistency and fidelity to prin- something Rosen sees as in keeping with his opposition
ciple. Historians with the benefit of hindsight might be
to Jefferson’s proposal for frequent constitutional conchastised for failing to see this consistency but, at the
very least, we might forgive many of his contemporaries
for their outright astonishment at some of his actions.
Rosen concedes that this decision was “especially reMadison’s remarkable turn-around on the issue of “dis- grettable” (p. 176) because it undermined respect for
crimination” among public creditors, which Rosen hardly the constitutionally prescribed mode of constitutional
mentions, would be a case in point.
change and because it sat uneasily with Madison’s endorsement, however qualified, of the extra-constitutional
As noted, Rosen probably wisely chooses the ground
modification of the Constitution through precedent.
of constitutional interpretation rather than debates over
policy or the operation of “superstructures” to make his
Rosen might have pushed this point still further.
case for Madison’s deeper consistency. Rosen makes Madison was hardly alone in holding to a notion of the
a good case that Madison was consistent in arguing social compact. Rosen grants that Madison’s thought
against the constitutionality of a national bank in the evolved over time and responded to events as they hap1790s and then while President not only signing into law pened. Madison, for example, had no theory of constithe rechartering of the bank but even recommending its tutional interpretation (p. 157) when he first confronted
rechartering. Madison thought that the bank had been Hamilton in the 1790s. Rosen shows how Madison deunconstitutional, but twenty years of public discussion, rived one from his notion of the social compact. But was
Congressional debate and support, and the continued ac- this the only theory compatible with the idea of a soquiescence of the states and the nation as a whole had cial compact? It is one thing to say that Madison had a
made the Bank constitutional through “precedent.” Nev- coherent and distinctive vision of the problem of foundertheless, throughout his career, Rosen argues, Madison ing. This does not necessarily mean, however, that he
remained a strict constructionist. Madison, Rosen spec- was the only one with such a vision or that his was suulates, calculated that “Constitutional veneration was perior. Rosen points to some real problems with Hamilmore likely to be promoted by granting a degree of legit- ton’s interpretation of the Constitution as granting very
imacy to the occasional legislative excess” (p. 172). Al- broad powers subject to specified exceptions but is it an
lowing precedent to constitutionalize the bank was more incoherent interpretation? Is it obviously inferior to
prudent than the unleashing of a constitutional contro- Madison’s? Madison’s muddle over the bonus bill surely
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raises the question of whether his understanding of the
Constitution makes it unfit for dealing with what Hamilton termed the “probable exigencies of ages” ( The Federalist, Number 34). How could such a Constitution achieve
the political “immortality” Madison predicted for it in The
Federalist, Number 38? One might grant the significance
of Rosen’s account of how Madison sought to blend the
claims of the few and the many in the act of founding.
But, as he presents it, the Madisonian Founding turns
out to be a somewhat ethereal event, more about words
on paper and hallowing those words through precedent,
than about the connection of those words to some of the
basic tasks of republican government.
These problems with Rosen’s argument do not have
much impact upon Madison’s stature as one of the most
important Founders. Rosen’s study does add considerably to our understanding of Madison, but as with
Hamilton and Jefferson one can acknowledge their roles
as Founders without identifying the Founding uniquely
with either.
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Citation: Peter McNamara. Review of Rosen, Gary, American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding.
H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. May, 2000.
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