September 19, 2000

Stanford Professor Lectures on Madison

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Prof. Jack N. Rakove, history, of Stanford University, treated Cornell University students and faculty yesterday afternoon to a discussion of James Madison, one of American history’s greatest political thinkers and the man Americans recognize as the “Father of the Constitution.”

Acknowledged by many scholars as Madison’s present-day “alter-ego,” the 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning biographer addressed the audience with his talk entitled “Reading Madison’s Mind.”

President Hunter R. Rawlings III introduced Rakove, calling the Madison scholar’s visit a “particular pleasure.” Rawlings, a former Haverford College classmate of Rakove’s and self-acknowledged Madison enthusiast, said Rakove “writes with penetration and clarity” for both scholarly and general audiences.

During his lecture, Rakove eagerly outlined his personal scholarly journey through the mind of Madison. He cited Madison’s two hundred-fiftieth birthday next March as one impetus for his latest paper concerning the Virginian, whose political life and service spanned roughly fifty years. Madison’s Federalist Papers, written along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, were proclaimed by Thomas Jefferson to be “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.”

Rakove asserted at the outset of the discussion that there are two fundamental problems that arise when studying Madison. First, Rakove explained the “creativity problem,” stressing the need to understand the aspect of Madison’s personality that “enabled him to be so creative in so many key political events” during the United States’ infancy.

The second fundamental problem concerning Madison, said Rakove, is the “consistency problem.” In a political career that spanned such a long period of time, scholars have noted changes and even near reversals of Madisonian thought. Rakove cited Madison’s “160 degree swing” from his original call for full veto power of the Federal Government over state law at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to his argument for some state sovereignty in the Virginia Resolution several years later.

Rakove’s main argument yesterday revolved around a single document Madison composed and, within that document, a single paragraph.

“The Vices of the Political System in the United States,” a memo Madison wrote, contains an invaluable demonstration of Madison’s ability to analyze empirical historical evidence. More importantly, said Rakove, it showcases Madison’s capacity to develop such an analysis into theory, an “abstraction no longer dependent on the evidence.”

The issue under Madison’s scrutiny in the memo was the deficiency of the first American Constitution, the Articles of Confederacy, which relied on the “voluntary compliance” of the thirteen individual states.

The significance of such a capacity, according to Rakove, was its immediate effect on the agenda of the Constitutional Convention. Madison’s analysis of the Articles of Confederation would later lead to his efforts to construct a Federal Government with more centralized, cohesive power. In this respect, as Rakove outlined in his lecture, Madison’s abstraction concerning the failure of “voluntary compliance” dictated the agenda for the Constitutional Convention.

Rakove’s conversations over the past few years with political scientists, along with his own reinterpretation of a particular Madison text, prompted him to analyze Madison in this fresh historical respect, he said.

Rakove concluded his discussion pondering Madison’s contribution to political thought. He asked, almost rhetorically, whether Madison holds a unique place among political thinkers because of his ability to theorize, or if his contributions were analogous to other great minds like Hobbes and Locke.

Archived article by Maison Rippeteau