Madison's place, both from temperament and from want of physical vigor, was in the council, not in the field. One of his early biographers says that he joined a military company, raised in his own county, in preparation for war; but this, there can hardly be a doubt, is an error.
He speaks with enthusiasm of the "high-spirited" volunteers, who came forward to defend "the honor and safety of their country;" but there is no intimation that he chose for himself that way of showing his patriotism. But of the Committee of Safety, appointed in his county in 1774, he was made a member,--perhaps the youngest, for he was then only twenty-three years old.
Eighteen months afterward he was elected a delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1776, and this he calls "my first entrance into public life." It gave him also an opportunity for some distinction, which, whatever may have been his earlier plans, opened public life to him as a career. The first work of the convention was to consider and adopt a series of resolutions instructing the Virginian delegates in the Continental Congress, then in session at Philadelphia, to urge an immediate declaration of independence. The next matter was to frame a Bill of Rights and a Constitution of government for the province. Madison was made a member of the committee to which this latter subject was referred. One question necessarily came up for consideration which had for him a peculiar interest, and in any discussion of which he, no doubt, felt quite at ease. This was concerning religious freedom. An article in the proposed Declaration of Rights provided that "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless, under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, happiness, or safety of society." It does not appear that Mr. Madison offered any objection to the article in the committee; but when the report was made to the convention he moved an amendment. He pointed out the distinction between the recognition of an absolute right and the toleration of its exercise; for toleration implies the power of jurisdiction. He proposed, therefore, instead of providing that "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion," to declare that "all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience;" and that "no man or class of men ought, on account of religion, to be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges, nor subjected to any penalties or disabilities, unless, under color of religion, the preservation of equal liberty and the existence of the state be manifestly endangered." This distinction between the assertion of a right and the promise to grant a privilege only needed to be pointed out. But Mr. Madison evidently meant more; he meant not only that religious freedom should be assured, but that an Established Church, which, as we have already seen, he believed to be dangerous to liberty, should be prohibited. Possibly the convention was not quite ready for this latter step; or possibly its members thought that, as the greater includes the less, should freedom of conscience be established a state church would be impossible, and the article might therefore be stripped of supererogation and verbiage. At any rate, it was reduced one half, and finally adopted in this simpler form: "That religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience." Thus it stands to this day in the Bill of Rights of Virginia, and of other States which subsequently made it their own, possessing for us the personal interest of being the first public work of the coming statesman.
Madison was thenceforth for the next forty years a public man. Of the first Assembly under the new Constitution he was elected a member. For the next session also he was a candidate, but failed to be returned for a reason as creditable to him as it was uncommon then, whatever it may be now, in Virginia. "The sentiments and manners of the parent nation," Mr. Rives says, still prevailed in Virginia, "and the modes of canvassing for popular votes in that country were generally practiced. The people not only tolerated, but expected and even required, to be courted and treated. No candidate who neglected those attentions could be elected." But the times, Mr. Madison thought, seemed "to favor a more chaste mode of conducting elections," and he "determined to attempt, by an example, to introduce it." He failed signally; "the sentiments and manners of the parent nation" were too much for him. He solicited no votes; nobody got drunk at his expense; and he lost the election. An attempt was made to contest the return of his opponent on the ground of corrupt influence, but, adds Mr. Rives, in his sesquipedalian measure, "for the want of adequate proof to sustain the allegations of the petition which in such cases it is extremely difficult to obtain with the requisite precision, the proceeding was unavailing except as a perpetual protest, upon the legislative records of the country, against a dangerous abuse, of which one of her sons, so qualified to serve her, and destined to be one of her chief ornaments, was the early though temporary victim." Mr. Rives does not mean that Mr. Madison was for a little while in early life the victim of a vicious habit, but that he lost votes because he would do nothing to encourage it in others.
The country lost a good representative, but their loss was his gain. The Assembly immediately elected him a member of the governor's council, and in this position he so grew in public favor that, two years afterward (1780), he was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was still under thirty, and had he been even a more brilliant young man than he really was, it would not have been to his discredit had he only been seen for the next year or two, if seen at all, in the background. He had taken his seat among men, every one of whom, probably, was his senior, and among whom were many of the wisest men in the country, not "older" merely, but "better soldiers."
If not the darkest, at least there was no darker year in the Revolution than that of 1780. Within a few days of his arrival at Philadelphia, Madison wrote to Jefferson--then governor of Virginia--his opinion of the state of the country. It was gloomy but not exaggerated. The only bright spot he could see was the chance that Clinton's expedition to South Carolina might be a failure; but within little more than a month from the date of his letter, Lincoln was compelled to surrender Charleston, and the whole country south of Virginia seemed about to fall into the hands of the enemy. Could he have foreseen that calamity, his apprehensions might have been changed to despair; for he writes:--
"Our army threatened with an immediate alternative of disbanding or living on free quarter; the public treasury empty; public credit exhausted, nay, the private credit of purchasing agents employed, I am told, as far as it will bear; Congress complaining of the extortion of the people, the people of the improvidence of Congress, and the army of both; our affairs requiring the most mature and systematic measures, and the urgency of occasions admitting only of temporary expedients, and these expedients generating new difficulties; Congress recommending plans to the several States for execution, and the States separately rejudging the expediency of such plans, whereby the same distrust of concurrent exertions that had damped the ardor of patriotic individuals must produce the same effect among the States themselves; an old system of finance discarded as incompetent to our necessities, an untried and precarious one substituted, and a total stagnation in prospect between the end of the former and the operation of the latter. These are the outlines of the picture of our public situation. I leave it to your own imagination to fill them up."
He saw more clearly, perhaps, after the experience of one session of Congress, the true cause of all these troubles; at any rate, he was able, in a letter written in November of that year (1780), to state it tersely and explicitly. The want of money, he wrote to a friend, "is the source of all our public difficulties and misfortunes. One or two millions of guineas properly applied would diffuse vigor and satisfaction throughout the whole military department, and would expel the enemy from every part of the United States."
But nobody knew better than he the difficulty of raising funds except by borrowing abroad, and that this was a precarious reliance. There must be some sort of substitute for money. In specific taxation he had no faith. Such taxes, if paid at all, would be paid, virtually, in the paper currency or certificates of the States, and these had already fallen to the ratio of one hundred to one; they kept on falling till they reached the rate of a thousand to one, and then soon became altogether worthless. When the estimate for the coming year was under consideration, he proposed to Congress that the States should be advised to abandon the issue of this paper currency. "It met," he says, "with so cool a reception that I did not much urge it." The sufficient answer to the proposition was, that "the practice was manifestly repugnant to the Acts of Congress," and as these were disregarded and could not be enforced, a mere remonstrance would be quite useless. The Union was little more than a name under the feeble bonds of the Confederation, and each State was a law unto itself. Not that in this case there was much reasonable ground for complaint; for what else could the States do? Where there was no money there must be something to take its place; a promise to pay must be accepted instead of payment. The paper answered a temporary purpose, though it was plain that in the end it would be good for nothing.
The evil, however, was manifestly so great that there was only the more reason for trying to mitigate it, if it could not be cured. Madison, like the rest, had his remedy. He proposed, in a letter to one of his colleagues, that the demand for army supplies should be duly apportioned among the people, their collection rigorously enforced, and payment made in interest-bearing certificates, not transferable, but to be redeemed at a specified time after the war was over. The plan would undoubtedly have put a stop to the circulation of a vast volume of paper money if the producers would have exchanged the products of their labor for certificates, useless at the time of exchange, and having only a possible prospective value in case of the successful termination of an uncertain war. Patriotic as the people were, they neither would nor could have submitted to such a law, nor had Congress the power to enforce it. But Mr. Madison did not venture apparently to urge his plan beyond its suggestion to his colleague.
Why the Assembly of Virginia should have proposed to elect an extra delegate to Congress, early in 1781, is not clear, unless it be that one of the number, Joseph Jones, being also a member of the Assembly, passed much of his time in Richmond. It does not appear, however, that the delegate extraordinary was ever sent, perhaps because it was known to Mr. Madison's friends that it would be a mortification to him. There was certainly no good reason for any distrust of either his ability or his industry. One could hardly be otherwise than industrious who had it in him--if the story be true--to take but three hours out of the twenty-four for sleep during the last year of his college course, that he might crowd the studies of two years into one. He seemed to love work for its own sake, and he was a striking example of how much virtue there is in steadiness of pursuit. Not that he had at this time any special goal for his ambition. His aim seemed to be simply to do the best he could wherever he might be placed; to discharge faithfully, and to the best of such ability as he had, whatever duty was intrusted to him. His report of the proceedings in the congressional session of 1782-83, and the letters written during those years and the year before, show that he was not merely diligent but absorbed in the duties of his office.
He was more faithful to his constituents than his constituents sometimes were to him. Anything that might happen at that period for want of money can hardly be a matter of surprise; but Virginia, even then, should have been able, it would seem, to find enough to enable its members of Congress to pay their board-bills. He complains gently in his Addisonian way of the inconvenience to which he was put for want of funds. "I cannot," he writes to Edmund Randolph, "in any way make you more sensible of the importance of your kind attention to pecuniary remittances for me, than by informing you that I have for some time past been a pensioner on the favor of Hayne Solomon, a Jew broker." A month later he writes, that to draw bills on Virginia has been tried, "but in vain;" nobody would buy them; and he adds, "I am relapsing fast into distress. The case of my brethren is equally alarming." Within a week he again writes: "I am almost ashamed to reiterate my wants so incessantly to you, but they begin to be so urgent that it is impossible to suppress them." But the Good Samaritan, Solomon, is still an unfailing reliance. "The kindness of our little friend in Front Street, near the coffee house, is a fund which will preserve me from extremities; but I never resort to it without great mortification, as he obstinately rejects all recompense. The price of money is so usurious that he thinks it ought to be extorted from none but those who aim at profitable speculations. To a necessitous delegate he gratuitously spares a supply out of his private stock." It is a pretty picture of the simplicity of the early days of the Republic. Between the average modern member and the money-broker, under such circumstances, there would lurk, probably, a contract for carrying the mails or for Indian supplies.
Relief, however, came at last. An appeal was made in a letter to the governor of Virginia, which was so far public that anybody about the executive office might read it. The answer to this letter, says Mr. Madison, "seems to chide our urgency." But there soon came a bill for two hundred dollars, which, he adds, "very seasonably enabled me to replace a loan by which I had anticipated it. About three hundred and fifty more (not less) would redeem me completely from the class of debtors." It is to be hoped it came without further chiding.
The young member was not less attentive to his congressional duties because of these little difficulties in the personal ways and means. Military movements seem, without altogether escaping his attention, to have interested him the least. In his letters to the public men at home, which were meant in some degree to give such information as in later times the newspapers supplied, questions relating to army affairs, even news directly from the army, occupy the least space. They are not always, for that reason, altogether entertaining reading. One would be glad, occasionally, to exchange their sonorous and rounded periods for any expression of quick, impulsive feeling. "I return you," he writes to Pendleton, "my fervent congratulations on the glorious success of the combined armies at York and Gloucester. We have had from the Commander-in-Chief an official report of the fact,"--and so forth and so forth; and then for a page or more is a discussion of the condition of British possessions in the East Indies, that "rich source of their commerce and credit, severed from them, perhaps forever;" of "the predatory conquest of Eustatia;" and of the "relief of Gibraltar, which was merely a negative advantage;"--all to show that "it seems scarcely possible for them much longer to shut their ears against the voice of peace." There is not a word in all this that is not quite true, pertinent, reflective, and becoming a statesman; but neither is there a word of sympathetic warmth and patriotic fervor which at that moment made the heart of a whole people beat quicker at the news of a great victory, and in the hope that the cause was gained at last.
All the letters have this preternatural solemnity, as if each was a study in style after the favorite Addisonian model. One wonders if he did not, in the privacy of his own room and with the door locked, venture to throw his hat to the ceiling and give one hurrah under his breath at the discomfiture of the vain and self-sufficient Cornwallis. But he seems never to have been a young man. At one and twenty he gravely warned his friend Bradford not "to suffer those impertinent fops that abound in every city to divert you from your business and philosophical amusements.... You will make them respect and admire you more by showing your indignation at their follies, and by keeping them at a becoming distance." It was his loss, however, and our gain. He was one of the men the times demanded, and without whom they would have been quite different times and followed by quite different results. The sombre hue of his life was due partly, no doubt, to natural temperament; partly to the want of health in his earlier manhood, which led him to believe that his days were numbered; but quite as much, if not more than either, to a keen sense of the responsibility resting upon those to whom had fallen the conduct of public affairs.
[Footnote 4: The members of Congress were paid, at that time, by the States they represented. Virginia allowed her delegates their family expenses, including three servants and four horses, house rent and fuel, two dollars a mile for travel, and twenty dollars a day when in attendance on Congress. The members were required to render an account quarterly of their household expenses, and the State paid them when she had any money.]