Madison's labors for the Constitution did not cease when the convention adjourned, although he was not at that moment in a hopeful frame of mind in regard to it. Within a week of the adjournment he wrote to Jefferson: "I hazard an opinion that the plan, should it be adopted, will neither effectually answer its national object, nor prevent the local mischiefs which excite disgusts against the state governments."
But this feeling seems to have soon passed away. Perhaps, when he devoted himself to a careful study of what had been done, he saw, in looking at it as a whole, how just and true it was in its fair proportions. He now diligently sought to prove how certainly the Constitution would answer its purpose; how wisely all its parts were adjusted; how successfully the obstacles to a perfect union of the States had been, as he thought, overcome; how carefully the rights of the separate States had been guarded, while the needed general government would be secured. Whether there should be an American nation or not depended, as he had believed for years, upon whether a national Constitution could be agreed upon. Now that it was framed he believed that upon its adoption depended whether there should be, or should not be, a nation. In September, as he wrote to Jefferson, he was in doubt; in February he wrote to Pendleton: "I have for some time been persuaded that the question on which the proposed Constitution must turn is the simple one, whether the Union shall or shall not be continued. There is, in my opinion, no middle ground to be taken."
Those who would have called a second convention to revise the labors of the first had no sympathy from him. He not only doubted if the work could be done so well again; he doubted if it could be done at all. With him, it was this Constitution or none. "Every man," he said in "The Federalist," referring to a picture he had just drawn of the perils of disunion,--"every man who loves peace, every man who loves his country, every man who loves liberty, ought to have it ever before his eyes, that he may cherish in his heart a due attachment to the Union of America, and be able to set a due value on the means of preserving it." This "means" was the Constitution.
Of the eighty papers of "The Federalist" he wrote twenty-nine; Hamilton writing forty-six, and Jay only five. These famous essays, of wider repute than any other American book, are yet more generally accepted upon faith than upon knowledge. But at that time, when the new Constitution was in the mind and on the tongue of every thoughtful man, they were eagerly read as they followed each other rapidly in the columns of a New York newspaper. They were an armory, wherein all who entered into the controversy could find such weapons as they could best handle. What governments had been, what governments ought to be, and what the political union of these American States would be under their new Constitution, were questions on which the writers of these papers undertook to answer all reasonable inquiries, and to silence all cavils. Madison would undoubtedly have written more than his two fifths of them, had he not been called upon early in March to return to Virginia; for the work was of the deepest interest to him, and the popularity of the papers would have stimulated to exertion one as indolent as he was industrious.
But the canvass for the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention of Virginia called him home. He had been nominated as the representative of his county, and his friends had urged him to return before the election, for there was reason to fear that the majority was on the wrong side. Henry, Mason, Randolph, Lee, and others among the most influential men of Virginia, were opposed to the Constitution. There must be somebody in the convention to meet strong men like these, and Madison was urged to take the stump and canvass for his own election. Even this he was willing to do at this crisis, if need be, though he said it would be at the sacrifice of every private inclination, and of the rule which hitherto from the beginning of his public career he had strictly adhered to,--never to ask, directly or indirectly, for votes for himself.
It is quite possible, even quite probable, that Mr. Madison had little of that gift which has always passed for eloquence, and is, indeed, eloquence of a certain kind. If we may trust the reports of his contemporaries, though he wanted some of the graces of oratory, he was not wanting in the power of winning and convincing. His arguments were often, if not always, prepared with care. If there was no play of fancy, there was no forgetfulness of facts. If there was lack of imagination, there was none of historical illustration, when the subject admitted it. If manner was forgotten, method was not. His aim was to prove and to hold fast; to make the wrong clear, and to put the right in its place; to appeal to reason, not to passion, nor to prejudice; to try his cause by the light of clear logic, hard facts, and sound learning; to convince his hearers of the truth, as he believed in it, not to take their judgment captive by surprise with harmonious modulation and grace of movement. Not his neighbors only, but the most zealous of the Federalists of the State, sent him to the convention. It was there that such eloquence as he possessed was peculiarly needed. The ground was to be fought over inch by inch, and with antagonists whom it would be difficult, if not impossible, to beat. There was to be contest over every word of the Constitution from its first to its last. "Give me leave," cried Patrick Henry in his opening speech, "to demand what right had they to say 'We the people' instead of 'We the States'?" He began at the beginning. It was the gage of the coming battle; the defenders were challenged to show that any better union than that already in existence was needed, and that in this new Constitution a better union was furnished.
As month after month passed away while the Constitution was before the people for adoption, the anxiety of the Federalists grew, lest the requisite nine States should not give their assent. But when eight were secured there was room to hope even for unanimity, if Virginia should come in as the ninth. Should she say Yes, the Union might be perfect; for the remaining States would be almost sure to follow her lead. But should she say No, the final result would be doubtful, even if the requisite nine should be secured by the acquiescence of one of the smaller States. This answer could not, of course, depend altogether upon one man, but it did depend more upon Madison than upon anybody else.
The convention was in session nearly a month. At the end of a fortnight he was not hopeful. "The business," he wrote to Washington, "is in the most ticklish state that can be imagined. The majority will certainly be very small, on whatever side it may finally lie; and I dare not encourage much expectation that it will be on the favorable side." But his fears stimulated rather than discouraged him. He was always on his feet; always ready to meet argument with argument; always prompt to appeal from passion to reason; quick to brush aside mere declamation, and to bring the minds of his hearers back to a calm consideration of how much was at stake, and of the weight of the responsibility resting on that convention. Others were no less earnest and diligent than he; but he was easily chief, and the burden and heat of the day fell mainly upon him. Probably when the convention assembled the majority were opposed to the Constitution; but its adoption was carried at last by a vote of eighty-nine to seventy-nine. Thenceforth opposition in the remaining States was hopeless.
New Hampshire--though the fact was not known in Virginia--preceded that State by a few days in accepting the Constitution, so that the requisite nine were secured before the convention at Richmond came to a decision. But it was her decision, nevertheless, that really settled, so far as can be seen now, the question of a permanent Union. Had the vote of Virginia been the other way it is not likely that Hamilton would have carried New York, or that North Carolina and Rhode Island would have finally decided not to be left in solitude outside. What the history of the nine united States only, with four disunited States among them, might have been, it is impossible to know, and quite useless to conjecture. The conditions which some of the States attached to the act of adoption, the addition of a Bill of Rights, proposed amendments to the Constitution, and the suggestion of submitting it to a second convention, were matters of comparatively little moment, when the majority of ten delegates was secured at Richmond. These were questions that could be postponed. "The delay of a few years," Madison wrote to Jefferson, "will assuage the jealousies which have been artificially created by designing men, and will at the same time point out the faults which call for amendment."
Immediately after the adjournment of the Richmond Convention he returned to New York, where the confederate Congress was still in session. That body had little to do now but decide upon the time and place of the inauguration of the new government. Madison had entered upon his thirty-eighth year, and we get an interesting glimpse of him as he appeared at this time of his life to an intelligent foreigner. "Mr. Warville Brissot has just arrived here," he wrote to Jefferson in August, 1788. This was Brissot de Warville, a Frenchman of the new philosophy,--whose head, nevertheless, his compatriots cut off a few years later,--then traveling in America to observe the condition and progress of the new republic. His tour extended to nearly all the States; he met with most of the distinguished men of the country; and he made a careful and intelligent use of his many opportunities for observation. On his return to France he wrote an entertaining volume,--"New Travels in the United States of America,"--still to be found in some old libraries. What he says of Madison is worth repeating, not only for the impression he made upon an observant stranger, but as the evidence of the contemporary estimate of his character and reputation, which De Warville must have gathered from others.
"The name of Madison," he writes, "celebrated in America, is well known in Europe by the merited eulogium made of him by his countryman and friend, Mr. Jefferson.
"Though still young, he has rendered the greatest services to Virginia, to the American Confederation, and to liberty and humanity in general. He contributed much, with Mr. White, in reforming the civil and criminal codes of his country. He distinguished himself particularly in the convention for the acceptation of the new federal system. Virginia balanced a long time in adhering to it. Mr. Madison determined to it the members of the convention by his eloquence and logic. This republican appears to be about thirty-eight years of age. He had, when I saw him, an air of fatigue; perhaps it was the effect of the immense labors to which he has devoted himself for some time past. His look announces a censor, his conversation discovers the man of learning, and his reserve was that of a man conscious of his talents and of his duties.
"During the dinner, to which he invited me, they spoke of the refusal of North Carolina to accede to the new Constitution. The majority against it was one hundred. Mr. Madison believed that this refusal would have no weight on the minds of the Americans, and that it would not impede the operations of Congress. I told him that though this refusal might be regarded as a trifle in America, it would have great weight in Europe; that they would never inquire there into the motives which dictated it, nor consider the small consequence of this State in the confederation; that it would be regarded as a germ of division, calculated to retard the operations of Congress; and that certainly this idea would prevent the resurrection of American credit.
"Mr. Madison attributed this refusal to the attachment of a great part of the inhabitants of that State to their paper money and their tender act. He was much inclined to believe that this disposition would not remain a long time."
In October the Virginia Assembly met. Two thirds of its members were opposed to the new Constitution, and at their head was Patrick Henry, his zeal against it not in the least abated because he had been defeated in the late convention. The acceptance of the Constitution by that representative body could not be recalled. But the Assembly could, at least, protest against it, and was led by Henry to call upon Congress to convene a second national convention to do over again the work of the first. The legislature was to elect senators for the first Senate under the new government; and it was also to divide the State into districts for its representation in the lower house of Congress. In ordinary fairness, as the State had, in a popular convention, so recently accepted the Constitution, the party then in the majority was entitled to at least one of the representatives in the Senate. But Henry nominated both, and could command votes enough to elect them. In modern party usage this would seem quite unobjectionable; indeed, a modern politician who should not use such an advantage for his party would be considered as unfit for practical politics. But a hundred years ago it was thought sharp practice, and a fair proportion of Henry's partisans refused to be bound by it. One of Henry's nominees was elected by a majority of twenty over Madison; but in the case of the other that majority was reduced more than half, and a change of five more votes would have elected Madison.
He had, however, neither expected nor wished to be sent to the Senate, while he did hope to be elected to the House of Representatives. The Senate was intended to be the more dignified body, requiring in its members a certain style of living for which wealth was indispensable. Madison had not the means to give that kind of social support to official position; but he could afford to belong to that body where a member was not the less respectable because his whole domestic establishment might be a bachelor's room in a boarding-house.
Virginia was, as he wrote to Washington, "the only instance among the ratifying States in which the politics of the legislature are at variance with the sense of the people, expressed by their representatives in convention." This had enabled Henry and a majority of his friends to elect senators who, representing "the politics of the legislature," did not represent "the sense of the people" in regard to the national Constitution. But in the election of members of the House of Representatives, the sense of the people was to be again appealed to, and a new way must be devised for asserting the supremacy of legislative power. The cleverness of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, many years later, under similar circumstances, introduced a new word into the language of the country, and, it was supposed at the time, a new device in American politics. But what has since been known as "Gerrymandering" was really the invention of Patrick Henry. This method of arranging counties into congressional districts in accordance with their political affinities, without regard to their geographical lines, Henry attempted to do with Mr. Madison's own county. By joining it to distant counties it was expected that an anti-Federal majority would be secured large enough to insure his defeat. The attempt to elect him to the Senate was, Madison wrote to Jefferson, "defeated by Mr. Henry, who is omnipotent in the present legislature." He adds that Henry "has taken equal pains, in forming the counties into districts for the election of representatives, to associate with Orange such as are most devoted to his politics, and most likely to be swayed by the prejudices excited against me." The scheme, however, was unsuccessful, perhaps partly because of the indignation which so dishonorable a measure to defeat a political opponent excited throughout the State. Madison entered upon an active canvass of his district against James Monroe, who had been nominated as a moderate anti-Federalist, and defeated him. It was winter time, and in the exposure of some of his long rides his ears were frozen. In later life he sometimes laughingly pointed to the scars of these wounds received, he said, in the service of his country.
Thus Henry's "Gerrymander," like many another useful and curious device, brought neither profit nor credit to the original inventor. Had Henry acted in the broader spirit of the modern politician, who sees that he serves himself best who serves his party best, he would have disposed of every Federal county in the State as he disposed of Orange. As it was, he only aroused a good deal of indignation and defeated himself by openly aiming to gratify his personal resentments. Had he scattered his shot for the general good of the party, he would, perhaps, have brought down his particular bird.