“The Concept of Ratification” and The Federalist 37 – 40
In the continuation of his discussion of the ratification debate, Rakove reveals Madison’s astute political judgment in restricting the state conventions to “their prescribed single decision” instead of allowing a more wide-ranging evaluation of the document under review. This calculated move to circumscribe state influence was a crucial factor in making progress toward ratification, especially in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, where the pressure to tack on additional amendments was strongest. Rakove reviews the particulars of key state-level debates, focusing on the above three battleground venues, placing special emphasis on the difference between offering “recommendatory amendments” (i.e. comments) and “conditions to be met” before ratification. Madison had wisely chosen to anticipate and centralize fielding the latter type so that the document – which had already achieved an unprecedented level of consensus among delegates to the Convention – could move forward without undue encumbrances. On the other hand, some states were quite happy to offer the former variety of critique. Madison knew that, as in so many cases in national politics, it’s often more important to provide a channel for feedback rather than an actual vehicle for influence. One surprise for modern readers who grew up with the name Patrick Henry on their lips as the prime mover of revolutionary sentiment and republican spirit is to discover that the man who uttered “give me liberty or give me death” emerged as a prominent anti-Federalist in Virginia. Rakove notes that Henry’s resistance was largely confined to powerful oratory, however. His main concern was “whether Virginia could entrust its vital interests to a more powerful national government dominated by the northern states,” which reeks of a proslavery orientation fundamentally at odds with the phrase that all school American children memorize in splendid isolation.
Madison returns in Federalist 37–40 to undertake an exhaustive, necessary, and yet somewhat tedious recapitulation of the “defects of the existing Confederation.” In doing so, he remarks on the overriding difficulty of the very premise of creating orderly and stable human institutions. As if in holy admiration of the Herculean task before him in crafting the future government of the United States, Madison waxes oddly pious: “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated” (229). Madison is quite clever here. On the one hand, the metaphor suggests that God speaks to his creatures in a perfectly intelligible, pure idiom, but our own limitations as interpreters, our own clumsy language, obscure the message and confuse its outcome. Likewise, the political elite, the founders of the union, among whom Madison was a key player, were speaking in the clear tones available to men of education, understanding, and good judgment. Their message, their gospel, however lucid and well-reasoned on its own, threatened to become muddled among the state-level mediocrities and general public to whom it was submitted for final approval.
On the other hand, Madison here invites a broader criticism of spirit versus letter in written language. Scripture was God’s word translated for popular consumption. Its syntax and vocabulary are necessarily as imperfect as its readers. Its comprehension is accordingly as variable as its audience. Madison apparently felt the same way about what would become the Constitution. He knew that its essential purity might get lost in translation. All the same, Madison was a political realist at heart. He knew that he was asking the states (and their constituencies) to trust in his interpretation of the Constitution’s lofty and ambitious agenda: “Solon, who seems to have indulged a more temporizing policy, confessed that he had not given to his countrymen the government best suited to their happiness, but most tolerant to their prejudices” (233). Madison and Hamilton were offering no more or less than that to their countrymen.