James Madison spent much of late 1786 and early 1787 at work on what one historian called his “research project.” Having participated in helping bring about the interstate convention that was going to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787, he intended to apply both historical knowledge and practical experience to the task of shaping proposals he would make as a member of Virginia’s delegation to the convention.
To that end, he drafted a memorandum on the history of federal governments. He also gathered his notes on problems in the American federal system under the Articles of Confederation into an eleven-point memorandum.
Historians have somewhat ironically taken to referring to that second memorandum, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” as “Madison’s ‘Vices’” in light of their author’s rather prim and reserved personality. Although that sobriquet is ironic, the “Vices” illustrates the central characteristic of Madison’s statesmanship: his thorough preparation.
A Georgian Philadelphia Convention colleague of the Virginian Madison’s wrote in the Convention’s wake that Madison was always the best prepared man in any public body. In the Convention itself, Madison was constantly at the center of the debates, always with a wealth of information at hand.
Madison put the “Vices” to use even before the assemblage opened. His fellow Virginia delegates, led by George Washington, Governor Edmund Randolph, and George Mason, joined him in crafting what came to be called the “Virginia Plan” (but in the Convention was called “Randolph’s Resolutions”) to remedy the shortcomings outlined in the “Vices.”
Vice #1 was “Failure of the States to Comply with the Constitutional Requisitions.” Madison’s explanation of this vice said that not only had it been suffered by the Confederation throughout its history, but it was endemic to all federal governments. He also called it “fatal to the object of” the Confederation. Partly on the basis of this claim, some historians have seen the Philadelphia Convention as being spurred chiefly by the desire to secure more reliable funding for the central government.
Vice #2 is “Encroachments by the States on the Federal Authority,” among which Madison listed Georgia’s Indian wars, Massachusetts’ raising and keeping troops, and four other states’ making interstate compacts. All of these, Madison believed, should have been Confederation functions.
Vice #3 is “Violations of the Law of Nations and of Treaties,” a matter nearly as significant as the first two. The treaty with Great Britain, the treaty with France, and the treaty with the Netherlands had all been violated, Madison said. He added that other nations’ not having taken measures of reprisal yet should not be understood as proving America was exempt from the consequences that all countries could expect when they habitually flouted international conventions.
Vice #4 was “Trespasses of the States on the Rights of Each Other.” Different states had adopted rules about access to their ports, about payment of debts, etc., that contravened the rightful expectations of their fellow members of the American union. #6, “Want of Guaranty to the States of their Constitutions and laws against internal violence,” reflected Madison’s and others’ unhappiness with the Congress’s impotence to intervene on behalf of the state government during Shays’ Rebellion. Washington as well had been distraught over the events in Massachusetts, and Madison determined to do something about it.
Vice #7 had to do with the absence of sanction in the Confederation’s laws. When Congress adopted a requisition or other policy, it had to rely on the state governments for enforcement, and every state had failed to meet its obligations at one time or another. This shortcoming would lead the Virginians to propose that the central government have an executive and a judicial branch to enforce its laws.
Vice #8 was “Want of ratification by the people of the articles of Confederation,” and here Madison intended to harness an American political invention for federal ends. Since the popular ratification of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (which is still in effect today), Americans had come to think that the people should ratify constitutions through special processes separate from their drafting. For Madison, this meant there ought to be state-wide ratification conventions for whatever product the Philadelphia Convention produced. If the Constitution were given effect through such a process, there would never be another instance of a state court’s choosing to enforce state policy instead of federal policy, for the federal policy would be clearly superior to it.
The next three vices concerned the “multiplicity,” “mutability,” and “injustice” of state laws. Here Madison developed what eventually would become his immortal Federalist #10 argument that an “extension of the sphere,” or linking the entire country into one federated republic, would by making it more difficult for local faction to dominate make it less likely that oppressive laws would be adopted. He mentioned that this conclusion was contrary to “the prevailing theory,” by which he meant the baron de Montesquieu’s postulate that republican government could only survive over the long term if confined to a small area. Madison’s practical application of his novel idea was that the central government must be strengthened markedly.
Read the Vices of the Political System of the United States by James Madison here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3915
Kevin R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D. is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History, Western Connecticut State University and Author, James Madison and the Making of America.
April 3, 2013 – Essay #33