James Madison – By Sydney Howard Gay

9781484148167-us-300On this Father’s Day, I finished reading a biography of the Father of our United States Constitution.

Sometimes you learn more about HISTORY by reading the biographies of famous people than you actually learn about the famous PERSON.
Let me explain. I just finished reading the biography of James Madison. This biography was written in 1884 by a Sydney Howard Gay.

In reading this book, I was struck by the extreme negative tone the author took towards James Madison. It was also really surprising how little time the author spent on the Summer of the Constitutional Convention. In fact, the author spent only 3% of the entire book covering that Summer which gave us our Constitutional form of Government.

As I was finishing the book, I was becoming so frustrated by how this author was portraying Madison that I finally did some research on the author. Mr. Gay had spent 14 years publishing the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a newspaper on the abolition movement. He also spent the Civil War defending Abraham Lincoln in the newspapers. Mr. Gay was an ardent abolitionist who had just finished watching the nation being torn apart and being put back together again.

Because of these biases, Mr. Gay was not a huge fan of Madison because it appears to me that he blames Madison from straying from his Federalist roots in order to support the Republican idea of state rights.


Mr. Gay made a huge point about Article 1, Section 9, which prohibited Congress from restricting the slave trade until 1808. It appears to me that Mr. Gay was upset at Madison who was elected president in 1808 for not taking an active role in stopping the importation of slaves.

Mr. Gay actually made comments that within a couple of years of Madison being elected to Congress, he actually changed his core beliefs because it would be easier for him to be elected into office. These conclusory statements by Mr. Gay were not backed up by any evidence but were clearly being backed by his desire to blame Madison for not doing more to abolish slavery and thus prevent the Civil War.

Another area where Mr. Gay’s biases became evident was when he attacked Madison for drafting the 1798 Virginia resolution. By way of quick history, the Federal Congress granted the Federalist John Adams extreme powers with the Alien and Sedition Acts. Madison’s response was to go to Richmond and lobby the legislature to encourage their fellow states to pass similar resolutions to remind the Federal Government that they were exercising powers that exceeded its authority granted to them by the states.

The 1798 resolution was a reminder by the Father of the U.S. Constitution that the Federal Government was limited and that the Federal Government had no authority to limit the free speech rights of those who disagreed with those in power.

During the Civil War, states like Virginia used Madison’s 1798 Virginia Resolution as one of the reasons why they were allowed to separate from the union.

Towards the end of the book, Mr. Gay did say a complementary thing about Madison. This positive statement was a result of Madison saying something complementary about the woman suffrage movement. By way of quick background, Mr. Gay’s wife was very active in the woman’s suffrage movement.

As I said before, Sometimes you learn more about HISTORY by reading the biographies of famous people than you actually learn about the famous PERSON.

While I am disappointed in how this particular author decided to portray Madison, by reading this biography, it did cause me to take some more time to understand the compromises at the Convention for the U.S. Constitution regarding the 20-year ban on Congresses power to stop the importation of slaves. It also caused me to study more about the Virginia 1798 Resolution. And finally, it caused me to study the author to figure out why he had such a negative and dismissive view of Madison.


Sometimes you learn more about HISTORY by reading the biographies of famous people than you actually learn about the famous PERSON.

So, for any of my friends who are still reading. I thought I would share 5 quick points from the life of James Madison that I think are important for everyone of us to understand and apply to our own lives.

1. Become an expert in your field. James Madison was an avid reader. He took copious notes while he read. James Madison favorite subject was foreign government (both past and current). By the time 1787 rolled around, the nation knew that Madison was an expert on foreign governments and they trusted him.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. James Madison had attempted the year before to move a new Constitutional convention at Annapolis. However, this effort had failed. Madison did not give up but instead he worked hard to make sure that George Washington would show up to the Convention knowing that Washington’s appears would lend the convention credibility.

3. Don’t be afraid of letting others receive credit for your work. Madison recruited Randolph (the governor of Virginia) to formally present the Madison plan for a new Constitutional form of Government. Madison knew that Randolph had more respect of the members of the Constitutional Convention and so by allowing Randolph to present his plan, some of the other members were willing to take a second look at the concept of a U.S. Constitution.

4. Recruit a team to fulfill your vision. James Madison was not the most active member speaking on the floor of the Constitutional Convention. That honor belongs to James Wilson. James Madison worked very carefully with Wilson to make sure that the two of them were always on their feet presenting the need for the Constitution. Whether it was an issue of representation in the small states, slavery, or the powers of the president, Madison or Wilson were always ready to give an answer to why the U.S. Constitution was necessary.

5. Volunteer to do more than is expected of you. Madison quickly volunteered to be the secretary of the convention. As such, Madison was required to take notes of who said what, the various motions that were made, the substations that were voted on, and where they were at in the proceedings. Because Madison volunteered to be the secretary, it meant he had to work late at nights to make sure his notes were always in order. However, it also meant that when people had questions about where they were in the proceedings, Madison became the expert that everyone relied upon.

I could go on and on about Madison and what happened before, during, and after the summer of 1787. However, this post is already getting way too long. Madison rightfully deserves the title of Father of the U.S. Constitution and he did not deserve such a hateful biography being written about him because someone had a biased view about what Madison could have done 100 years earlier.

This biography is exhibit #1 in Monday morning quarterbacking when it comes to our Founding Fathers and I personally dislike it whenever I see it.

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