The Complications of James Madison

James Madison was a complicated man. He was perhaps the primary inventor of what most people in all the American generations since his time have thought of as “freedom.”

But now the narratives about both James Madison and freedom are changing. A new generation no longer accepts the idea that Madison and many of the other founding fathers were great men who happened to own slaves. Instead, they see them first as slave owners, who happened to invent the United States. And second, they don’t necessarily think that liberal democracy is such a great idea either. They might also see “founding fathers” as another phrase for “the patriarchy.”

This is playing out right now in the city that bears Madison’s name. Since its founding, James Madison Memorial High School has sat on the city’s far west side bearing the name of the fourth president. Commonly referred to as “Madison Memorial” or just “Memorial,” few people gave much thought to who the school was actually named after. Most probably thought that “Madison Memorial” simply referred to the city, as in “Janesville Craig.”

James Madison gave generations of Americans their freedom, while denying it to his own slaves. So, what should be his legacy?

But a few years back Memorial alum Mya Berry started a campaign to get the school renamed. She accumulated signers on a petition and the school district readily agreed that Madison’s name should be stripped from the building. Now, the district is trying to decide what the new name should be. The final candidates are simply “Memorial” or the name of an inspiring individual. These include the late and beloved former principal Bruce Dahmen, the late Wisconsin Secretary of State Vel Phillips, and Darlene Hancock, a well-loved school administrator.

I would be fine with any of those names. “Memorial” is simple and the individuals are all deserving of the honor. But let’s explore the issue at the root of the question.

“(James) Madison was a person that benefited off of the exploitation of Black bodies, and those who embarked in such acts of racism should have no influence in today’s culture,” Berry wrote.

The first half of that statement is undeniable, but the second part is problematic. There’s no question that James Madison profited off of slave labor and, worse, he knew it was wrong. The founders were remarkably self aware about this. As the historian Joseph Ellis has well-documented, they understood the irony in all their talk about individual freedom while they denied it to others. If slavery didn’t trouble their consciences, it certainly caused them embarrassment.

But they also knew that to deal with it forthrightly meant that there would be no country. Southern delegates would not abide a constitution that outlawed or even phased out slavery. So, the founders did the only thing they could do, which was nothing. They hoped that slavery would become uneconomical over time and simply fade away. They were monumentally and tragically wrong. It took a civil war to do that, and even then the legacy of slavery echoed down the generations in Jim Crow.

The failure of Madison and his brethren to deal with slavery at the outset has caused us harm ever since, but it was simply politically impossible to end it then and still have a country. So, when young critics claim that our country was founded on slavery, in an indirect way they have a point. If the founders hadn’t conceded the continued existence of it, we would not have a country today.

And yet, I believe it’s wonderful that the United States happened and that it continues to happen. For all its faults, I believe my country is a force in the world for freedom, for equality, for reason, for tolerance.

In Ellis’ short book. The Quartet, he explains how Madison joined George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to conspire to create the United States. Ellis argues that these four, “manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.”

And Ellis concludes that Madison was the intellectual force behind the whole project. It is entirely possible that without him there would be no nation as we know it.

But Ellis doesn’t leave Madison and his compatriots off the hook. He writes: “There is no way to finesse the fact that slavery was built into the American founding, just as it was built into the economy of all the states south of the Potomac. Historians who prefer to downplay that awkward reality thereby obscure the most consequential and tragic choice the founders were forced to make. Although most of the prominent founders, and all the men featured here, fully recognized that slavery was incompatible with the values of the American Revolution, they consciously subordinated the moral to the political agenda, permitting the continuance and expansion of slavery as the price to pay for nationhood.”

Here’s the key phrase, though: “slavery was incompatible with the values of the American Revolution.”

In other words, while slavery was a widespread institution around the world (even American Indians employed it), only America knowingly created a system in which it was clearly counter to what the country was about, even if politics prevented the founders from coming right out and saying as much.

So, in Madison we have this complex figure who set the stage for the end of slavery even as he owned slaves. And this is where I take issue with Mya Berry’s comment. Should Madison have “no influence on today’s culture?”

Actually, I want James Madison to have a tremendous influence on today’s culture. Liberal democracy is under attack from populists and despots all around the globe and here at home it’s weathering blows from hard-right insurrectionists and hard-left wokesters.

Rather than cancel James Madison, students would be far better served if they were asked to wrestle with his legacy by reading Joseph Ellis’ books and the works of other historians.

A final word about all this. So much of what passes for political discourse today is about the personal attributes of an individual. So, in treating Madison we’re asked to ignore his ideas and what he did to create a nation and instead to focus on what he did in his personal life as a slave holder.

I am not arguing that that should be excused. Owning another human being is abhorrent. But it doesn’t tell the whole story of the man or of the country. A school building should be a place where the use of facts, reason, complexity and nuance are not just encouraged, but demanded. The easy dismissal of James Madison suggests that the Madison School Board doesn’t recognize this.

Welcome to the 232nd consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “The Complications of James Madison

  1. Things change. 300 years from now (if we make it that long) I bet people will look back at even the “greatest” person alive today and see faults that will be inexcusable to them in their time. Burning fossil fuels and eating systematically tortured non-human animals come to mind. Many of us know that these actions are wrong yet we persist in doing them because it is part of the fabric of our current society.

    We should indeed separate the person from the ideas, and that’s an augment for why it’s perfectly fine to remove people’s names from buildings. Why honor the person when we should focus on the ideas? I don’t think we need to set people up on pedestals as demigods – I don’t care to name anything after people, I don’t really see the point if not trying to idolize the person.

    I don’t think it follows that people who don’t want to unequivocally revere the founding fathers are against liberal democracy. Perhaps they are so supportive of the idea that they are disappointed in the very contradictions described in the post.

    To imply that democracy itself would have died without our founding fathers is a bit rich. They didn’t invent the basic concept; there’s no reason to believe that without those exact actions by those exact people at that exact time we’d live in a world with more despots and dictators than we already do. One could also make an argument that there are more dictators and despots because of the US (20th century US foreign policy may have been anti-communist, but it was certainly not pro-democracy). I prefer to not bother with either argument since there’s no way to really know.

    Why were the southern states were so important that they’d compromise in such a fundamental way? Why didn’t they just leave the southern states out and make a country without them? Is Canada a lesser liberal democracy because they had a different founding process than the US?


  2. A subtle and nuanced entry Dave. Unfortunately, when the world is seen as black and white, in this case literally, subtlety and nuance and the ability to make difficult decisions, go out the window.

    Rollie, without the bulwark of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I think democracy in the US would have died long before it did. And saying that, I don’t think it’s completely dead, just mostly dead. What the founding fathers wrought has been horribly distorted over the last ~250 years.

    Though idolizing is definitely a problem, having people to look up to, to help us aspire towards our better natures, with knowledge of the inherent human weaknesses is a good thing.

    I also think we are a much better country for attempting to unite the disparities of north and south.


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