Interposition, Nullification and the Political Thought of James Madison

The Tenth Amendment Center


Editor’s Note: James Madison, often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” is considered on of America’s leading founding fathers. He was the principal author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers, and was the fourth president of the United States (1809-1817).

In 1798, he secretly co-authored, along with Thomas Jefferson, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to protest the Alien and Sedition Acts. It was these resolutions where the principles of nullification and interposition first gained prominence in the American tradition.

In honor of James Madison’s birthday, March 16, 1751, we are pleased to announce the third installment of our “publications” section. This paper, “From Interposition to Nullification: Peripheries and Center in the Thought of James Madison,” by Kevin R.C. Gutzman, is a fantastic resource for understanding the political thought of Madison, which showed great changes over his career – from nationalism to state sovereignty and back.

It was originally published in the University of Virginia’s Essays in History, vol 26, 1994.


From Interposition to Nullification: Peripheries and Center in the Thought of James Madison
by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

In 1836, the expiring James Madison offered “Advice to My Country”:

The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions, is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with deadly wiles into Paradise.

Madison’s concern for the future of the union had been piqued by the Nullification Controversy and the growing appeal of states’ rights.

There is a certain irony in Madison’s worries: the states’ rights strain of Jeffersonianism owed much to the actions and public writings four decades earlier of Madison himself. The story of Madison’s career can be seen as that of a creative politician whose very creativity came, at the end of his life, to threaten his foremost achievement. After his death, his intellectual heirs would rend the union asunder; the doctrine of state sovereignty under the federal constitution, which Madison had helped formulate in response to a perceived threat to republicanism, would be used to truncate the union, the extended sphere Madison had been instrumental in creating and in which he had long lodged his fondest hopes.

James Madison’s thinking about federalism prior to 1800 reflected the relative strengths of the federal and state governments at different times. Consistent theory yielded to political imperative; understanding was altered by perspective and experience. Madison had a consistent vision of the ideal polity, but the events of those years elicited the enunciation of doctrines and the support of constitutional interpretations of which, on sober second thought, he disapproved.

The article continues at the Tenth Amendment Center.

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