Today would be James Madison 264th birthday. Madison is universally known by the sobriquet “Father of the Constitution” because he did most of the grunt work in getting that document signed, sealed, and delivered. It took plenty of speechifying, negotiating, and public persuasion through journalism (The Federalist Papers), but Madison got the job done and then some: By the time of the first Congress, Madison had also passed a long-sought Bill of Rights. Of course, that is the Madison we know. We tend to have some general feeling that his presidency was a catastrophe and overlook his years as an effective Cabinet secretary. We tend to think Madison rather intimidating because of his obviously egghead preoccupations: he was the pure intellectual who upended centuries of political theory in a newspaper article or two. Better put: he was the rare intellectual who combined a talent for theorizing with a talent for practical politics. The larger problem was his foreboding shyness: behind it was a sly wit and a bawdy sense of humor. But that was for male intimates only.
Nevertheless, Madison was the ultimate public man with a few private travesties of the sort that would devastate others, but which he overcame: epilepsy, for instance. Curiously, Madison was the ultimate committee man (all his greatest work was done in legislative settings) and he never cared for the solitude that intellectual types enjoy. He had a handsome friendship with Thomas Jefferson—as junior partner in founding the partisan party system, all-around adviser, fellow naturalist. His greatest failing, as rapper Lupe Fiasco starkly put it, “…There was nothing equal for my people in your math.” Yes, the 3/5ths Clause dealing with slavery. And yes, that’s a prohibiting flaw. But few egghead types succeed in American public life: John Quincy Adams did well in appointive office, but horribly as president; Woodrow Wilson was decent until the Paris Peace Conference of 1919; and Daniel Patrick Moyhnihan did his best work as a bureaucrat, U.S. Ambassador and academic scholar, but not especially as a U.S. Senator. So James Madison was America’s most successful public intellectual who made politics his business, warts and all. That makes him an American original. Happy Birthday, James Madison!