Power  /  Explainer

James Madison and the Debilitating American Tendency to Make Everything About the Constitution

The U.S. Constitution was the reason for Madison and Hamilton's breakup.

Beginning in the early 1780’s, and continuing through the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York worked as a team. They dragged the country kicking and screaming toward the creation of a national government that might, they hoped, do two related things: defeat democratic inroads on political power, made by ordinary people in the 1770’s and 80’s; and vitiate the legislative powers of the separate states, which had been lax, at best, in opposing the democratic impulses. In 1789, when the first U.S. government went into operation in New York City, the partners hadn’t gotten all they’d wanted—the state legislatures still existed—but they’d gotten a lot, and as Treasury secretary, Hamilton went into action to bring about a system that he and Madison had long been working toward.

The system relied on federal taxation—no longer just duties on imports, but also taxes imposed domestically to create an “internal revenue,” drawn uniformly from the broad interstate mass of ordinary people, and earmarked for making annual interest payments to the small interstate class of rich speculators who had invested in bonds that helped pay for the war. The goal was threefold: concentrate the country’s wealth in a few, supposedly especially capable hands, and grow it; put the brakes on the democratic innovations in public finance that had recently gained traction; and flood the separate states with federally unified police power. With Hamilton in the executive branch and Madison in the House of Representatives, they’d gained a good foothold for at last achieving those shared goals.

It didn’t go that way. Even the most casual reader of founding history knows that Hamilton and Madison became opponents on pretty much every issue—that the Hamilton-vs.-Jefferson binary, which came to define the fundamental national conflict, is really a Hamilton-vs.-Jefferson-and-Madison binary. In Jefferson, Madison found a new partner. He spurned everything he and Hamilton had been trying to bring about. It was a nasty breakup, and Hamilton didn’t even see it coming.