Author & Speaker

When James and Alexander Were Friends

In preparation for a panel I’m doing tomorrow at the First Amendment Center at the Newseum here in Washington, I just read Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Jefferson Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World, by Michael Meyerson. It’s a good book that offers an insightful view take on the unusual and short-lived partnership between Madison and Hamilton.
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The differences between the two men were vast, though both were small in stature. Madison was born into the richest family in his county, never had to work for a living, and was a decidedly bookish, almost shy person. Hamilton, whose parents in the Caribbean island of St. Kitts were not married to each other, was orphaned by age 12, had to win favor and scholarships from the rich and powerful, and was a high-spirited charmer with plenty of charisma.
Ironically, as time went on, Hamilton (the poor boy) became identified with the aristocratic party, while Madison (the child of privilege) identified with the party of the common man. Only in America. By 1791 they were angry rivals and remained so until Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in their 1804 duel.
But for four critical years, as young men, they worked as allies in the founding of the nation and framing of the Constitution. Their joint production of The Federalist (John Jay contributed a few of the 81 essays, but not enough to matter for much) is sometimes called the finest political analysis ever. Meyerson, a professor at University of Baltimore Law School, sets out the history of their relationship, then provides an excellent discussion of the central messages of The Federalist itself. The principal message — then as now — is that democracy is dangerous, the majority is to be feared, and a democratic government must include mechanisms that protect the nation against the people.
It is a subtle, wise message. I am always astonished at how young the men were who produced it. (Madison was 37; Hamilton 33). Meyerson’s book is an excellent introduction to it, or reminder of it.