Madison came to see that a vigorous, responsible executive officer, even within republican principles that generally emphasized legislative powers, might be essential to effective government by consent. Revolutionary hostility to the last royal governors, who had been the agents of British tyranny, further heightened American suspicions of executive authority. Yet, by 1787, Madison had also been given many lessons in the liabilities of executive impotence. As a member of the Virginia Council of State, he had observed a government in which the executive not only had very little power overall but was forbidden to act except with the approval of the eight-member council. The delays and inability to act in the exigencies of war eventually convinced Madison that this construction of the executive department was "the worst part of a bad Constitution."
The same executive weakness existed in the Continental Congress. Standing committees conducted much of the executive business, plagued by uncertain authority, dispersed responsibility, rotating personnel, and spotty attendance. Madison supported the creation of "executive departments" of foreign affairs, finance, war, and marine in January and February 1781, and he sought to fill the new offices with able men.
Madison was never among those who suspected that any person given the power to do anything would invariably act badly. Such a proposition, when applied indiscriminately to officials deriving their election or appointment from the people, Madison later charged, "impeached the fundamental principle" of republican government by holding that officers chosen by the people "will immediately and infallibly betray the trust committed to them." Despite this basic faith, in the years immediately preceding the Convention of 1787, Madison observed that in the Virginia and other state legislatures many unjust and unwise laws were passed by popularly elected assemblies.
The dilemma of finding the basic principle of republican government—majority rule—working against the even more fundamental need for just laws was for Madison especially difficult because the source of this malfunction was to be found not only in the tendency toward imprudence and corruption in the representatives but "more fatally [in] . . . the people themselves." That is, a host of private interests, real and imagined, divided the people of the states into groups whose rivalry generally vitiated whatever virtuous motives might be expected to arise from "a prudent regard to their [the people's] own good as involved in the general and permanent good of the community," from a "respect for character," or from religious conviction. Madison concluded that the states, when left to themselves, seemed invariably to trample on both private rights and the public good, despite the fact that the states more fully embodied the principle of legislative supremacy than any other governments in the world. To cope with this discouraging development, Madison argued that in "an extended republic," on the continental scale of the United States, "a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions [would] check each other." Thus, the general government would be less likely to act unjustly and should therefore have "a negative" on the laws of the states, a power he advocated throughout the federal convention. "The great desideratum," he concluded, was "such a modification of the Sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions." But neutrality meant for Madison a point of view that was impartial, disinterested, above party, such as "the prince . . . in absolute Monarchies" had in judging among his subjects.
At the convention, Madison met powerful advocates of restraint on executive power. Roger Sherman of Connecticut "considered the Executive Magistracy as nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect." The legislature, Sherman insisted, "was the depository of the supreme will of the Society" and was therefore "the best judge of the business which ought to be done by the Executive department." Sherman sought definition of executive powers by the legislature, proposed various schemes for a plural executive and for its election by the legislature, and objected to an executive veto. Madison, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and others protested immediately and vigorously that such proposals strengthened, rather than diminished, the power of faction and of provincial interests in government. They admitted that any form of monarchy was out of the question in the United States, but they nonetheless sought somehow to retain the benefit of its ability to check legislative corruption and of its supposed nonpartisanship.
Madison revealed his train of thought to the convention when, defending executive veto, he noted the danger that a republic faced from diversity of interests, demagoguery, and the power of a selfish majority. "In this view," Madison concluded, "a negative in the Executive is not only necessary for its own [protection], but for the safety of a minority.. . . The independent condition of the Executive who has the eyes of all Nations on him will render him a just Judge."
Madison even sought some way to combine the judiciary with the executive in the veto power to increase the sense of wisdom and respectability in this vital restraint on a legislature presumed to be factious. Two days later he noted the difficulty of finding in a republic a source of power that, like "an hereditary magistrate," would have a "personal interest against betraying the national interest." He urged further that the executive have the power to appoint federal judges because he would be "a national officer, acting for and equally sympathizing with every part of the United States." Throughout the debates, Madison sought consistently to protect the executive department from the factious legislature, and insofar as that independence was secure, he was willing to grant wide powers to the executive.
In fact, responding to Wilsons' reasoning, Madison came to see increasingly that in a republic where even executive power rested, directly or indirectly, on the people, there might be less to fear in its exercise than under a monarchy. The more clearly the executive was held responsible to the people, Wilson argued, the more power he could safely be given. This view suited Madison's sober optimism that a self-governing system could be devised that would exercise power wisely and his sense of the need for vigor and responsibility in government. Thus, he supported a single executive, his power to appoint officials in his department, his powers as commander in chief and in foreign affairs, his long term in office, and his eligibility for reelection.
Election of the executive posed a seemingly insoluble problem. Madison shared some of George Mason's fear that to allow election directly by the people was like referring "a trial of colours to a blind man," and Gouverneur Morris' fear that if a legislative body chose the executive "it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals." Madison eventually supported the idea of an electoral college as a hedge against both dangers. Altogether, then, the definition of executive power as it emerged from the convention suited Madison as a reasonable compromise between the needs of authority and the need to limit the power of government. He defended the new constitution in his contributions to The Federalist Papers in 1787–1788 and as a delegate to the Virginia Ratification Convention in June 1788.
Everything depended, of course, upon the early precedents established and the conduct of the first presidents. Washington's vast prestige gave crucial support to the dignity and authority of the office, most of which Madison supported. In fact, as Washington's chief adviser in the critical years 1788–1789, Madison had a large role in the organization of the executive branch, its etiquette, and its relations with the other branches.
Especially critical was Madison's defense (in the House of Representatives, where he served from 1789 to 1797) of the president's inherent power to remove his appointees from office. Madison scorned arguments that the president should be denied such power because he would infallibly abuse it by removing faithful public servants; such fears, and the consequent denials of power, would hopelessly hamstring governments. Rather, he insisted upon the more basic, self-regulating "principle of unity and responsibility in the Executive department, which was intended for the security of liberty and the public good. If the President alone should possess the power of removal from office, those employed in the execution of the law will be in their proper situation, and the chain of dependence therefore terminates in the supreme body, namely, in the people." That is, the president needed to have the power of removal for profoundly republican reasons: the people would then be able to hold him responsible for the malfeasance of his appointees and could then be justified in refusing him reelection (or in extreme cases, even impeaching him) for inefficiency or corruption in his department. By 1789, Madison had achieved a maturing idea of what it meant to exercise executive power in a republican government.
Yet, despite his admiration for President Washington, Madison was first amazed and then appalled at what the executive branch became under Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's guidance during the 1790s. Madison's desire for a vigorous executive, an efficient civil service, and a sound public credit led him to support many of Hamilton's proposals taken by themselves, but it was the totality of his program that the Virginian opposed.
The growth of the executive branch, especially the Treasury Department, allowed its secretary to take the initiative. To this power Hamilton quite candidly added the force and support he could derive from granting privilege to bankers and merchants. Sharing the largesse and financial prospects with congressmen and their friends, furthermore, gave him great influence in the legislature. These consolidating moves, mobilized under the doctrine of loose construction, devised to legitimize the Bank of the United States, instituted, in Madison's view, a veritable "phalanx." Far from shaping an executive who took his lead in policy from the legislature and was the executor of its will, as republican theory required, Hamilton had created a machine to lead and dominate the nation. The parallel with the means that George III and his ministers had used to control Parliament in the 1770s and Hamilton's conception of himself as a proconsul or prime minister on the order of Richelieu, Colbert, or the elder Pitt were all too apparent. The ease and speed with which Hamilton achieved this model of the executive, under the Constitution, was a sobering lesson for Madison. Phrases about separation of power, and even what he thought were explicit limitations, seemed to mean little when confronted by someone of Hamilton's energy, wile, and brilliance.
Federalist response to the renewal of war between France and Great Britain in 1793—arguments that the president, not Congress, could "proclaim" neutrality (the counterpart, after all, to declaring war) and calls for a buildup of the armed forces, special diplomatic missions, higher taxes, and so on—frightened Madison because the "needs" of war so perfectly promoted the executive tendencies Hamilton had already set in motion. It seemed to him that American "monocrats" (as Jeffersonian Republicans increasingly, although unfairly, termed the Federalists) used shrill accounts of the excesses of the French revolutionary government in 1793–1794 to slander republicanism generally and to strengthen ties with England that would draw American government and society closer to its aristocratic, imperial model.
When Hamilton urged Washington to gather an army in the fall of 1794 to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, Madison saw in the making "a formidable attempt . . . to establish the principle that a standing army was necessary for enforcing the laws. " After Hamilton had persuaded Washington to criticize publicly the "democratic societies" or "Jacobin clubs," which had mushroomed in opposition to Federalist policies in 1794, Madison retorted that "in the nature of republican government the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people."
During John Adams' administration, Madison continued to fret and fume over executive excess. He saw in the president's florid addresses in the war crisis of 1798 only "violent passions and heretical politics," and he labeled the Alien Enemies Act "a monster that must forever disgrace its parents." He wrote Jefferson, "Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad." In the "Report on the [Virginia] Resolutions of 1798" (1800), Madison scored an enlargement of the executive by "excessive augmentation of . . . offices, honors, and emoluments" that seemed bent on "the transformation of the republican system of the United States into a monarchy." Thus, by 1801, Madison had witnessed the Constitution he had helped draft and had enthusiastically recommended to his countrymen used—indeed, abused—in ways he was sure would destroy the whole notion of free self-government. The chief engine for this ruin, moreover, built by Hamilton from a domestic coalition of mercantile, anti-republican forces and a consolidation of the powers of government spurred by foreign danger, was the executive branch.
Service as secretary of state in Jefferson's cabinet (1801–1809), though, had the not surprising effect of reviving Madison's sense of the legitimate use of executive power—so much so, in fact, that more doctrinaire Republicans such as John Randolph of Roanoke saw him as a dangerous "crypto-Federalist" betraying Jeffersonian principles. Madison, however, was discriminating. He agreed thoroughly with Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin that a prime Republican responsibility was to reduce the apparatus of federal government and especially of the executive branch. But, as Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address, among the "essential principles of our government [is] . . . the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor."
Madison undertook his own campaign for "mild" government by firing one of the eight clerks in the State Department (its entire personnel in 1801) and by abandoning virtually all ceremony in conducting his office. He approved Republican measures to reduce the diplomatic establishment, lower the number of federal employees, put the national debt "on the road to extinction," diminish the military, reduce taxes, and repeal the Federalist Judiciary Act of 1801. He agreed, though, that Federalist institutions that had proved useful, such as the Bank of the United States, should remain undisturbed, and he participated willingly in the informal leadership Jefferson exercised through his influence over key members of Congress.
In two major events of Jefferson's presidency, the Louisiana Purchase and the embargo of 1807–1809, Madison showed his willingness to use executive power to achieve important republican ends. He agreed with Gallatin that the Louisiana Purchase was constitutional because "the existence of the United States as a nation presupposes the power enjoyed by every nation of extending their territory by treaties" and that the Constitution clearly gave the executive the authority to conduct such treaties. The critically important republicanizing results of the purchase—the doubling of agricultural lands, the removal of great power rivalry from the Mississippi Valley, and the reduction thus permitted in defense expenditures—more than compensated for a departure from the letter of Jefferson's self-imposed strict constructionism.
The embargo was a similarly bold effort to achieve a momentous republican breakthrough—nothing less than the substitution of economic pressure for war in international relations—by the orderly processes of a law passed by Congress and its faithful administration by the executive. Jefferson and Madison underestimated the sectional inequity of the measure and the consequent unwillingness of the nation to accept the required sacrifices, and overestimated the dependence of international trade (especially Britain's) on American exports. Thus, enforcement of the embargo, and the apparent need for its long-range continuance, soon entailed a considerable extension of executive power.
At this point, the Republican leaders—Madison most reluctantly—made a revealing decision: they gave up a policy proven ineffective in its intended objective and, even worse, sure to erode seriously their republican values if maintained in the face of widespread public opposition. They resisted the temptations to prove determination and "creditability" by enlarging executive authority and to overpower rather than conciliate deeply felt opposition. There was a critical need, in Madison's mind, to balance the positive uses of executive power against the constant danger of that power becoming oppressive.