MADISON, James. Autograph letter signed ("James Madison") to Spencer Roane, Montpellier, [VA], 29 June 1821. 3½ pages, 4to, (9 7/8 x 8 1/16 in.), repairs to minor splits at folds, otherwise fine.
MADISON'S PENETRATING COMMENTARY ON STATES' RIGHTS AND THE CONSTITUTION: "A FEDERAL REPUBLIC, THE BEST GUARDIAN, WE BELIEVE...OF THE LIBERTY, SAFETY & HAPPINESS OF MEN"
A highly significant letter in which James Madison, one of the chief architects of the United States Constitution, expounds upon the delicate balance of power within a federated nation of states. Biographer Jack Rakove states that the ideas Madison brought to the Constitutional Convention "amounted to a comprehensive theory of government that consciously challenged many axioms of eighteenth-century political science" (James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic, p. 44).
One issue not fully resolved by the Constitution was the potentially explosive question of states' rights relative to federal power. In 1821, shortly after a serious debate over the issue of slavery in Missouri, Madison articulates his thoughts to Judge Spencer Roane (1762-1822), an ardent supporter of states' rights: "The Gordian knot of the Constitution seems to be in the problem of collisions between the federal & states powers, especially as eventually exercised by their respective Tribunals. If the knot cannot be untied by the text of the Constitution, it ought not, certainly, to be cut by any political Alexander." Expressing a belief in the strict construction of the Constitution, Madison asserts the primacy of federal authority: "on the abstract question whether the federal or the states decisions ought to prevail, the sound policy would yield to the claims of the former."
One of Madison's great concerns in the Constitutional Convention had been the abuse of power by the individual states. Although he was content with the ultimate balance that was established, here he makes a dramatic statement about the delicate nature of the system: "Our governmental system is established by a compact, not between the Government of the U. States, and the State Governments; but between the states as sovereign communities, stipulating each with the others a surrender of certain portions of their respective authorities to be exercised by a common government, and a reservation, for their own exercise, of all their other authorities. The possibility of disagreements concerning the line of division between these portions could not escape attention...Were this trust to be vested in the states in their individual characters, the Constitution of the U. States might become different in every state, and would be pretty sure to do so in some; the State Governments would not stand all in the same relation to the General Government, some retaining more, others less of sovereignty; and the vital principle of equality which cements this union, might thus gradually be deprived of its virtue. Such a trust vested in the Government representing the whole and exercised by its individuals would not be exposed to these consequences: whilst the Trust itself would be controulable by the states who directly or indirectly appoint the Trustees: whereas in the hands of the states no federal controul direct or indirect would exist, the functionaries holding their appointments by tenures independent of the General Government."
Responding to Roane's editorials penned under the name Algernon Sydney, Madison narrows his focus to the impact upon judicial matters: "It is not a reasonable calculation also that the room for jarring opinions between the national & state Tribunals will be narrowed...Much of the distrust of these Departments in the States, which prevailed when the national constitution was formed, has already been removed. Were they filled every where as they are in some of the states...their decisions at once indicating and influencing the sense of their constituents, and founded on united interpretations of constitutional points, could scarcely fail to frustrate an assumption of unconstitutional powers by the Federal Tribunals. It is too much to anticipate even that the federal & state judges, as they become more & more of co-ordinate talents, with equal integrity & feeling alike the impartiality enjoined by their oaths, will vary less often in their reasonings & opinions on all judicial subjects; and thereby mutually contribute to the clearer and firmer establishment of the true boundaries of power, on which must depend the success and permanency of a Federal Republic, the best guardian we believe, of the liberty, safety & happiness of men."
Madison rarely discussed Constitutional issues in his correspondance. Very few letters with Constitutional content have come to auction in the last twenty-five years; the most recent examples are a letter sold at Christie's on 10 December 1999 ($96,000) and one sold at Sotheby's on 5 June 2001 ($214,750).
Provenance: Sale, Paul Richards, 1980.