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Mandeville, LA – Senator Rand Paul has been using the following quotation in his speeches to the United States Senate and most recently in a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation on a “constitutional foreign policy” as the founding fathers envisioned.
“Madison wrote, ‘The Constitution supposes what history demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch most prone to war and most interested in it, therefore the Constitution has with studied care vested that power in the Legislature.’ ”
After watching Senator Paul’s speech and becoming intrigued by the Madison line he referred to I began searching for the source which his notes did not provide. In my search I encountered dozens of articles citing the line, most attributed to Senator Paul (see here and here). After a thorough search using google I could not locate the passage in question verbatim until I stumbled upon this reference which narrowed my search down to a letter written to Thomas Jefferson in “c. 1798” (circa 1798).
Pouring another glass of wine I then headed off to find a digitized version of the works of James Madison which is located at google books here. In this volume we find dozens of letters “c. 1798” to Vice President Jefferson including a blistering critique Madison relays about John Adams.
“There never was, perhaps, a greater contrast between two characters than between those of the present President [Adams] and his predecessor [Washington]; although it is the boast and prop of the present that he treads in the steps of his predecessor. The one, cool, considerate, and cautious; the other, headlong, and kindled into flame by every spark that lights on his passions : the one, ever scrutinizing into the public opinion, and ready to follow, where he could not lead it; the other, insulting it by the most adverse sentiments and pursuits. Washington a hero in the field, yet overweighing every danger in the Cabinet: Adams without a single pretension to the character of a soldier, a perfect Quixotte as a statesman. The former chief magistrate pursuing peace every where with sincerity, though mistaking the means: the latter taking as much pains to get into war as the former took to keep out of it.”
When I finally arrived at my destination of Madison’s letter to Thomas Jefferson of 2 April, 1798 I was not disappointed in what I found. You get the sense that Madison knows a very royal and very controversial screwup is forthcoming from Adams which we now know as The Alien & Sedition Acts, says he: “The revocation of the instructions is a virtual change of the law, and consequently a usurpation by the Executive of a legislative power.”
Madison’s chief concern in this letter is that the separation of powers, ordered by The Constitution is being sacrificed to John Adams’ quest for power and his abuse of the Executive. In the following letter (digitized into plain text for the first time), Note Bene Madison’s alarm that the President would actually call out the military without Congress’s authorization which President’s do today before finishing their poached eggs. For the record, the actually phrase that Senator Paul has been attributing to James Madison is a paraphrase, you will find it in bold below. I hope by posting this letter as written and in context here, the debate Senator Paul has begun will be enhanced. – Mike Church
April 2d, 1798. DEAR Sir,
The President’s message is only a further development to the public of the violent passions and heretical politics which have been long privately known to govern him. It is to be hoped, however, that the H.[ouse] of Rep'[resentatives] will not hastily echo them. At least it may be expected that, before war measures are instituted, they will recollect the principle asserted by 62 vs. 87, in the case of the Treaty, and insist on a full communication of the intelligence on which such measures are fecommended. The present is a plainer, if it be not a stronger case; and if there it has been sufﬁcient defection to destroy the majority, which was then so great and so decided, it is the worst symptom that has yet appeared in our Councils.
The constitution supposes, what the History of all governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has, accordingly, with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature. But the doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in that Department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready, without cause, to renounce it. For if the opinion of the President, not the facts and proofs themselves, is to sway the judgment of Congress in declaring war; and if the Pres[ident] in the recess of Congress create a foreign mission, appoint the Minister, and negociate a war Treaty, without the possibility of a check, even from the Senate, until the measures present alternatives overruling the freedom of its judgment; if, again, a Treaty, when made, obliges the Legislature to declare war contrary to its judgment, and, in pursuance of the same doctrine, a law declaring war imposes a like moral obligation to grant the requisite supplies until it be formally repealed with the consent of the P[resident] and Senate, it is evident that the people are cheated out of the best ingredients in their Government, the safeguards of peace, which is the greatest of their blessings.
I like both your suggestions in the present crisis. Congress ought clearly to prohibit arming, and the President ought to be brought to declare on what ground he undertook to grant an indirect licence to arm. The ﬁrst instructions were no otherwise legal than as they were in pursuance of the law of nations, and, consequently, in execution of the law of the land. The revocation of the instructions is a virtual change of the law, and consequently a usurpation by the Executive of a legislative power. It will not avail to say that the law of nations leaves this point undecided, and that every nation is free to decide it for itself. If this be the case, the regulation being a Legislative, not an Executive one, belongs to the former, not the latter authority, and comes expressly within the power, “to deﬁne the law of nations,” given to Congress by the Constitution. I do not expect, however, that the Constitutional party In the H.[ouse] of Rep[resentatives] is strong enough to do what ought to be done in the present instance.
Your 2nd idea, that an adjournment for the purpose of consulting the constituents on the subject of war, is more practicable, because it can be effected by that branch alone, if it pleases, and because an opposition to such a measure will be more striking to the public eye. The expedient is the more desirable, as it will be utterly impossible to call forth the sense of the people generally before the season will be over, especially as the towns, et cetera, where there can be most despatch in such an operation, are on the wrong side; and it is to be feared that a partial expression of the public voice may be misconstrued or miscalled an evidence in favor of the War party.
On what do you ground the idea that a declaration of war requires 2/3rd of the Leigislature? The force of your remark, however, is not diminished by this mistake; for it remains true, that measures are taking, or may be taken by the Executive, that will end in war, contrary to the wish of the Body which alone can declare it.
Mike, I just sent Rand a link to this page. Thanks for the great work as always, and also for your dedication to the principals of liberty!
Matt, I trust the Senator will continue to read James Madison to his constituents and follow the course of history & prudent politics laid out by wiser men than us of the 18th & 19th centuries.
For the lazy researcher, 33 questions About American History- Tom Woods
Question 11 page 85 (paperback). Just a cheap plug for Mr. Woods.