An advocate of minority rights who protected slavery

|     Pamela Newkirk, The Washington Post     |

WHILE drafting the Constitution, James Madison strove to ensure the protection of minority rights but also proposed that a slave be counted as three-fifths of a person.

The contradiction, etched into the Constitution, would come to define Madison and a nation irreconcilably founded both on slavery and the ideals of liberty and justice.

This paradox lies at the heart of ‘The Three Lives of James Madison,’ by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, who charts Madison’s life as the “father of the Constitution,” a political partisan, and ultimately a statesman in his roles as secretary of state and president.

Throughout his lengthy book, Feldman maps Madison’s evolution from a bookish and idealistic social theorist to a pragmatic political operative who fully recognised the immorality of slavery and the humanity of the enslaved but proceeded, out of the economic interests of his class, to stamp it into the nation’s DNA.

Born on a 4,000-acre Virginia plantation that had more than 100 slaves, Madison set off to Princeton in 1769 and delved into his studies with abandon, completing two years of study in one.

Stirred by the Boston Tea Party and rising rebellion against Britain’s infringement on individual liberties, Madison became a passionate advocate of dissent and religious freedom.

He believed that religious diversity in the North fuelled the kind of protest that was uncommon in the South, where the Church of England, and persecution of other religions, reigned supreme.

Feldman painstakingly renders the deliberations over the drafting of the emerging nation’s Constitution in granular detail, as if to mirror the onerousness of the task. So vividly are the debates recounted that they seem to play out in real time.

Feldman captures the remarkable extent to which the drafters agonised over how slavery would blemish the character of the Constitution and indeed of the drafters themselves.

Luther Martin of Maryland argued that slavery was “inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution and dishonorable to the American character.” And George Mason of Virginia, who owned some 300 slaves, nonetheless appealed to the fellow founders to stop the “infernal traffic,” fearing slave revolts and the adverse impact on white productivity.