It was September 1786, and James Madison was despondent. He had traveled to Annapolis, where leaders from the 13 states were to meet and discuss methods for increasing interstate trade. But the Annapolis Convention never got started; it lacked a quorum to begin the proceedings.
If we can't get leaders to meet and discuss something as important as increased trade, thought Madison, how will we tackle the far more important (and difficult) question of revising the Articles of Confederation?
Madison realized that the emerging republic was at risk of failure. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state saw itself as an autonomous nation -- indeed, Thomas Jefferson referred to Virginia as "my country." Congress had no power to regulate commerce or to tax the states, which refused to pay their share of the national government's costs. They also refused to cooperate on building roads and canals, and six of the states had their own currencies. There was no central executive under the Articles, only a Congress that couldn't require the states to do anything of importance without a majority of the members of at least nine states.
What had held the states together was their opposition to British rule. With independence, they no longer had a common enemy. That didn't bother most Americans, however. In fact, they were delighted to have such a weak central government. But Madison realized that if the young country was to survive as a true nation, it needed a true central government. And that required tossing out the Articles and starting over.
Madison also realized something else: he wasn't the person to bring the states' leaders together for such a daunting task. At 5 feet 4 inches, Madison was a diminutive man. His voice was weak, he was sickly most of his life and he lacked the credibility necessary to convince others to attend the meeting. Acknowledging his own limitations, he asked himself, who can bring us together? The answer was obvious: George Washington.
Madison began courting Washington, who had retired from public life. Washington thought it unlikely that state leaders could agree on the creation of a strong central government, and didn't want to become a delegate to the proposed meeting in Philadelphia. For six months, Madison talked with him, wrote him letters and had others do the same. Finally, in March of 1787, Washington agreed to attend the meeting. His willingness to serve at the Constitutional Convention gave the meeting credibility and convinced others to attend.
Madison's behind-the-scenes leadership was just beginning. He then:
- studied the 13 states' constitutions, as well as the efforts of other nations to form democracies, to learn from their experiences;
- put together a plan for a new constitution, sent it to George Washington and Virginia Gov. Edmund Randolph for their reactions, and obtained their support;
- persuaded Randolph to present the plan to the Virginia delegates (Randolph had greater stature within the state than Madison);
- used his network of political allies in other states to gain information about the delegates being selected for the Convention;
- and, got to Philadelphia early and set about meeting with various delegates, identifying their interests and concerns.
By the time the Constitutional Convention convened on May 25, 1787, Madison had identified potential supporters for his plan, knew what the objections would be and had very credible people ready to support it. By the end of that summer, as we know, the framers created an enduring (if flawed) document that has served us extremely well for over 220 years.
James Madison's extraordinary campaign to convince people of the need to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution (and thus end enormous state autonomy in favor of a strong central government) not only saved a fledgling nation, it also provides us with an inspiring example of collaborative leadership.
Correction appended July 11, 2011: Madison's height was incorrect. He was 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Governing regrets the error.