During the same years that the savvy politician James Madison was steering the wheels of government toward this object, he was also researching past and present confederacies—and his own confederacy—trying to uncover those features that would reveal their strengths and weaknesses. These years of preparatory research before the Constitutional Convention paid off. One fellow delegate in Philadelphia, William Pierce of Georgia, said of Madison: “In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention . . . From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate.” This expertise had been deliberately and painstakingly acquired before the Convention, and it was employed in numerous ways during and after the Convention.
Madison’s intellectual interest in politics began long before he was a public servant. As a precocious student at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), he encountered Scottish Enlightenment principles under the tutelage of John Witherspoon. But his bookish habits did not end when his formal education did. In 1773, the year after he graduated and when he was still a young man of 22, he wrote to his former classmate, William Bradford: “The principles and Modes of Government are too important to be disregarded by an Inquisitive mind and I think are well worthy [of] a critical examination by all students that have health and Leisure.” To that end, he asked Bradford to send him information about the origin and fundamental principles of Pennsylvania’s constitution, especially as regards religious freedom.
James Madison first learned about the deficiencies of confederal arrangements from firsthand experience. He had been a member of the Confederation Congress from 1780 to 1783 and again from 1787 to 1788. There, he found that Congressional acts were continually stymied by insufficient powers and uncooperative states. In the interim, he served in Virginia’s General Assembly from 1784 to 1787, where he became frustrated by the inadequacies of the Confederation from the perspective of a state legislator, including Congress’ inability to prevent the states from abusing individual rights. At the same time that he was acquiring his practical knowledge of politics within the two legislatures, he began supplementing this knowledge with a rigorous study of the best historical and theoretical books he could get his hands on.
Early in his life, Madison thought of himself primarily as a scholar. He was spending the winter of 1784 at Montpelier, his home in the Piedmont region of Virginia, embarking on a course of study that he had outlined for himself. He complained to a friend about the various interruptions and the limited resources in his library that were slowing his progress through his books.
In March 1784, Madison wrote an important letter to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, commissioning his good friend to purchase numerous books for him. He gave Jefferson carte blanche in selecting the books that he thought worthy of adding to his library, remarking: “you know tolerably well the objects of my curiosity.” Nonetheless, he laid special emphasis on purchasing books that would shed light on “the several confederacies which have existed. . . . The operations of our own [Confederacy] must render all such lights of consequence.” Book orders took much longer to fill two centuries before Amazon came on the scene, and Jefferson was still in the process of purchasing books for Madison eight months later, when he hinted that his commission would be made easier if Madison could send him a catalogue of the books that he wanted. Madison reiterated that he trusted Jefferson’s judgment in the regard; besides, if he attempted to enumerate such a catalogue, he was certain to find that his wish-list exceeded both his resources and Jefferson’s patience.
Finally, in January of 1786—nearly two years after Madison’s book order was initially placed—two trunks of books arrived for him in Richmond. He immediately had them conveyed to his home in Montpelier. Once he had finally unpacked and examined his precious “literary cargo” in March, he repeatedly and enthusiastically assured Jefferson how well pleased he was by the choices: “The collection is perfectly to my mind.” Armed with this collection, he was ready to embark on one of the most important research projects ever carried out in this country.