James Madison Papers

James Madison to James K. Paulding, 1 April 1831

Montpellier Apl 1831

Dear Sir

I have recd. your letter of the 6th. inst; and feel myself very safe in joining your other friends in their advice on the Biographical undertaking you meditate. The plan you adopt is a valuable improvement on the prevailing examples; which have too much usurped the functions of the Historian; and by omitting the private features of character, and anecdotes which as condiments always add flavour & sometimes nutrition to the repast, forfeit much of the due attraction. The more historical mode has been recommended probably by the more ready command of materials, such as abound in the contributions of the press, and the public Archives. In a task properly biographical, the difficulty lies in the evanescent or inaccessible information which it particularly requires. Autographic Memorials are rare, and usually deficient on essential points, if not otherwise faulty; and at the late periods of life, the most knowing witnesses may have descended to the tomb, or their memories become no longer faithful depositories. Where oral tradition is the resort, all know the uncertainties and inaccuracies which beset it.

I ought certainly to be flattered by finding my name on the list of subjects you have selected: and particularly so, as I can say with perfect sincerity there is no one to whose justice, judgment, and every other requisite, I could more willingly confide whatever of posthumous pretention my career through an eventful period may have to a conservative notice. Yet I feel the awkwardness of attempting "a sketch of the principal incidents of my life," such as the partiality of your friendship has prompted you to request. Towards a compliance with your object, I may avail myself, of a paper, tho’ too meagre even for the name of a sketch, which was reluctantly but unavoidably drawn up some years ago, for an abortive biography. Whether I shall be able to give it any amplification is too uncertain to admit a promise. My life has been so much a public one, that any review of it must mainly consist of the agency which was my lot in public transactions; and of that agency the portions probably most acceptable to general curiosity, are to be found in my manuscript preservations of some of those transactions, and in the epistolary communications to confidential friends, made at the time & on the spot, whilst I was a member of political Bodies General, or Local. My judgment has accorded with my inclination, that any publicity of which selections from this miscellany may be thought worthy, should await a posthumous date. The printed effusions of my pen are either known, or of but little bulk.

For portraits of the several characters you allude to, I know not that I could furnish your canvas with any important materials not equally within your reach; as I am sure that you do not need, if I could supply, any aid to your pencil in the use of them. Every thing relating to Washington is already known to the world, or will soon be made known, thro’ Mr Sparks; with the exception of some of those inside views of character, and scenes of domestic life which are apart from ordinary opportunities & observation. And it may be presumed that interesting lights will be let in even on those exceptions, through the private correspondences in the hands of Mr. Sparks.

Of Doctor Franklin I had no personal knowledge till we served together in the Convention of 1787: and the part he took there has found its way to the public; with the exception of a few anecdotes which belong to the unveiled proceedings of that assembly. He has written his own life: and no man had a finer one to write, or a better title to be himself the writer. There is eno’ of blank left however for a succeeding pen.

With Mr. Jefferson I was not acquainted till we met as members of the first Revolutionary Legislature of Virginia. I had of course no personal knowledge of his early life. Of his public career, the records of his Country give ample information. And of the general features of his character, with much of his private habits, and of his peculiar opinions, his writings before the world, to which additions are not improbable, are equally explanatory. The Obituary Eulogiums, multiplied by the Epoch and other coincidences of his death, are a field where some things not unworthy of notice may perhaps be gleaned. It may on the whole be truly said of him, that he was greatly eminent for the comprehensiveness & fertility of his Genius; the vast extent & rich variety of his acquirements; and particularly distinguished by the philosophic impress left on every subject which he touched. Nor was he less distinguished for an early & uniform devotion to the cause of liberty, and for a systematic preference of a Form of Government squared in the strictest degree, to the equal rights of Man. In the Social & domestic spheres he was a model of the virtues & manners which most adorn them.

In relation to Mr. John Adams I had no personal knowledge till he became Vice President of the U. S; and then saw no side of his private character which was not visible to all; whilst my chief knowledge of his public character & career was acquired by means now accessible or becoming so to all. His private papers are said to be voluminous; and when opened to public view will doubtless be of much avail to a biographer. His official correspondence during the Revolutionary period, just published, will be found interesting, both in a historical and a biographical view. That he had a mind rich in ideas of its own, as well as in its learned store; with an ardent love of Country, and the merit of being a Colossal Champion of its Independence, must be allowed by those most offended by the alloy in his Republicanism, and the fervors & flights originating in his moral temperament.

Of Mr. Hamilton I ought perhaps to speak with some restraint, tho’ my feelings assure me that no recollection of political collisions could controul the justice due to his memory. That he possessed intellectual powers of the first order, and the moral qualities of integrity & honor in a captivating degree, has been decreed to him by a suffrage now universal. If his Theory of Govt. deviated from the Republican standard, he had the candor to avow it, and the greater merit of co-operating faithfully in maturing and supporting a System which was not his choice. The criticism to which his share in the administration of it, was most liable was that it had the aspect of an effort to give to the Instrument a constructive and practical bearing not warranted by its true and intended character. It is said that his private files have been opened to a friend, who is charged with the task you contemplate. If he be not a citizen of N. York, it is probable that in collecting private materials from other sources, your opportunities may be more than equal to his.

I will on this occasion take the liberty to correct a statement of Mr. Hamilton which contradicts mine on the same subject; and which, as mine could not be ascribed to a lapse of memory, might otherwise impeach my veracity. I allude to the discrepancy between the memorandum given by Mr. H to Mr. Benson, distributing the Nos. of the "Federalist," to the respective writers, and the distribution communicated by me at an early day to a particular friend, and finally to Mr. Gideon for his Edition of the work at Washington a few years ago.

The reality of errors in the statement of Mr. H. appears from an internal evidence in some of the papers. Take for an example, No. 49. which contains a Eulogy on Mr. Jefferson, marking more of the warm feelings of personal friendship in the writer, than at any time, belonged to Mr. H. But there is proof of another sort in reference to No. 64. ascribed in the Memorandum to Mr. H. That it was written by Mr. Jay is shewn by a passage in his Life by Delaplaine, obviously, derived directly or indirectly from Mr. Jay himself. There is a like proof that No. 54. ascribed to Mr. Jay was not written by him.

Nor is it difficult to account for errors in the memorandum, if recurrence be had to the moment at which a promise of such a one was fulfilled; to the lumping manner in which it was made out; and to the period of time, not less than [ ] years between the date of the "Federalist," and that of the memorandum. And as a proof of the fallibility to which the memory of Mr. H. was occasionally subject, a case may be referred to so decisive as to dispense with every other. In the year Mr. H. in a letter answering an enquiry of Col. Pickering concerning the plan of government, he had espoused in the Convention of 1787, states that at the close of the Convention he put into my hands a draft of a Constitution, and that in the draft he had proposed a President "for three years" [see letter in Niles’ Register the year not recollected]. Now the fact is that in that draft, the original of which I ascertained some years ago to be among his papers, the tenure of office for the President is not—three years, but=during good behaviour. The error is the more remarkable as the letter apologizes, according to my recollection, for its not being a prompt one, and as it is so much at variance with the known cast of Mr. H’s political tenets, that it must have astonished his political and most of all his intimate friends. I should do injustice nevertheless to myself, as well as to Mr. H. if I did not express my perfect confidence that the mistatement was involuntary & that he was incapable of any that was not so.

I am sorry, Sir that I could not make a better contribution to your fund of biographical matter. Accept it as an evidence at least of my respect for your wishes; and with it the cordial remembrances & regards in which Mrs. Madison joins me, as I do her in the request to be favourably presented to Mrs. Paulding.

James Madison

RC (PWacD); draft (DLC).

Index Entries