Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, a Virginia congressional campaign transfixed the nation. Foes of the federal government nearly toppled one of the new nation’s top leaders. He survived, but the experience changed both him and his opponent—and eventually the nation. Both candidates in the 1789 election for Virginia’s Fifth District—James Madison and James Monroe—went on to serve as president. Instead of driving them apart, their time on the campaign trail forged a fast friendship.
Today’s Virginia Seventh District covers much of the same rural ground that the old Fifth covered in 1789. By a bizarre turn of events, two professors at a small college find themselves suddenly pitted against each other in a race for Congress neither ever expected to win. One of them—most likely Republican David Brat—will now go on to serve in the House. No matter who wins, he will be a junior representative and will struggle to even be heard. But if the two of them today agree to emulate Madison and Monroe, they will be heard around the country, and indeed the world.
The story begins in 1788 with the struggle over the new Constitution. Madison, as we know, was the intellectual author of the new charter and one of its strongest proponents. But the ratification victory in Virginia had been close, and many in the Old Dominion remained vehemently opposed. The state’s most powerful legislative leader, Patrick Henry, despised the new Constitution, which he believed violated “states’ rights” and individual liberty and might even open the way to freedom for American slaves.
Madison had expected to be elected to the Senate, but senators then were chosen by the state legislatures, and Henry adroitly blocked Madison. He and his allies also redrew the House districts, stacking Madison’s Fifth with anti-Constitution voters. And they passed a law forbidding Madison to run anywhere but in the unfriendly district they’d created. Henry and George Mason then recruited 30-year-old attorney James Monroe, who had opposed ratification, to compete for the Fifth District seat.
Virginia’s political elite was small. In 1784, Jefferson had supplied a written introduction of Monroe, telling Madison, “A better man cannot be,” and the two men had corresponded over the next four years. Now they agreed to travel together across the sketchy roads of the rural Fifth District, and speak jointly to the voters who gathered at crossroads and county seats. The experience changed both men. In rude country inns, they even shared a bed.
Years later, at the end of his life, Madison wrote, “We used to meet in days of considerable excitement, and address the people on our respective sides; but there never was an atom of ill will between us.” In fact, when he became president 18 years later, Madison recruited Monroe as his secretary of state and heir apparent.
But much more than a friendship was forged at those impromptu stump debates. Madison had begun the campaign opposed to a Bill of Rights; he regarded such provisions as “parchment barriers,” of no real use in restraining majorities. Only governmental structure could protect liberty. Monroe insisted a Bill was needed.
Chris DeRose, author of Founding Rivals: Madison v. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and the Election that Saved a Nation, sums up what happened on the trail: “In the course of the campaign Madison becomes convinced that he needs to get behind the Bill of Rights, not because of political expediency but because some people who were acting in good faith would never be reconciled to the Constitution without one.”
As history shows, Madison (helped by a spell of bad weather that kept Monroe voters from the polls) won the race. Once in office, he braved the apathy and disdain of many of his colleagues to introduce and push a set of amendments. Ten of them were adopted and form the foundation of our individual liberties.
Because the republic survived its birth pangs, today we often assume that the “Founding Fathers” agreed on the values and aims of the new government. But their struggles were every bit as bitter, and seemed as important, as the partisan passions that animate debate today.
Today, in Virginia’s Seventh District, the prospect is for a one-sided slugfest, with Brat repeating far-right pieties about guns and God and Trammell speaking up for President Obama and government programs to aid the poor. The Glenn Becks and Ed Schultzes of the world will hurl fiery slogans from afar. Soon sleepy Ashland will echo with appeals to religion, attacks on opponents’ patriotism, and the obligatory references to Hitler.
But it doesn’t have to be.
I challenge Brat and Trammell to do what Madison and Monroe did. Agree today, publicly, to travel together, speak together, break bread together, and thrash out your differences knowing that each will have to defend any charge or claim to the other, if not the same day it is made, then the next.
Even now, I expect, Brat is being approached by slick young men in dark suits who will tell him not to consider this. He is virtually certain to win, and appearing with Trammell would elevate his rival and perhaps turn a Republican cakewalk into a real race.
But Brat has said he is in the race to change American politics. Nothing he is likely to accomplish in a first term in the House would be half as powerful as the example of sportsmanship and decency a joint campaign would provide. If he wants to emulate the Founders, here is his chance.