James Madison

  • Richard Brookhiser
  • Basic Books
  • 304 pp.
  • October 4, 2011

Though not lengthy, this biography offers deep insight into the cerebral president’s achievements.

Reviewed by Gregory May

Writing to Thomas Jefferson, the erstwhile political enemy with whom he had resumed a friendly correspondence in old age, John Adams concluded that the Madison Administration “notwithstanding a thousand Faults and blunders … acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all his three predecessors, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, put together.” We think of James Madison as the Father of the Constitution and not as a great president, so Adams’s assessment of Madison’s presidency leaves us puzzled. Richard Brookhiser’s new biography of Madison shares Adams’s deeper insight into Madison’s achievements. It is a short, readable account of Madison’s remarkable political career from a good and perceptive writer. While unlikely to satisfy readers who already know Madison well, the book has much to offer the rest of us.

Richard Brookhiser begins on that hot August day in 1814 when British troops scattered American defenders at Bladensburg, took Washington and burned the president’s house.  He shows us a small, elderly president surrounded by mostly ill-chosen advisers and a frightened population. It is not a glorious scene. But Madison rises above it. With one companion and a borrowed brace of pistols, he rides out to be with his troops. There are no mock heroics. He does not meddle with military arrangements. There is only abundant moral courage. He is there because he takes responsibility.

The War of 1812 ended the following year with finer scenes, embarrassment for the political opposition and a new sense of national identity that led some to call the conflict a second war of independence. All of that made John Adams’s assessment possible, but it probably was not what provoked his self-deprecating enthusiasm. That enthusiasm likely sprang from his recognition that Madison had brought the nation through war, near bankruptcy and invasion without swerving from republican principles or stifling liberties.  Perhaps Adams contrasted Washington’s armed reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion, his own coercive Alien and Sedition Acts during the Quasi War with France and Jefferson’s destructive trade embargoes during the years leading to the War of 1812.

Whatever events he had in mind, Adams understood that the small and cerebral Madison had marked — even at executive tasks for which he was not particularly well suited — another great achievement in the republican political experiment to which he devoted his life.

Having introduced us to Madison in the crucible of war, Brookhiser turns to a well-balanced account of Madison’s early political career. He shows us how the moral courage that later took Madison to Bladensburg drew him to support religious liberty in the first flush of revolution. He explains how service with Thomas Jefferson in Virginia’s revolutionary government laid the foundation of the great political partnership that would shape the Early Republic. He describes the persistence with which Madison enlisted Washington to lead the Constitutional Convention, the intellectual leadership Madison showed at the Convention and the doggedness with which he worked to win ratification of the Constitution.

Brookhiser shows Madison as a mighty intellect, but even at this stage of his career, neither an idealist nor an ideologue. Having argued against a bill of rights, Madison promised to sponsor one in order to defeat the anti-federalist James Monroe for a seat in the first Congress. Having worked for a stronger federal government, he balked when the Washington administration flexed its centralizing powers. When Jefferson left the government and retreated home to the country, it was Madison who remained in the capital as the leading partisan for the nascent opposition party. Brookhiser sees the irony in Washington’s farewell address, which opens with language Madison had crafted for Washington four years earlier and closes with a warning against the political faction that Madison and Jefferson had come to lead during Washington’s second term.

Brookhiser’s description of Madison’s long 16 years in power, first as Jefferson’s secretary of state and then as president, is lively and full of incident. The author makes it clear that when deals needed to be done, Madison did them. As secretary of state, he advocated an “expedient” resolution of corrupt grants of Indian lands in the Yazoo country. He seized on Napoleon’s offer to sell the Louisiana territory he had wrested from Spain. As president, Madison brokered politically useful, if undistinguished, Cabinet appointments. He countenanced a large payment to a self-professed British spy in order to embarrass his political opponents. And he supported a new charter for the Bank of the United States, which he had denounced as unconstitutional during the Washington administration.

But Brookhiser has little time for the underlying politics and intrigue in Early National Washington. He fortunately does draw some slight vignettes of the social scene, including Jefferson’s pointed rudeness to the wife of British Ambassador Anthony Merry, Dolley Madison’s popular parties (so crowded they came to be called “squeezes”) and Betsy Bonaparte’s sensational rendition of the period’s revealing gowns.

Madison spent his long retirement years as senior statesman and Constitutional conscience of the nation. Brookhiser describes Madison’s ineffectual dithering over slavery and the specter of national disunion that haunted him in those years. He has much less to say about Madison’s years of work on his papers, particularly the preparation for publication of his extensive notes of the debates in the Constitutional Convention.  Madison regarded those notes — the most complete record of the proceedings — as an important legacy, not simply to his widow but to his country. That the notes get scant treatment is not surprising. They were underpriced even then and largely unread ever since. But they are a signal part of Madison’s legacy because they forever make him — as he knew they would — the best authority on the Founders’ intentions. Perhaps it is a tribute to Brookhiser that he does not play that card. He instead ends the book with the same firm focus on Madison’s personality with which he began it.

Madison died shortly before the Fourth of July, having rejected suggestions that he try to linger long enough to die on that anniversary, as Adams, Jefferson and Monroe had done.  At breakfast one morning, Madison could not swallow. His favorite niece asked him what was the matter. “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear,” he answered, and instantly dropped his head in death. “Intellectual to the end, and beyond,” Brookhiser tells us, “[Madison] was his mind, and he did not say it was ending but changing.”

Gregory May, a Washington lawyer and a student of the Early National Period, is chairman-elect of the Montpelier Foundation, which maintains James Madison’s home in Orange County, Virginia, as a national historic site.

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