The stern visage of Madison on the cover belies the writing inside. Yes, this is a serious, if too brief, biography of James Madison. It is delightfully written, and replete with insights about the man and his time.
The introduction begins on August 24, 1814, during Madison’s presidency, and just prior to the British burning of official Washington. The description of the individuals who contributed to that event exemplifies what makes the book enjoyable.
Describing James Monroe, then secretary of state, the author writes, “He was the man who had sent the midnight warning about the British march on the capital, and he had thrown himself into the effort to defend it. He had talent and energy, and decided to serve Madison.”
John Armstrong had been appointed secretary of war to clean up after an incompetent predecessor. He came to the office six months after the beginning of hostilities. “He disliked Madison personally and disagreed with him strategically… Armstrong, too, had talent and energy, and had decided by August 1814 to use neither on Madison’s behalf.”
The man immediately responsible for the capital’s defense was William Winder, a thirty-nine year old former lawyer, who had been in the army only two years. He’d had the assignment since July, “But he had accomplished nothing. He had energy, and no talent at all.”
The author returns to the War of 1812 later in the book as part of the chronological account of Madison’s life and career.
Revered as the Father of the Constitution and an intellectual giant, Madison was physically unprepossessing. He was small in stature, just over five feet tall, weighing a little over100 pounds and had a sickly disposition. The author writes:
He had talent and energy in spades: he was smarter than Monroe, Armstrong, and Winder put together; smarter than Jefferson, perhaps even smarter than Adams. Over a lifetime of public service he had put his mind—forget his shoulder—to the wheel, reading, writing, speaking and thinking, driving himself so hard that he often undermined his already weak constitution.
However, in tandem with these virtues, Madison possessed a pragmatism and stubbornness that did not always reflect well on his character. While capable of great personal loyalty, he could also be manipulative and opportunistic. Which is to say he was a master politician. Brookhiser calls him the father of American politics. The James Madison Brookhiser writes about really is two men occupying the same skin, part philosopher and part political activist. According to Brookhiser, Madison “lived in his head, but his head was always concerned with making his cherished thoughts real. In a free country the road to reality runs through politics.”
Madison was involved in every major event of early American history, before, during and after the Founding. At the Annapolis Convention convened by the states “to consider commercial issues” Madison moderated a report by Alexander Hamilton recommending another meeting to, “render the constitution …adequate to the exigencies of the union.” Both men were convinced that the Articles were deficient, but Madison counseled that neither political nor public opinion stretched that far, yet.
The Annapolis Convention unanimously approved the May 1787 convention to take place Philadelphia. Then, Brookhiser writes, “fearing that more cooks would spoil the broth, they adjourned… No one had asked the Annapolis convention to call for full-scale political reform. In stretching their mandate and then getting out of town, Madison and Hamilton had pulled a fast one –a clever and opportunistic maneuver.”
Madison prepared for Philadelphia by reading more than 200 books Jefferson sent him from Paris. He searched the ancient world for enlightenment on the task ahead.
He helped to persuade Washington to preside in Philadelphia. He went to Mount Vernon to discuss the delegates who would attend and what positions they were likely to take. Like a latter day ward heeler, Madison was calculating votes.
When the Convention threatened to bog down over the issue of representation, Madison led the struggle for the Virginia plan. “He wielded his reading like a weapon.” And he was persistent. “He attended every session of the convention – the delegates met six days a week at 10 in the morning, adjourning in mid-afternoon—and spoke at almost all of them, sometimes as often as three or four times in one day.”
Madison the working politician had tried to keep slavery off the table in part because discussing it would distract from his goals.” He was impatient when Franklin railed against slavery. “Madison wanted everybody to shut up. Southerners should let Franklin and other petitioners ‘proceed with as little noise as possible.’ Thus Madison the legislative tactician: don’t get bogged down in slavery when we have a constitution to pass…
Madison, a Virginian and a slaveholder, had personal reasons for wanting to avoid the topic. Yet, later in his life, he was taxed by the paradox of having helped to found a nation that stood for liberty but that, nonetheless, held men and women in bondage. His answer was colonization – sending blacks back to Africa at federal expense. It was an impractical scheme and went nowhere. Unlike Washington who was deeply troubled by slavery, (and who freed his slaves upon his death) Madison’s final answer was to do nothing. For all his brilliance, he was incapable of thinking beyond his own biases.
When the Convention completed its work, Madison and his allies managed to get Congress to send the constitution to the states for ratification without making changes.
The work was really only just begun. Hamilton, knowing that New York was a hotbed of opposition, enlisted Jay and Madison to assist in writing arguments in favor of ratification. In a little over three months, despite ill health, Madison wrote 29 of the Federalist Papers.
He sent the first seven to Washington, suggesting they be reprinted in Virginia where the persuasive Patrick Henry opposed ratification. Virginia voted 89 for, 79 against. “ Henry was the master of oratory, but Madison was the master of content.”
Madison was everywhere, answering Washington’s calls to put out the fires kindled by opponents of ratification.
Although Madison initially opposed a Bill of Rights, he agreed to add it because it was necessary to placate critics. He tabled a resolution from his home state, Virginia, for a second convention that could have undone all the painful compromises that made the Constitution possible. He saw to it that the Bill was fashioned by Congress where he could influence the process. He predicted it would kill opposition to the Constitution and he was right. It did.
When we celebrate the Constitution, we tend to concentrate on the convention. Producing it took more than 5 months to write and another three years to ratify.” But at every step along the way Madison was a key player, at the Annapolis and Philadelphia Conventions, helping to write the Federalist Papers, in the ratification battles, and overseeing the Bill of Rights.
By the fall of 1789 Madison had done a great thing. If he was not quite the father of the Constitution—success has a thousand fathers—he was its midwife.
Although he hated factions, as political parties were called then, he organized the Jefferson Republican Party to battle (his one time friend and coauthor) Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists. The rancor and lack of civility of today’s extreme partisanship is not new. Politics in Madison’s time was no parlor game.
Madison served as the nation’s president for eight years. He led the Republican Party for decades (forerunner of today’s Democratic Party). He used all the tools of his creative mind including enlisting members of the Fourth Estate to attack his political enemies. Madison knew how to use journalism to carry public opinion to his side. He was skilled in public relations before the term had been invented.
The Federalist Party collapsed after James Monroe followed Madison into the presidency. The author observes, “Monroe’s election marked the final triumph of the Virginia Dynasty. He, Jefferson, and Madison had built a party that obeyed, and shaped public opinion, and they had carried all before them.”
Throughout his long public service career, Madison made many decisions, not all of them good. As he himself wrote, “If men were angels, no government would not be necessary.”
However, government is necessary and we are fortunate beyond measure to have had Madison to set in place the principles that have guided America for more than 200 years; yes, even the messy party system we often abhor. As Winston Churchill said in a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, … it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.