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Book review: Does James Madison still matter?

Published July 19, 2014 12:25 pm

Nonfiction • Lynne Cheney reconsiders the fourth president's life and legacy.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In a 2009 C-SPAN poll of historians and political scientists that ranked the leadership attributes of the U.S. presidents, James Madison placed right in the middle of the pack — somewhere between William McKinley and Grover Cleveland and just two spots ahead of Gerald Ford. Similar surveys confirm Madison's place near the midpoint, at neither the top nor the bottom of our perceptions of presidential effectiveness and success.

Such rankings raise some obvious questions about what we value and how we shape our understanding of the American political past: How, for example, has the mark of greatness escaped one of the most active and significant of our Founders? Furthermore, if Madison doesn't even rank near the top in a poll of historians, how much can we expect students or the general public to know or care about our nation's fourth president? The answer is probably not a lot.

If people know anything at all about Madison, it is that he is called the "Father of the Constitution" for having drafted the Virginia Plan, which became the basis for the document that emerged from the Philadelphia convention. Perhaps some readers will recall that he was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. It is entirely possible that more people know he was married to Dolley than know of his constitutional contributions.

The prevailing portrait of Madison is one of a weak, indecisive, even sickly little creature whose role was to think big thoughts in the drawing room, but who was wholly unsuited for the rough and tumble of real politics. Though we hold his intellect in near reverence, we see him as a man of diminutive and even effete stature whose delicate health impeded his ability to implement his grand plans — a visionary who simply lacked the chops we associate with effective leadership.

Lynne Cheney's recent biography, "James Madison: A Life Reconsidered," suggests that Madison's relevance has gone unrecognized in part because his style and manner are so foreign to our notions of larger-than-life celebrity. She sees him as a modest and reserved genius, misunderstood in our time because we are unaccustomed to celebrating reserve. Big personalities are by modern definition bold, brash, self-promoting and self-referential. The Madisonian persona does not lend itself to reality TV.

Cheney offers a thorough and thoughtful reconsideration of a decidedly American life, recasting Madison as a powerful, determined political genius who set out to do nothing less than change the way people think. In her telling, Madison was more than a passive participant or even the idea guy who quietly set things in motion and then faded to the background while others carried out the plan. He was the driving force behind the creation and the implementation of the new government.

Madison didn't just write the draft that became the Constitution. He co-wrote the Federalist Papers (with Hamilton and Jay) to encourage the support of ratification; championed the Bill of Rights, the absence of which had been a major stumbling block; drafted Washington's inaugural address and wrote the congressional response to it; and recruited the initial members of Washington's administration. In short, he was more than the father of the Constitution: He was the father of the American government.

In spite of his undeniable accomplishments, Madison lived his life under the constant cloud of uncertain health. Plagued by a form of epilepsy from his youth, he suffered a few debilitating episodes at some critical junctures in his career, which contributed then and now to the notion that he was weak and aloof. Cheney shows how Madison's illness colored his private reality and his public life. It even affected his religious views, as he was unable to accept the supernatural explanations offered by orthodox Christianity for his condition.

Cheney brings a unique perspective to the public, political life, having enjoyed a front-row seat to the American political theater for most of her adult life. When she writes about the mudslinging of 1800 between the Adams and Jefferson camps, she is more than a scholarly observer — she comes to the subject having been a participant in the same bruising electoral process. The difference is those who lived through the bitter election of 1800 would believe that Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity were close friends and that the Tea Party and the Sierra Club were sister organizations.

Jefferson prevailed in that election, and Madison became his secretary of state. In that role, Madison had to manage the deteriorating relationship with Great Britain, brought on by the British refusal to recognize the United States' neutral shipping rights and the practice of forcibly removing sailors from American merchant ships to serve in the Royal Navy. The Jefferson administration responded to this affront to American sovereignty with an embargo of British goods, which had the unhappy effect of hurting the American economy in ways that alienated large segments of the population, especially New England merchants.

As the country inched closer to war, Madison became the face of Jefferson's most unpopular policies. In many ways, he bore the brunt of the public's disapproval of everything from the direction of the nation's foreign policy to the size and nature of the government. Even at this early stage of our political development, Cheney points out, "politicians understood the advantages of blaming … an administration's shortcomings on someone other than the president."

When Madison succeeded Jefferson as president, the war they had both hoped to avoid eventually came. Many saw it as a strange and foolish war and questioned whether it was worth the potential consequences to the economy and to the country as a whole. Even Madison's cabinet was divided over the issue. For his part, Madison tried to remain above the fray, which, Cheney wryly adds, never works. But he was not passively carried along — like LBJ to Vietnam — into a war he resented. For Madison, it was a "just and necessary" war, and ultimately history would vindicate his stance, as the War of 1812 established for the nation and for the world that the young country was here to stay.

Cheney's Madison is, not surprisingly, conservative in his political views when it comes to the role of government and states' rights: "We owe our prosperity," wrote Madison, "to our own native vigor as a people and … not to the wisdom or care of government." He was not, however, an extremist in his philosophy of limited government. Even after he left office, he continued to see a vital and important role for government. He supported the government's constitutional power to levy tariffs, even though it was hugely unpopular in the South. He also stood firm against efforts to make a constitutional case for nullification, recognizing that if the states could overturn federal legislation, it would destroy the Union.

The art of politics as Madison practiced it was the art of compromise coupled with the art of influence. He took a principled, long view of political intercourse, embracing what Cheney calls "the art of the possible." His was a world in which relationships mattered and the boundaries between opponents and allies were extremely fluid. He knew the difference between battles and wars and ever endeavored to remain above short-term, cheap-shot victories.

This elegant biography, bordering on McCulloughesque in its delivery, is a scholarly accomplishment and a literary achievement. Cheney avoids the temptation of turning Madison into an ideologue who could readily be exploited for current political purposes. Rather, she gives us a portrait of a patient statesman whose brilliance changed his world and ours and whose approach to political process should matter as much now as it did then.

Like his friend Jefferson, Madison died with financial security still beyond his grasp. For this generation of politicians, public office was not a road to personal wealth. For them, public service was born of a very real personal sacrifice —the kind of sacrifice in which one's own interests and well-being (and poll numbers) yielded to the greater good. If we ever again get to a place in American politics where we value compromise and commend our leaders for its pursuit, perhaps Madison will score higher in our rankings. In the meantime, he can serve as a relevant and much-needed reminder that sacrifice and compromise are what make "the art of the possible" possible.

Our debt to the founding generation is immeasurable, and in the case of James Madison well overdue. Fortunately, in "James Madison: A Life Reconsidered," we have a handsome down payment.

D. Kurt Graham is the author of "To Bring Law Home: The Federal Judiciary in Early National Rhode Island." —

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

Lynne Cheney

Viking Press

Pages • 563

Cost • $36