LOPEZ: “When journalists went too far, it was not uncommon to beat them.” Or have them turn up dead? You write “political violence would appear in shocking forms in Madison’s later career.” Is it safe to say we’ve made some progress on this front?
BROOKHISER: Madison’s career was marked by duels (two signers of the Constitution were killed in duels, including his ex-friend Alexander Hamilton); by journalistic savagery, and occasional reprisals; and by politically charged riots (the Baltimore Riot of 1812 cost two lives, and shortened several others). It’s still a violent country, but our politics has improved.
LOPEZ: “They yearned for peace because war was expensive and vicious. War oppressed taxpayers, swelled the state, and caused panic and oppression.” Do things never change?
BROOKHISER: Two things never change: War is a scourge; and many people, like James Madison, imagine they can avoid it.
LOPEZ: “The complaints against Madison by his fellow Republicans sound very modern; they are in fact eternal. Practical men . . . said he wouldn’t get his hands dirty; purists . . . called him corrupt and a sellout.” Should some Republican in Washington take some legitimate solace from this, or am I falling into establishment thinking asking the question?
BROOKHISER: It must be gratifying to see oneself in James Madison’s shoes. But sometimes the critics are right — because you are not, in fact, James Madison.
LOPEZ: You describe Madison’s “solutions to the problem of slavery” as “worthless, a pathetic case of intellectual and moral failure.” You write: “The option that is always open to men and society in the face of any problem is to do nothing. This is where Madison and Virginia ended up.” Is there any evidence that Madison might regret that, if he could give a modern-day assessment of his role in history? Or might he look at the history of racial issues to this day and feel vindicated in his contention that the “prejudices” of both races were “probably unalterable”?
BROOKHISER: Maybe there is some residue of prejudice that is unalterable (though I have seen it diminish even in my lifetime). But then you can work to limit its effects on society — which is something Madison did not do.
LOPEZ: “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.” Do you see men like that in politics today?
BROOKHISER: Every politician thinks about politics 24/7; how thoughtful are they? Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor look promising; let’s see how they turn out. The last political intellectuals were probably Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Newt Gingrich, and they were both problematic figures.
LOPEZ: Is it fulfilling to revisit former book subjects, as you watch their interaction with your current focus? Is there ever a temptation to indulge? Or do you get tired of writing Washington or Hamilton eventually?
BROOKHISER: I keep coming back to them because there is more there. The one dimensional figures make their bows, then exeunt.
LOPEZ: “Madison understood public opinion.” What is the most practical and forgotten advice you can offer those running for office in, say, 2012?
BROOKHISER: The lesson of nemesis is always a tough one: When you’re riding high, watch out. Jefferson and Madison would discover that in Jefferson’s second term.
LOPEZ: Madison was a crucial framer of our understanding of religious liberty — taking us from “fullest toleration” to “free exercise” during the Virginia Declaration of Rights fight. Does that debate provide instruction for us today as we get into scuffles about religious liberty and conscience rights on issues such as the recent “Obamacare” contraception-coverage mandate and the same-sex marriage implications for religious groups and individuals?
BROOKHISER: Madison was quite tight-lipped about his religious beliefs, if he had any, and he was at the hands-off end of the spectrum of religion and public life. Yet he was friendly with some churches, notably the Baptists, throughout his career. If he thought any faith was getting the bum’s rush, he would be on its side.