National Review’s own Richard Brookhiser is back on the bookshelves (and Kindles) with another biography of one of our Founding Fathers. This time, his storytelling skills are focused on James Madison, the “father of politics” in Rick’s telling of the man’s life and our history. He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the man, his role in the making of America, and what he has to offer politicians today.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What does it mean to be Madisonian?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Today we mean someone who honors the Constitution, knows its nuts and bolts, and believes in limited government. I would add: someone who is a tough, wily pol.
LOPEZ: What ought every American know about Madison and the Battle of Bladensburg?
BROOKHISER: You know the expression, “ride to the sound of the guns”? James Madison was the first, and last, president in American history to do that. The enemy was marching into the District of Columbia, and he went with his cabinet and the army to face them down.
LOPEZ: We are probably lucky if school kids today know Madison as the “father of the Constitution.” And now you want to tell them not to take it “too literally”?
BROOKHISER: I say that to do justice to all the other men who had significant input, sometimes contrary to what Madison himself at first wanted. Also to do justice to Madison who, when he lost a battle, did not sulk in his tent, but figured out how to fight on, or how to work with the men who had beaten him.
LOPEZ: Why is the “father of politics” more fitting?
BROOKHISER: Equally fitting. The Constitution is the rules; politics is the game. The alternatives to organized political contention are anarchy or sheep-like passivity.
LOPEZ: Is there any close competition for the “father of politics” title?
BROOKHISER: Several of the Founders were great instinctive politicians — Washington, Jefferson. Madison was more self-conscious about the process and understood it better.
LOPEZ: What accounts for Madison’s scorn for John Adams and his love for Thomas Jefferson? Does either man’s relationship with Madison provide essential insight into Adams or Jefferson?
BROOKHISER: Madison never spent much time with John Adams, and could not see beyond his obnoxious qualities to the good ones.
Thomas Jefferson was the cool older brother Madison never had — brilliant, eloquent, quirky — but at the same time a fellow Virginian and an ideological soul mate.
LOPEZ: Are there political lessons to take from his ultimate falling out with George Washington?
BROOKHISER: If you decide to undermine the man you admire, which is what Madison did in the 1790s, you can expect some pushback, which is what Washington administered.
LOPEZ: “The most important thing Madison took from his war years was the friendship of other men.” Does American culture — and politics — underplay how essential male friendship is and has proven to be throughout history?
BROOKHISER: I don’t think so. There is a lot of talk about bromance and bands of brothers these days; frenemies is shorthand for a rather subtle variation. We know that men work together; all we have to do is recover the desire for greatness.
LOPEZ: “Public opinion was a loop, sustaining leaders even as they shaped it.” Is that an enduring principle?
BROOKHISER: That is the way public opinion works in our politics now. But it was an innovation in Madison’s lifetime. Most of the Founders believed the people ruled at elections, when they voted. Then the winners would do their jobs, until the people ruled again. Madison saw the relationship as ongoing.