Short but Powerful


Rick Brookhiser — “Richard Brookhiser,” it says on his book covers — is a National Review senior editor and a distinguished historian. I like the order I have used: NR first. I’m an NR partisan, I guess. His latest book is James Madison, published last fall. I did not buy and read it until recently. I’m glad I did.

I had not known much about Madison. Knew he was short. Knew he was important to the Constitution. Knew about Dolley. (Ate some of her cupcakes, way back.) And there’s a James Madison U in Virginia. Don’t they make the NCAA tournament — basketball tournament — from time to time?

But had not known about much else.

Rick’s bio is typical of him: It is succinct, learned, elegant, a little quirky — not eccentric, but just different enough to please, and to stand apart from other works.

I made some notes, while reading the book, and would like to share some thoughts and observations with you now, Impromptus-style.

As First Lady, says Rick, Dolley Madison brightened the White House “with banquets and soirees, red velvet curtains and green gilt-edged china, a piano and a macaw.”

The macaw, I think, is a perfect Brookhiserian touch.

“James Madison was a great man who helped build a republic. He was also an ambitious and sometimes small-bore man who stumped, spoke, counted votes, pulled wires, scratched backs, and stabbed them.”

That, too, is a perfect Brookhiser touch — “and stabbed them.”

I always have to pause when it comes to Montpellier and Montpelier. Couple of times, I have flown into Montpellier, France. (I have friends near there.) But the capital of Vermont takes one “l,” and so does Madison’s home.

And yet, says Rick, “Madison always spelled it with two L’s” — which confuses me all the more! I wish the world could get together on this subject . . .

Madison’s mother, Nelly Conway Madison, “died in February 1829, a month after her ninety-seventh birthday. Before she passed, she told a visitor, ‘I have been a blest woman, blest all my life, and blest in this my old age. I have no sickness, no pain.’” Her face, says Rick, “had fewer wrinkles than that of her famous son.”

It was Madison’s hope, says Rick, that “enlightened public opinion . . . would spot threats to liberty and unite ‘with a holy zeal’ to repel them.” I, of course, immediately thought of Obamacare. Just a nasty old partisan Republican — modern-day Republican — I am . . .

Some people wanted Virginia to promise “fullest toleration” of religion. Madison said, Nuts to that: He insisted on “free exercise.” You should not have to depend on the government, or on society, to allow you to worship as you please. It is your natural right.

Big difference.

“I flatter myself,” Madison wrote, that he and his partners had “extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

Very well put: the “I flatter myself” part. He knew, he certainly knew.

Rick writes that Madison “learned some Hebrew, a prerequisite for the ministry, though he seems to have had no intention of preaching.”

I treasure an e-mail I once received from a reader. I had written something about the bogusness of the term “social justice.” He wrote, “In my community, we say there are two kinds of rabbi: those who talk about ‘social justice’ and those who can read Hebrew.”

I treasure Rick Brookhiser’s description of George Mason (the man, not the university, though it’s more common for me to think of the university): “brilliant, self-taught, reclusive, and gruff, like a badger with genius.”

Check out a sly allusion Rick has to the Bible: “Their treasure was laid up in their stipends.” (He is talking about religious officials in receipt of state payments.)

Now and then, he inserts the modern into his historical narrative: “They lacked the blessings of Twitter and Skype; what they got in return was leisure to think.”

I can’t tell you how much any writer would appreciate what Madison said to Jefferson. Jefferson had written something, and no doubt it was good. But others had messed around with it, making some cuts. These cuts, Madison told Jefferson, “did not affect the substance, though they somewhat defaced the composition.”

Substance and composition, an old story . . .

From Paris, Jefferson sent Madison more than 200 books. This, said Madison, was “literary cargo” — nice phrase.

In the beginning, there were twelve amendments to the Constitution. But the first two went by the wayside. “So,” writes Rick, “the Bill of Rights, Amendments Three through Twelve, became, once ratified, Amendments One through Ten. Their distinct position, and their number, echoing an even more famous set of ten laws, boosted their stature and made Madison, their sponsor, a secular Moses.”