Reconsidering Madison

by Yuval Levin

Lynne Cheney’s new book, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, really has to be on your summer reading list. For anyone who cares about the Constitution and delights in American history, there can’t be too many biographies of James Madison. But Cheney has done much more than add to the pile, and she has done it precisely by looking past the pile to Madison himself. 

The book’s subtitle gets it just right. This is, in a whole host of ways, a reconsideration of Madison and a new interpretation of some otherwise familiar facts of his life and thought. But Cheney doesn’t spend much time asserting her disagreements with past scholars, including some recent academic biographies. She just proves her case. Rather than a book about Madison’s legacy, or about how we in the 21st century should think about him given our circumstances, she has written a real biography: an informed, thoughtful, historically rigorous, and intellectually ambitious engagement with Madison’s thoughts and actions. 

What results might change your mind, as it did mine, about some of the received wisdom about Madison, including the relative merits of his presidency and the striking discrepancies between his views about federal power in the years surrounding the constitutional convention and his views on the very same questions not long after. 

I think Cheney is a little too soft on Thomas Jefferson in places, but so was James Madison. And on the whole she offers a lucid, well-paced, wonderfully written, and authoritative history. Very well worth your time. 

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