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.
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.
LOPEZ: What might Madison make of our modern-day sports-score-like political poll-taking and -watching?
BROOKHISER: He would master it, and excel at it.
LOPEZ: Is there one politician in America today who is most in particular need of your book?
BROOKHISER: Rick Perry and David Axelrod — it’s not just meeting and greeting, you gotta think too, pal.
LOPEZ: What might the father of politics think of his invention today?
BROOKHISER: The country has stayed in one piece, stretches to the Pacific Ocean, and keeps the electoral schedule laid down in the Constitution. I think he would be somewhat pleased.
LOPEZ: What might Madison say to the Tea Party about the Constitution and their constitutional talk?
BROOKHISER: Madison wrote that if “national sentiment” attached to the Bill of Rights, it would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” He would approve of taking the Constitution seriously and recurring to its words, whatever he might think of this or that issue.
LOPEZ: What might Madison think about Barack Obama?
BROOKHISER: Jefferson’s vices, without the charm.
LOPEZ: Does it help to be married to a psychotherapist when writing about some of these Founders?
BROOKHISER: My wife, Jeanne Safer, is particularly good at helping me interpret their silences.
LOPEZ: I’ve always wanted book dedications to get a little profile of their own: What would you like a Rick Brookhiser reader/fan to know about Bert and Nina Smiley?
BROOKHISER: Like Madison, Bert and Nina Smiley are Princetonians; like him, they are devoted friends. Like me, they have a place upstate (look up Mohonk Mountain House).
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.