Politics & Policy

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.”

‐Was Madison the Father of the Constitution? Here’s Rick: “If he was not quite the Father of the Constitution — success has a thousand fathers — he was its midwife.”

“Midwife” is probably not a title you want to bear through eternity, but still . . .

‐Madison could really turn a phrase. When well-meaning Americans wanted George Washington to be called by some fancy, unrepublican name — e.g., “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same” — Madison argued that such “splendid tinsel would disgrace the manly shoulders of our chief.”

The word “manly” is not used much now, except ironically. Pity.

‐I never knew that Madison was such an Anglophobe. Not just not an admirer of Britain, but a real despiser. Well, guess a couple of wars can do that to a fella . . .

Late in his book, Rick writes, “When in doubt, he could always fall back on Anglophobia. It was Madison’s natural equilibrium point.”

‐Hamilton was much different. “We think in English,” he said. Wonderful phrase.

‐Rick on the second president: “If Adams had had to make his living as a journalist, he would have starved; he hid diamonds of psychological insight in dunghills of pedantry.”

‐Of Madison’s scribbles for the National Gazette, Rick writes, “One almost feels he is writing down, as if for readers who move their lips as they read.”

Funny, but possibly the brightest person I ever knew moved her lips as she read. The exception that proves the rule?

‐Rick writes that both “Federalist” and “Republican” were self-flattering, or self-congratulatory, names: “Hamilton and his supporters appropriated the prestige and success of the Constitution; Jefferson and Madison claimed the spirit of the government itself.”

Funny, but in a recent essay for National Review, I was talking about self-flattering names — in particular, “progressive” and “realist.” Your opponents, you see, are regressives and unrealists . . .

‐When I read about the Federalists and the Republicans, and all those early squabbles, I realize I’m everything. I’m sure you are too.

What do I mean by “everything”? I mean, we recognize important components of America and Americanism in all those guys. Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian — we are both of those things, although our emphases may vary . . .

‐Another winning line, from Rick: “Washington, of course, was reelected unanimously. National electioneering had been barely audible, like mice scurrying in a wall.” Rick goes on to say, “The election of 1792 was the last in American history in which that would be so.”

‐I must say, I was disgusted — virtually sickened — to read of the reaction of Madison and other Francophiles to the French Revolution.

The death of Louis XVI, so recently the ally of America, was celebrated in banquets; people sang the Marseillaise, and in imitation of the revolutionary salutation “Citoyen” called one another “Citizen” . . . French massacres were denied, or excused. “The French,” wrote the National Gazette, “have made examples of two or three thousand scoundrels, to rescue the liberties of millions of honest men.” Jefferson, better spoken but no less bloodthirsty, told an American diplomat that although he was “deeply wounded by some of the martyrs of this cause . . . rather than it should have failed I would have seen half the earth desolated.”

Madison said that American critics of the revolution were “heretical,” and that a French defector from that revolution was guilty of “apostasy.”

Disgusting, sickening. The line from 1789 to 1917 and Mao and Pol Pot and all the rest is straight, my friends, absolutely direct.

‐Hamilton accused Madison and Jefferson of “a womanish attachment to France.” Hey, is that hate speech?

‐Aaron Burr introduced Madison to Dolley, and George Washington encouraged the courtship. “So,” says Rick, “the worst and the best of the founders lent a hand.”


‐You will like this line about John Jay as diplomat: “He was polite and patient, willing to take half a loaf if that was all he could get and to eat toads along the way.”

‐Never knew the word “smirched” — “to smirch,” without the “be-”: “Although Hamilton would continue to lead his party, he had been indelibly smirched.”

‐Loved this line: “In his report, Madison let all the Republican Party’s hobby horses out for a ride.”

‐Check out Madison on the press: “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Rick says, “Defending the press’s abuses was as important as defending its freedom; abuses were an inescapable consequence of press freedom.” More Madison: “It is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits.”

Yes. And have you noticed that those who know agriculture turn to agricultural analogies? (See the Bible.)

‐It was nice to meet Levi Lincoln, the attorney general under Jefferson. Old Testament first name, like Abraham — who was some distant relation of this revolutionary Lincoln.

‐Mr. William Duane slammed four State Department clerks as “a Hamiltonian, a nothingarian, a modest man and a nincompoop.” I smiled particularly at the word “nothingarian”: In my music criticism, I sometimes describe a performance as a “nothingburger,” which particularly amuses a fellow critic of mine, which gratifies me.

‐Funny about John Randolph of Roanoke: “All his life, his voice never broke and he never used a razor. He kept the world in awe with his quick tongue and quicker temper.”

‐Rick is interesting in this criticism of TJ: “There was a too-good-for-this-world streak in Jefferson’s character that showed itself in many ways, from his mountaintop house, to his dislike of face-to-face argument, to his pride . . .”

‐DeWitt Clinton “resigned a seat in the Senate to take the locally more powerful job of mayor of New York.” I thought of Ed Koch, who so loved being mayor. He ran for governor once, which was “stupid,” he told me in an interview. “I didn’t want to be governor!” The governor, Cuomo, wanted to be mayor.

Jimmy Walker is sometimes quoted as saying, “I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than mayor of Chicago.”

‐In Madison-era America, they had a “Non-Intercourse Act” (“which banned trade with Britain, France, and their colonies,” explains Rick). I think we’d call it something else today.

‐Another winning line: “Virginia Republicans, with the persistence of cicadas, accused Federalists of yearning for monarchy . . .”

Is there anything under the sun more persistent than cicadas?

‐Rick writes — has occasion to write — “. . . even for great minds experience can be a better, if slower, teacher than reading and reasoning.”

‐In his chapter called “Retirement, Death,” Rick writes, “Madison was the last framer standing. Loneliness increased his eminence, like a hill on a plain.”

‐Boy does Rick give it to John Adams, all through this book! “Jefferson wrote letters of advice to his protégés, Madison and Monroe, and John Adams wrote to whoever would correspond with him.” More: “Adams was so peculiar and unpopular — and so proud of his peculiarity and unpopularity — that the only politician who would actually listen to him was his own son, John Quincy Adams.”

‐I was interested in an early use — or what I think is an early use — of the term “political science.” Madison says that his notes on the Constitutional Convention should appeal to “all who take an interest in the progress of political science and the cause of true liberty.”

‐Possibly the most amazing paragraph, for me, of the whole book:

He died on June 28 [1836]. Jennings [his manservant] was with him. At breakfast he could not swallow. “What is the matter, Uncle James?” a niece asked. “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear,” he answered. Intellectual to the end, and beyond: he was his mind, and he did not say it was ending but changing. “His head,” wrote Jennings,” “instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”

‐He did not free his slaves, the bastard.

‐Did he know slavery was wrong? (“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever” — Jefferson.) I don’t know.

‐“Dolley became a kind of Washington monument,” writes Rick.

In 1848, a year before she died, she attended the laying of the cornerstone of the actual Washington Monument, along with Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Eliza. The presence of the two old ladies on the reviewing stand represented a posthumous fusion, in honor and forgetfulness, of their husbands, friends, then enemies, and of the man they had both served [Washington].

A splendid book (natch).


To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


The Latest