Magazine | November 15, 2010, Issue

Heroic Argument

Madison and Jefferson, by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg (Random House, 848 pp., $35)

Every student of American history forms in his mind a picture of Jefferson, more or less accurate, but full of life. Madison, on the other hand, remains for most of us a great lawgiver whose living personality eludes us. Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, in their exhaustive new book Madison and Jefferson, seek to remedy the problem by showing Madison in the human light of his long friendship and intense political collaboration with Jefferson.

The trouble is that when the two men are brought together tête-à-tête between the covers of a book, Jefferson looms larger than ever, and leaves “poor Jemmy,” who labored, Henry Adams said, “under serious disadvantage in the dryness of his personality,” in the shade. It is certainly not fair, for Jefferson, with all his remarkable virtues, had also remarkable faults; but (such is our nature) we are apt to find the morally flawed character more dramatically interesting than his less compromised brother.

Jefferson exasperates us when he turns advocate for the leveling aspirations of the French revolutionaries even as he reclines amid the aristocratic opulence of a slave plantation. He tries our patience when he professes a hatred of intrigue even as he is exposed as a master of dissimulation. Washington himself was irritated by his duplicity and “refused to forgive him,” Burstein and Isenberg write, for betraying a trust when he composed the letter to Mazzei. Yet unlike Washington, we do forgive Jefferson: What is repulsive in his character stirs us quite as much as what is attractive. Madison can never compete with him on this ground, and unless evidence should come to light that he dallied romantically with one of his slaves, he is likely always to remain an also-ran in history’s popularity contest.

Yet he is not without his own subtle charm, the glow of devotion evident in his services to the Constitution. Burstein and Isenberg contend that the extent of those services has been exaggerated. “Madison was not particularly successful at the Constitutional Convention,” they write, “certainly not in the way Americans have been taught and certainly not enough to warrant the title ‘Father of the Constitution.’” In Philadelphia his intimations of a “grand plan” of constitutional order came to little, and he “witnessed the rejection of virtually every one of his ideas.”

It is precisely here that Madison emerges into heroism and greatness. The passion of his life was constitution-making; he lived in one of those rare moments when a man might be lawgiver. By dint of hard study and hard thinking he made himself a master of statecraft. Yet when his vision failed to persuade the delegates in Philadelphia, when the work of constitutional art to which he had devoted so much labor was effaced — when his “council of revision” was dismissed and his dream of a senate formed as an oracle of “virtue & wisdom” was rejected — he did not sulk in his tent, but rather set about, without a trace of self-pity, to make the best of the Constitution that actually emerged.

#page#An attentiveness to this gentle heroism might go far toward illuminating a man who remains, at the end of Burstein and Isenberg’s 600-odd pages, essentially a cipher. But the authors are reluctant to cast Madison — or indeed any of the Founders — in a heroic mold. They depict the Republic’s early leaders instead as men “who were long ago given poetic protection as ‘founding fathers.’” To regard them as “protectors” today, they argue, “invites massive self-deception,” and they go so far as to put quotation marks around the word “virtuous” in writing of Washington.

They are to this extent right: A hero-worship that overlooks the blemishes that even heroes possess not only is untrue to the Founders’ own conception of our intrinsic human frailty, it encourages us to concentrate our yearning for perfection in the secular work of politics. It is not of course uncommon today for people who are conscious of a vacancy in their lives to seek, in the politics of the past or the future, an escape from the confusions and imperfections of their present state, and to suppose that a brilliant political program, whether Whig or Tory, patriot or anti-patriot, conservative or radical, will fill up the void, and be the ark in which they might safely confide their dream of regeneration. Their discontent is nourished by a kind of thwarted spiritual passion, one that finds a spasmodic relief in what the young Lincoln called “political religion” — a cult of a nation or a leader, a mystique of a class or a race, a worship of nature or the atmosphere.

It is doubtful whether the worship of politicians or their programs can ever be an adequate substitute for the millennial idealism that properly belongs to religion, yet there never was a nation that did not rightly venerate the heroic characters who shaped its history. If it is unwise to turn the benefactors of one’s country into demigods, it is no less foolish to say in one’s heart there have been no heroes. The difficulty, for Burstein and Isenberg, is that history written in even a modestly heroic vein will, inevitably, be Whig history — composed in order to satisfy present needs, and intended to make us see how we have become what we are. And it is Whig history that Burstein and Isenberg most dread.

Their anxiousness is a little mystifying, given that all history is to this extent Whiggish: No one who would write about the past can possibly escape the influence of the present. An utterly un-Whiggish history is as fabulous as a fable of Borges; the very language we speak, and write our histories in, is bound to distort the minds of those who came before us, and thought and felt in idioms very different from our own.

It is true that there are more and less Whiggish forms of history. But are the less Whiggish histories — the histories that are most devoted to the pastness of the past, the histories of which Burstein and Isenberg most approve — always to be preferred? It seems to me that a tolerant mind will value not only the historian who studies the past for its own sake but also the historian who studies the past for the light it sheds on the present. The one strives to understand what the past actually was; the other tries to show why the dead will always matter to the living. A lover of history who cultivates a truly catholic historical sensibility will profit both from the technical studies of a historian like Namier, who exposed the myths of the Whig historians, and the Whiggish work of a historian like Macaulay, who distilled the timeless lessons of the Revolution of 1688.

#page#A more promising approach to Madison and Jefferson than one undertaken in the anti-Whiggish spirit of Burstein and Isenberg would isolate the limits of their achievement in laying the foundation of the democratic nation-state. The creation of the constitutional state has undoubtedly been the greatest political achievement in history: It has made life, liberty, and property more secure than they ever were before, and through the mechanism of national markets has wrought a material prosperity that would not so very long ago have seemed a whimsical dream. But the cultural achievement of the nation-state may be doubted.

If we gain where politics and commerce have (in large measure) been nationalized, we lose where culture is made coterminous with so enlarged a civic sphere. It is the paradox of Western civilization that the work of its universal culture was for centuries carried on exclusively in local settings, in the small enclaves and intimate communal life of towns and city-states, aristocratic courts and monastic centers. These cultural sanctuaries have since disappeared, or have lost their old virtue and dignity. The destruction of their local influences, and the replacement of their deep yet idiosyncratic culture by the shallow, uniform, and monotonous culture of the nation-state, have impoverished us in ways we every day feel.

Jefferson was more sensitive than Madison to the cultural limitations of the new order he helped to make. Madison, the deep political thinker, hardly rose above philistinism in questions of culture: but Jefferson toward the end of his life pointed to the need for forums more intimate in scale, and more delicate in craftsmanship, than those that flourished under national auspices. “What matters at this stage,” Alasdair MacIntyre has written, “is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” Grateful as we must be to Madison for his contribution to a political art that has yielded so many blessings, it is to Jefferson we must look if we are to find a way out of our cultural perplexity.

– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book Pathology of the Elites will be published this fall.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer and writer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871 and Murder by Candlelight, among other books.

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