Magazine | February 5, 2018, Issue

The Mind of a Founder

The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, by Noah Feldman (Random House, 800 pp., $35)

For generations, James Madison’s memory was overshadowed by that of his friend Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson, not Madison, who was the icon of agrarian republicanism during the 19th century. In the 20th century, when progressives scoured history for intellectual forebears, they too preferred Jefferson to Madison.

But the tide began turning in Madison’s favor after World War II. As political science became a more sophisticated discipline, scholars noticed that Madison had some profound ideas regarding political economy, legislative behavior, and party politics. Political theorists increasingly appreciated his ability to analyze problems dispassionately, without falling prey to the hyperbolic flights of fancy that often overtook Jefferson.

We are now in the midst of a full-blown Madisonian renaissance, which dates to the publication of Irving Brant’s six-volume study in the 1940s and ’50s. Historians, philosophers, economists, and political scientists all appreciate Madison, or at least see him as a figure to be reckoned with. And while it is harder to “sell” Madison to the broader book-buying public — after all, his life is not nearly as dramatic as those of Washington, Hamilton, or even Jefferson — there have been a number of very strong single-volume biographies over the last few years. Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison (1971) remains arguably the best. Robert Allen Rutland’s James Madison: The Founding Father (1987), James Madison (2011), by Richard Brookhiser, and most recently Lynne Cheney’s James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (2014) are all notable volumes in this genre.

The marketplace for Madison biographies is thus rather oversupplied, but Noah Feldman’s The Three Lives of James Madison is not a biography, strictly speaking. Instead, it presents and defends a metanarrative of Madison’s political career. All biographers inevitably add some editorial gloss to their subjects, but Feldman’s main ambition is to place the various parts of Madison’s expansive career into clear, analytical categories.

This is a welcome addition to Madison scholarship. Feldman’s writing is crisp, his organization is sound, and his analysis is first-rate. He is an obvious admirer of his subject, but his work never lapses into hagiography. For example, he is unblinking in his analysis of Madison’s failures on the issue of slavery, and he rightly calls Madison out for his habit of seeing in his political opponents (such as Hamilton) a creeping antirepublicanism.

Feldman has crafted a work that will be essential for Madison scholars and helpful for lay readers interested in studying the “Father of the Constitution” in more detail. The careful organization and accessible writing even make it strongly recommended for somebody set to make his first encounter with Madison.

Naturally, every reader takes his own expectations into a book, using those preconceived notions as a way to judge its quality. Reviewers probably do this even more than most readers, since they (presumably) have greater expertise in the subject they’re reading about. I was most interested in how Feldman would handle the “Madison Problem.” This is a scholarly term of art to describe Madison’s many intellectual inconsistencies over the course of his political career. He seemingly changed his mind on the proper scope of federal power, the elasticity permitted in constitutional interpretation, the relationship between Congress and the president, and the utility of political parties. Many of these changes of heart relate ultimately to Hamilton. Initially allied with Hamilton in the 1780s, Madison broke dramatically from him in the 1790s, and then, as president, enacted much of Hamilton’s economic agenda after the War of 1812.

Scholars have offered various explanations for this trajectory. Was he simply a pragmatic statesman adjusting the particulars as circumstance required, as Adrienne Koch and Marvin Meyers argue? Was he motivated by jealousy toward Hamilton or concern for the parochial interests of Virginia, as Stanley Elkins, Eric McKitrick, and Forrest McDonald argue? Was he endeavoring to protect his own unique republican principles in the face of shifting threats, as Colleen Sheehan, Alan Gibson, and Greg Weiner argue? Is the whole Madison Problem perhaps overblown, a product of our own errant categories, as Lance Banning argues?

Feldman’s answer is close to that of Koch and Meyers — that Madison evolved over time as the political situation made necessary. Feldman asserts that Madison lived “three distinct, contrasting public lives”: First, he was the Father of the Constitution; then, in “opposition to his character and his beliefs,” he became a partisan brawler; finally, as secretary of state and then as president, he confronted “the deep contrast between republican constitutional theory and real-world power.” His life was a “path from idealistic innocence to chastened, realist experience.” Along the way, Madison was inclined to develop “extraordinarily close friendships,” with such men as Hamilton and James Monroe, that “eventually devolved into rivalry.”

In the main, I am very sympathetic to this view. It is certainly a more charitable interpretation of his political career than the one usually offered by pro-Hamilton scholars, that Madison was somehow devious. I also think it is manifestly true in important respects. For instance, consider the incongruity between Madison’s argument that the House in 1796 could defund the Jay Treaty and his endorsement at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 of executive discretion in foreign affairs. There is no denying that Madison adopted what Meyers diplomatically calls a “statesman’s hermeneutic” to scuttle what he believed was a terrible deal.

Still, I wish Feldman had engaged more with such authors as Sheehan, Gibson, Weiner, and especially Banning, who have argued persuasively that there is a substantial, underlying continuity to Madisonian thought and deed. They identify a durable thread in Madison’s commitment to republican government. Madison believed that public policy had to be balanced among social and economic factions, and he was a lifelong advocate of impartial governing institutions with their foundation on popular assent. This, they argue, explains many of Madison’s seeming contradictions.

During his lengthy retirement, which Feldman’s study does not really investigate, Madison conceptualized his career in similar terms. He commented late in life: “As to [whether] I deserted Colonel Hamilton, or rather Colonel H. deserted me; in a word, the divergence between us took place — from his wishing . . . to administer the government . . . into what he thought it ought to be; while, on my part, I endeavored to make it conform to the Constitution, as understood by the Convention that produced and recommended it, and particularly by the state conventions that adopted it.”

There is, at the root of what Madison was saying there, an understanding of republican self-governance, from which Banning, Sheehan, and others have excavated an elaborate Madisonian system of popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, and public policy. It need not be in tension with the views expressed by Koch, Meyers, and now Feldman, but rather can be an amplification of them — a recognition that while Madison did move hither and yon on many issues, he remained, at bottom, an original and consistent republican statesman-philosopher. Pragmatic, yes; inconsistent in some respects; but singular and indispensable.

– Mr. Cost is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption.

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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