Among the founding fathers of the top tier, James Madison takes the honor as the one we know the least about. We recall that he’s the “Father of the Constitution,” and that venerable title usually exhausts our quizzable information. He’s not the granite figure of Washington, the adroit financial genius of Hamilton, the philosopher-prince of Jefferson, or the pugnacious patriot of Adams. His visage doesn’t grace our money. But though he may not play the most dramatic role in popular mythology, nonetheless he was, as Richard Brookhiser amply explores in his new book, a brilliantly able statesman who proved to be, when judged alongside all his august contemporaries of higher profile, just as indispensable.
While Brookhiser shows how fairly Madison deserved paternal credit for the Constitution, a credit he received even during his lifetime, he also explains how any modern praise for the man and the system of government he so skillfully birthed, shepherded, and defended by word and deed might be tempered by wistful regrets over the ruck and rumpus that system has borne with it down two centuries and more. For Madison might also be called the Father of American Politics — the man who foresaw and blessed all those (in Brookhiser’s words) “ways and means of acquiring, conferring, and rebuking power, the party organizations and partisan media that are the vehicles of interest, ambition, and thought” and make up the gaudy din of public life now. The prognosticating services of Gallup and Roper and Zogby would have neither surprised nor alarmed him. All the Technicolor panoply of American political life was envisioned by this man little suspected by posterity of having been a visionary.
Yet he could speak prophetically as a student of human nature. It was he who told us wisely, in an age of wise people, that if men were angels there would be no need for government — the pitch-perfect Madisonian note of learned moderation that set the keynote for all his thinking.
Such sobriety also sets the tone for this book. For over a decade and a half, Richard Brookhiser has made himself a seriously regarded chronicler of the revolutionary era and, in doing so, has become through his books an agreeable, incisive tutor to any reader lacking a specialist’s knowledge who thirsts for works of solid, non-ideologically-freighted history (a conspicuous need after 50 years of dreary educational decline). So far, his pen has illuminated the lives of Washington, Hamilton, the family Adams, Gouverneur Morris, and now Madison.
When walking the halls of the Revolutionary and early Federal periods, Brookhiser is a writer of the Plutarchan stamp, capable of reducing his subjects to their essence without resort to the gross simplifications of the reductionist. He tells us what we should know, not — exhaustively — what we might know. His books have a light touch, and the characters who emerge from his pages take on the reality they deserve. They don’t gather dust; they cast shadows.
James Madison arose out of the Virginia gentry, though as with all well-established families flourishing in mid-18th-century Virginia, the Madisons did not go back to time immemorial; they had been ensconced in the Piedmont barely 100 years by Madison’s birth in 1751. His was a life fitted by circumstance for the husbandry of the land, but his inward-turning, bookish side, strong from the beginning for a curious, small, sickly boy, won out. Like Jefferson not many miles to the south, he was the product of Scottish tutors and schoolmasters thriving on the frontier, which meant that his classical training in Latin and Greek, along with mathematics and geography, was likely to have been thoroughgoing and accurate to a painful degree.
Education then was not a democratic enterprise for all but a privilege of the better-to-do, though even the sons of the rich had to prove themselves by constant, unrelenting performance, or they too could wash out at the hands of exacting masters who neither graded on a curve nor cared a whit about propping up anybody’s self-esteem.
Perhaps Madison’s schooling and precocity both were confirmed by his sliding through the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in two years, where he added Hebrew to his arsenal of languages. This curriculum, typical of the time for a college man, was also nicely tailored for a man out to enter the ministry, though Madison felt no vocation to preach (as with Jefferson, his religious commitments were mysterious) and decided to stay on after his formal work came to an end to read and think further, with no particular goal in mind. He studied law, but like many graduates of law school today, he never went on to practice it. What engaged him most came to be the ardent and comprehensive study of men and manners in time: history, assuredly, but history with a purpose. Like all humanists of his era, he wished his knowledge both to enhance his own life and to serve the betterment of the world, and so he was determined to spend whatever talents he possessed for public service.
Witnessing with dismay the clash among warring religious factions when the (state) Anglican church embarked upon a persecution of Baptist — and therefore unauthorized — preachers in his native Orange County, Madison took up the active work of standing for religious liberty in Virginia, and five years after leaving college he was a member of the state legislature. It was in the autumn of 1776 that Madison met Thomas Jefferson and casually formed with him what was to become one of the most consequential political alliances of the next 50 years. From the beginning of their acquaintance, Madison gladly deferred to Jefferson, eight years his senior, as to a superior in culture and accomplishment; Jefferson appreciated the younger man’s steady judgment and what he called “the rich resources of his luminous and discriminating mind.”
Madison consigned himself to the imperative drudgery of legislative work during the long Revolutionary War years that followed and, by 1783, he was both a seasoned thinker and a practical politician who had served in both his state legislature and Congress. As Jefferson prepared to leave for France on a diplomatic mission, the two friends avidly hashed over the trials of the new nation and especially the making of constitutions — namely, the new constitutions being debated and adopted by the various states. These talks were not idle ones; the two men were trying, Brookhiser says, “to define the freedom they had helped win,” a freedom whose boundaries had yet to be drawn precisely. Jefferson finally departed with a list of books of history and political theory, ancient and modern, to procure for himself and Madison. Those books might, Jefferson thought, come in handy during any turbulent years to come.
Their help came sooner than either man had expected. The nation had been laboring under the strains placed on it by the Articles of Confederation, the pact for union entered into by all the states during the war, but the constraints of which had left the government hamstrung in peacetime; Congress under the Articles, to take the major infirmity, lacked the power to tax, and so putting to bed the national debt incurred during the war became impossible. The convention putatively called to “revise” the Articles gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787, and it was there, over the next four months, that the new Constitution was hammered out. Madison spoke often and eloquently as he offered delegates the benefit of his wide reading and deep understanding of the follies that had come of other efforts at republic-building in the past whenever reforming minds had refused to reckon on the true nature of man. Book learning has rarely been put to better use.
So Madison thus played the helmsman, or perhaps the navigator, in that convention, though it’s a role Brookhiser deems closer to midwifery than to paternity as he shows how benignly misleading that old honorific of “Father of the Constitution” can be; like many far less successful ventures, the drafting of the Constitution was committee work. By autumn, the nation — that is, all 13 states separately — had a new government to ponder and ratify, and ratification was expedited by the literary exertions of Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay, who assured the wary and hostile among the states with journalistic briefs (which we know now as the Federalist Papers) that this new, painstakingly constructed federal set-up would have staying power beyond their time because it was lit by the lamp of experience — a carefully wrought product of all the best that had been thought and said on governance.
Madison’s would be a noteworthy life had it ended with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, but of course it didn’t, and Brookhiser handles with a deft hand Madison’s passage through subsequent years as a prominent congressman and confidant of President Washington — Madison helped him draft his first inaugural address — through his battles against the Alien and Sedition Acts to his fruitful stint as Jefferson’s secretary of state, and finally on to his own presidency. But it is with Madison’s presidency that a bit of the luster gets rubbed off his reputation, for his gifts lay more in the realm of reflection and compromise than in that of action. The apparently chaotic discharge of his duties as commander-in-chief during the War of 1812 when the British blithely marched into Washington and burned it down, pointing as it does to his less-than-stellar judgment regarding some of the men he placed in high positions, supports the sense many have had that he was unequal to the challenges of a wartime presidency.
Yet he acquitted himself judiciously and, on occasion, bravely. His secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, summed up his sturdy equilibrium years before, when he wrote that “Mr. Madison is . . . slow in taking his ground, but firm when the storm arises.” And so Madison proved in that crisis, which did not end, despite all, in defeat for the United States. Brookhiser restores a more even view of Madison’s capacity for executive resolve, secondary though that might have been to Madison’s nature. Withal he had a talent for constancy when inconstancy would have been, as it usually is, expedient.
We remember Madison in the end for his most lasting contributions to the vigor and stability of the American system, for the ministrations of a sagacious, balancing mind who did more than any other to enthrone a preservative intricacy of checks and balances at the heart of a constitutional edifice that has withstood the vagaries of time. Readers there may be who will miss scads of private detail this book doesn’t offer; an upstaging Dolley Madison does not strut extravagantly on every page, nor are we treated to heaps of irrelevant, tiresome gossip. Most of all, we’re spared the posturing of easy retrospective judgment. Instead, Brookhiser simply shines pinpoints of light, penetratingly, into the more obscure corners of Madison’s life and work, raises his achievements into higher relief, and elevates this founder to a proper, merited place among his brethren. And that is much.
– Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus. He is currently writing a book on Thomas Jefferson.