by Steve Lancaster 2/24/14
By Richard Brookhiser • The steps of the main library of The College of New Jersey at Princeton are worn smooth and have been impacted by thousands of students over two hundred years. One can imagine the history of these students and their professors. Somewhere on these steps little James Madison must have trod. His footprints are not imbedded in the stone, but in the political system to which he was midwife.
Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor at National Review and has written several books on the founders and articles on the development of the Constitution, among them, America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses 1735-1918 and Alexander Hamilton, American. In writing of Madison, he has taken a further step in examining what was created in these times by these men, a time which is unique in history. Brookhiser has dedicated his work to understanding these men and women. This biography of Madison is his most complete and multifaceted and provides insight into a complex man and his relationships.
“Growing up in a family as tightly woven as the Madison’s, you either run away to sea or learn to play well with others.” (1) Playing well with others is the essence of politics and Madison as the consummate politician is how Brookhiser presents him — as a young member of the Virginia house and in working with a house committee to draft a Declaration of Rights for an independent Virginia.
“The young Madison knew how to find allies, and how to change plans in midstream. He was applying theory to politics; he was also showing precocious skill at how to work a committee.”(2) This skill will, over the rest of his life, work for him accomplishing his goals even when it seems that the forces working against him surely would prevail.
However, it is Madison’s ability to cultivate friendships and the respect of fellow Virginians, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, that Brookhiser uses as a theme throughout the book. Backed by extensive notes and references, Brookhiser brings to life Jefferson and Madison becoming friends when Jefferson is Governor of Virginia. The friendship lasts a lifetime.
It seems at first an unlikely friendship but the personalities of both men complement each other. Jefferson is the dreamer: “He was a prophet; he was also a bluejay, snatching at every shiny idea that caught his eye.”(3) And more importantly, “The man who had never had an older brother found one in Jefferson, along with unfailing stimulus and inspiration.”(4) The relationship of these men was not only as brothers, but also collegial and it is Madison and his calm deliberative manner that tempered the idealist in Jefferson.
In the turbulent years leading up to the constitutional convention of 1789, Madison endeavored to improve his political skill and expand his knowledge. His friend, Jefferson, was in France. Madison persuaded Jefferson to send him works of European authors regarding political systems. Madison was especially interested in republics. Jefferson was more than happy to comply and it can be surmised that he could not have been unaware that his friend was searching for answers to the Articles of Confederation.
“Jefferson had sent him more than two hundred books from Paris—Madison called them his ‘literary cargo’—which he spent the spring and summer of 1786 studying. Most of the books were the work of historians, from Demosthenes to recent European writers. This reading generated an essay, ‘Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies,’ which he would use over the next few years as a briefing paper for debates or published essays.”(5) Madison achieved his goal of a new constitution, but he had to sell the idea to the people.
“The Federalist” and “The Bill of Rights” are the most powerful chapters of Brookhiser’s book. The Federalist Papers, written in collaboration with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, show not only Madison’s devotion to the ideal of a self-governing people but also the affection Brookhiser has for the documents and the author. Brookhiser relates Madison’s reminiscence: “It frequently happened that whilst the printer was putting into type the [first] parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen, and to be furnished in time for the press.”(6) One can imagine Madison, Hamilton and Jay running to the printer with the finished sections of The Federalist…pesky deadlines.
Brookhiser does not elaborate on the relationship with Dolly. Perhaps their letters do more to show his love and affection for his wife more than any biographer. Numerous books and articles have been written about Dolly. She and Eliza Hamilton were the only founders’ wives present on the reviewing stand when the cornerstone of the Washington monument was laid in 1848. We can wonder what they had to say after the deaths of their husbands and the drama of the early years of the 19th century.
Madison’s greatest monument is the Constitution: “Many other people helped build constitutionalism, including enemies of his, and he would be the last person to deny his collaborators. But he played a major role.”(7) Additionally, the American form of politics for all its faults and eloquence is a gift from James Madison; as Brookhiser would say, “Like the Constitution, politics has changed since he died, but not in ways that would make it unrecognizable to him, or that make him foreign to us. It is all around us, in election years, and every day between elections as well.”(8)
James Madison is well written and gives the reader a real feeling for the complex man who did so much to shape our country.
1. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 17). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 24). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
3. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 29). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
4. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 30). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
5. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 47). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
6. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 64). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
7. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 249). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
8. Brookhiser, Richard (2011-09-27). James Madison (p. 250). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. • (2911 views)