Book Review: James Madison

JamesMadisonRBby 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. • (2928 views)

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21 Responses to Book Review: James Madison

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I have Brookhiser’s bio of Hamilton, but the biography I have of Madison is by Ralph Ketcham (I have a lot of biographies of the Founding Fathers, including less well-known ones such as Robert Morris and Nathanael Greene). I also have a copy of The Federalist Papers as well as Glenn Beck’s modernization of several chapters and a couple of collections of anti-federalist writing.

    An interesting take on the Madison monument (i.e., the Constitution), both making it and what’s in it (albeit from a liberal point-of-view at times) is Eric Lurio’s Cartoon Guide to the Constitution of the United States. It includes many interesting little sidelights (such as the dispute between Madison and Pinckney over the significance of the latter’s plan) and a quiz with some interesting questions. (Q: Why did the effort to impeach Buchanan fail? A: Incompetence isn’t an impeachable offense. Q: What was U. S. Grant’s middle name? A: Hiram.)

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That sounds like an interesting book, Steve. I read (well, I read about 2/3 of it) a biography of Madison last year. It may have been the one by Sydney Howard Gay which is available at I forget.

    It was a rather frank one that I might sum up as: Madison did a lot of great work leading up to the Constitutional Convention. But by then he had shot his wad. He was an ineffectual president and, along with Jefferson, was a partisan hack who actively worked to undermine Washington. And it’s not that one can’t disagree with one’s president. But they did it in a sneaky and underhanded way.

    I came away not all that impressed with Madison. Whatever the faults of Adams and Hamilton, it seems that there existed in the tight configuration of Jefferson/Madison the kind of uber-paranoid politics we see from the Left today. I don’t mean that they were Leftists. But their politics was a bit unhinged. They didn’t just disagree with Adams and Hamilton, but hyperventilated these disagreements into truly the politics of hysteria.

    I admit, I’m partial to John Adams. And whatever his faults, he was a decent man. And he certainly was a man who time after time took Jefferson under his wing but was eventually repaid with disingenuous and bitter partisanship. Although Adams is known as the man with the temper, going by David McCullough’s book, “John Adams,” it would seem that his tempers were of the moment and he harbored no deep grudges. He (and Abigail) worked to eventually patch things up with Jefferson. But I’m not at all sure that vice versa would have ever occurred.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Sedition Act has to be considered a serious strike against Adams, who not only signed it into law but enforced it in a partisan fashion (though it’s hard to see how it could have been enforced fairly anyway). He was indeed a good man for the most part, but when he slipped he slipped very badly. (And given the law, and how it was enforced, some Republican paranoia was quite reasonable.) Interestingly, Hamilton opposed the law (and Jefferson didn’t have entirely clean hands; he favored using state action against those he considered libelers of political leaders).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I have to agree with Brad’s characterization of Jefferson and Madison except I do believe Jefferson should be considered a Leftist. He was, after all, enamored of the French Revolution and predated Trotsky on the idea of, if not perpetual, at least frequent revolution. You know, that little thing about “the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Furthermore, he was very much a theoretical revolutionary. Pontificating on how others should live, but not following his own admonitions. He has this in common with today’s Left.

        There is no doubt that Washington was vastly greater in character and honor than the rest. And as far as sheer I.Q., I believe Hamilton stood above them all.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          That last conclusion is an easy one. Lee once observed that political and military leadership talents are rarely combined in one person, and noted that such exceptions as Frederick the Great and Napoleon were also notable tyrants. When Washington’s name came up, he said that Washington was unique, and there’s more than a little truth to it. He was the man who enabled America to become America.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            “That last conclusion is an easy one.”

            It should be to educated Americans, but there is an ever growing dearth of such animals. In any case, I like to take any opportunity to praise the greatest man in, at least, the last 1,000 years.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Adams was wrong about the Sedition Act. But he was completely right about building a Navy, weaponing up, and staying the hell out of supporting the French Revolution and/or the international conflicts France was engaged in (with England, I believe). That was a huge issue at the time, and Adams and Jefferson were on diametrical opposite sides (with Adams ultimately having been shown, at least to my mind, to have taken the right stand).

          God, how things never change. Jefferson was naive and was a direct reflection of Obama who saw an “Arab Spring” in Egypt just as Jefferson saw a “French Spring” in the bloody French Revolution. Jefferson was emotionally committed to the freaky French while the “monarchist,” Adams, thought that our future was more with the English.

          Don’t get me wrong. I still much admire Jefferson. But it’s simply true that these great people had their pluses and minuses. The left/right battle isn’t quite a new thing.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            The left/right dichotomy sprang up in revolutionary France and was based on which part of the assembly was held by which groups. By the standards of the time, Jefferson would have qualified as leftist, though his political ideology bears no resemblance to. that of the modern left. That comparison of the “Arab spring” to the French Revolution (especially once the Jacobins took over) is quite apt.

            Note that Adams (like Washington) was sensibly reluctant to fight an unaffordable war, but when one was forced on him (the Quasi-war with France), he held his own against a major power and then made peace on favorable terms as soon as he could — to the great disappointment of Hamilton and his faction of the Federalists. This may have cost Adams his re-election (73 to 65 in the Electoral College).

            But Jefferson did finally put paid to the pretensions of the Barbary pirates in the Tripolitanian War, a task completed once and for all by Monroe just over a decade later. This was certainly more effective than Madison’s ineffective conduct of the War of 1812.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, signing into law the Sedition Act is a black mark on Adams’ record. But I get a kick out of how the Jeffersonian Republicans tried to make out Adams, in particular, and the Federalists, in general, as closet monarchists.

        It seems to me that Jefferson/Madison were that era’s MSNBC. To disagree with Adams, Hamilton, or Washington about policy differences is one thing. But it bothers me that these great men had such a sleazy, pedestrian instinct to much of their politics.

        It’s very much true that anything we are seeing to day in politics can be written off as “nothing new under the sun.”

  3. steve lancaster says:

    Jefferson, I believe, was always torn between the philosophy of yeomen farmer and a capable central government. Before he took office in 1801 he was in a congressional meeting attended by Eli Whitney. Whitney was attempting to convince congress without much success, that his new manufacturing process of interchangeable parts for muskets could be successful. Whitney dumped a box of musket locks on the table and asked those present, including the President Elect, to assemble a working piece.
    Jefferson was enthralled with the interchangeable part concept and when he took office a few weeks later Whitney was given a contract.

    Weather Whitney was the first to promote interchangeable parts is not the issue, what
    Whitney created in New Haven was the first machine tool factory, tools to make tools, that would bring the US into the front of the industrial revolution.

    When Jefferson was in Paris he made friends with a third son of the DuPont family and when Jefferson returned to the US his friend followed bringing all of the DuPont family knowledge of making gunpowder with him, again Jefferson promoted a businessman with an idea and the US never had to scramble for gunpowder something very handy in 1812.

    When Jefferson illegally purchased Louisiana he sent out explorers not only to the NW but also into the Arkansas and Red River valleys. Jefferson gave William Dunbar and George Hunter the job of defining the southern borders of the Purchase.

    Jefferson’s intent was to fill the purchase territory with independent yeomen farmers who would provide a stable center for the eventual settlement which Jefferson thought would take at least 100 years.

    My point is that Jefferson was a complicated some would say difficult man to pigeon hole. He opposed war yet, was personally responsible for creating an industry that would thrive on it. He believed in small government yet used his power to expand the size of the US by 100%. He thought settling the west would take at least 100 years yet by the 100th anniversary of his purchase the nation was coast to coast towns, cities, and booming factories.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      “My point is that Jefferson was a complicated some would say difficult man to pigeon hole.”

      I don’t see anything particularly complicated. I think he was a typical Leftist type of elite who talks a good game, in romantic terms, but did not practice what he preached. When he was not in power he was extremely critical of the expansion of “manufactures” as laid out by Hamilton. But, shazam, once in power he favored them. He loved the yeoman farmer, but lived on the back of hundreds of slaves. Slaves who held down wages for the freeman. He died, in debt due to his rather extravagant lifestyle, and his slaves had to be sold to cover the debt as opposed to being freed as were Washington’s.

      No, I think Jefferson was typical of the pseudo-liberal types who talk a good game, but when push comes to shove, i.e. it comes down to power and money, they will reliably go for the power and money.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I really like Jefferson’s basic and innate instinct of a limited government with the states central to the life of the people, to the extent that government should ever be such a thing as “central.” When he took office, to the best of my recollection, he axed a number of judicial offices. I applaud any president who looks at anything and, 1) asks if the Constitution authorizes it or 2), asks if it is just governmental feature-creep, if you will, and should be redacted.

      And regarding Jefferson’s almost vulgar “blood of patriots” quote, it’s true that we need men (and women) who are willing to take risks in the face of the status quo. The tendency of men is, well, to be RINOs and apologize for bad things simply because they exist at the moment. Our country needed both Adams and Jefferson. We needed both Hamilton and Madison. We needed the spirit and the practicality/sobriety.

      But all of them being mere men, they had their faults. I think Adams was the most practical of them all. But certainly God (or someone) put Madison and Jefferson where they needed to be when it came time to ground this country in something other than “hope and change” or mob rule. They both fulfilled their functions brilliantly.

      And so did Adams. Adams, perhaps more than any of them, was the instigator of revolution rather than reconciliation with Britain. But he was also a principled man. Yes, hot-headed at times personally (and, keep in mind, some people don’t suffer fools gladly). But not hot-headed when it came to his ideology. He really set much of the tempo for the mind and hearts of people when he defended the British soldiers of the so-called “Boston Massacre” which perhaps is better described as a mob attacking British soldiers. And the British soldiers (all of them, I believe) were acquitted, in large part thanks to Adams. And he came out of that affair not as a traitor but with a great deal of prestige because of his sane and principled stance.

      Washington is the father of our country. This can’t be underrated. But Adams was hugely influential in regards to the tone and tenor. This would not be a mob-run revolution. Imagine, if you will, if the more naive Jefferson, who waxed eloquent regarding the bloodbath of the French Revolution, set that tone. One has to admit there were substantial differences between the American and French Revolution, and there were specific reasons why this is so. Adams is, to my mind, one of those reasons.

      That’s an interesting bit of history regarding Whitney and Jefferson. I didn’t know that. One thing I love about Jefferson is his affinity for invention and gadgets. That part of him was 100% true-blue American. He was always looking for ways to improve things.

      And Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana was huge in regards to shaping this country…much for the better, I would say. And it just goes to show that there is ideology, in theory, and then there are the realities of being in office. I have no problem with Jefferson purchasing this land even though there is ostensibly nothing in the Constitution that allowed for this, as the saying goes.

      Jefferson, like most people (large or small, great or unknown) was a mix of things. For him, the agrarian way of life was the epitome of America to him, and is no doubt why he so disliked the more industrial-minded Hamilton. But including the points you made, Steve, as well as Jefferson’s love for invention, he certainly wasn’t a home-body who just wanted to farm. That, perhaps, might better describe Washington. We probably would have heard very little of this man if Britain hadn’t precipitated the revolution via their gratuitously heavy-handed handling of the colonies. He would have been a fairly rich Virginia plantation man of some local renown. He obviously loved soldiering, but he also apparently loved nothing more than tinkering around in Mount Vernon.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I think one reason for the difference between the American and French Revolutions is that the British weren’t as ochlocratic as the French; note that the British restored the monarchy, unlike the French (though they did have it restored for a while by the rest of Europe). Then, too, we’ve discussed previously the difference in goals (and especially the degree of radicalism, though in the case of the French this wasn’t clear before 1792).

        As for the Whitney incident, I recall that in grade school we had a short piece about this written in play form, with Whitney saying that he did have the parts needed for the muskets even if he had no completed muskets yet, and one of Jefferson’s aides putting together musket after musket with parts selected at random. I have read that something of the sort really did happen.

      • steve lancaster says:

        If you visit the library of Congress it used to be possible to examine the libraries of Jefferson and Adams. The differences are unique. Jefferson’s books are almost pristine, not that they were unread but they showed a high degree of respect Jefferson had for the printed word.

        Adams books, on the other hand, are a mess. Pages are dog-eared passages underlined and Adams called some of the authors names that you would not expect coming from a “founding father”. Adams often carries on a gloss conversation with the authors with challenges to their arguments; the word fool is often used even when Adams was in general agreement with the author. Its no wonder the rest of the founders found him difficult.

        One constant in both libraries, Montesquieu, Hooker, Smith and lots of histories of Rome and Greece.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Adams is an interesting character. Obnoxious to almost everyone except his wife, he seems to have had some sort of complex. Whether this was due to his looks or not, who can say. He had to have the last say on everything.

          I believe he was almost insanely jealous of Washington for a number of reasons. When one reads some of his correspondence and learns about many of his political actions, both in the US and while overseas, it is clear he really was a spiteful little man. I have always thought that he signed the Alien and Sedition acts, at least partially, out of spite.

          I have always thought Adams reached his apex and did his greatest service from about 1774-1777. The most important single thing he did was nominate Washington to be the Commander of the Continental Army. This was before Washington’s fame, success and character overshadowed poor John.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Yes, it’s interesting that the man who proposed Washington as overall commander later supported the Conway Cabal to replace him with Gates. But I would also credit Adams with being willing to end the Quasi-War in 1800 even though it probably hurt him politically.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              One of the reasons the Quasi War took place was because the Congress had sold off the country’s warships after the treaty with Britain which formally ended the Revolution. Thus the country had no Navy to speak of, leaving our merchant shipping open to capture by the French with complete impunity. Only after Adams was authorized to purchase and build a number of frigates were we able to counter the French acts of war.

              This building up for war and then decreasing drastically after war has been a pretty constant theme in US history. We always seem to go overboard in the one direction or the other. And today we are going in the direction of weakness. Note Hegel’s proposals.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Much truth to that, but the Navy at least wasn’t reduced either after the Quasi-War (which is why we could fight the Tripolitanian Bashaw) or after the defeat of the Barbary pirates (which proved very fortunate in 18120.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I once read a book on biblioholism (having a book on that subject can be considered an example of it) which gave Jefferson as an example. He actually had to sell off his library at one point because of his financial difficulties, but later rebuilt it. So some of that good condition probably resulted from not having the books as long.

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    For those who might be interested, TCM is just now starting the musical 1776, in which Adams is arguably the leading hero (and which presents a perfect attack on New England hypocrisy in the song “Molasses to Rum to Slaves”).

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