If you’re in your 20s or 30s and still living with Mom and Dad, remind them, next time they nag you about getting your own place, that James Madison wrote the Constitution while still living off his parents. Note, however, that this retort will only be effective if you, too, have created, explained, and made operational a political system durable enough to thrive for more than two centuries and flexible enough to accommodate the shift from agrarian republic to world superpower.
Most of the Founding Fathers have enjoyed the monster-biography treatment in recent years, and Lynne Cheney’s new book on Madison adds more weight to the groaning shelf. She claims he’s been underappreciated recently by comparisons with flashier contemporaries like Alexander Hamilton and more romantic figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Outside the world of political scientists, that may be true—though there’s little chance of Madison’s name ever falling into obscurity.
There wasn’t much excitement in his life, so it is very much to Cheney’s credit that James Madison: A Life Reconsidered is so consistently engrossing. It’s an almost week-by-week account of Madison’s work in the Continental Congress, the Virginia Assembly, the Constitutional Convention, the House of Representatives, the State Department, and the White House, enriched by lengthy letters to and from the most famous Americans of his era. Madison is the ideal subject for any writer who wants to show what happens when big ideas meet practical politics in an era of great upheaval.
Madison was deeply learned in political philosophy, but never lost touch with what was actually happening in the new states. His achievement was to transform the best elements of republican theory into a working system, persuade his larger-than-life contemporaries that it was viable, then navigate it through the shoals of its early crises. You get a vivid sense of his central role when you learn that, early in 1789, after bringing the Constitutional Convention to a successful conclusion, writing the fullest account of it, publicizing it in the Federalist, and persuading his skeptical fellow Virginians in convention to accept it, he then hurried north to New York, wrote President Washington’s first Inaugural Address and the House of Representatives’ reply to it—and even Washington’s letter of thanks for that reply! He then introduced the very first item of business in the House (how to raise money to pay off accumulated national debts), dominated the ensuing debate, and took time in the evenings to draft the Bill of Rights.
Contemporaries took notice. He was still in his early 20s and only recently out of Princeton when the crisis of the Revolution began. From that moment on, he lived and breathed politics, learning at a phenomenal rate and quickly drawing favorable notice from domestic and foreign observers. A fellow Virginian wrote that “he has astonished mankind and has by means perfectly constitutional become almost a dictator.” Similarly, the French minister to the new republic, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, described him in 1783 as “the man of the soundest judgment in the Congress.” On the other hand, he never suffered fools gladly and had no small talk. Martha Bland, a more frivolous contemporary, described him as a “gloomy, stiff creature,” adding that he was “the most unsociable creature in existence.”
Short in stature, unprepossessing in appearance, a workaholic, plain-spoken and typically unemotional, he suffered from a form of epilepsy. This affliction kept him out of the Army when the Revolutionary War began and dogged him throughout his career, especially at moments of great stress. His many friends and admirers cautioned him against working himself to an early grave, though he outlived all the other Founders, surviving until 1836 to die at the age of 85. The epilepsy—regarded as demonic by some superstitious contemporaries—was probably the reason his first love, Kitty Floyd, declined a proposal of marriage.
Kitty’s refusal was a cloud with a silver lining, however, because it left open the way for Madison to woo and marry Dolley Payne Todd, who arrives in these pages like a splash of primary color in the monochrome, all-male world of politics. She was a Quaker, the daughter of one of the very first Americans to free his slaves on principle. Tall, lively, attractive, and still only in her mid-20s at the time of their meeting, she was already a widow and mother.
Madison was a hardheaded 42-year-old by then, but he briefly let himself get quite carried away. He instructed a go-between to tell Dolley that “he thinks so much of you during the day that he has lost his tongue; at night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep a-calling on you to relieve his flame, for he burns to such an excess that he will shortly be consumed.” She accepted his proposal, even though it meant being expelled from her Quaker congregation and even though, ironically, it meant returning to life on a Virginia slave plantation. Their happy marriage lasted 42 years.
Madison, like most of the Founders, dreaded the divisive spirit of party politics, or “faction.” How to prevent or mitigate its evil effects was the subject of his famous tenth Federalist essay. In the 1790s, nevertheless, he joined Jefferson in creating the Democratic-Republican party after recognizing the incompatibility between their shared vision for the republic’s future and that of Treasury secretary Hamilton. Hamilton’s Federalists on the one side and Madison’s Democratic-Republicans on the other found it hard to admit that they were creating parties, which both men opposed on principle, until it was impossible to deny. Having admitted it, each then supported polemical editors in the rough-and-tumble newspaper wars of the 1790s. Madison’s man was his old Princeton friend Philip Freneau, editor of the National Gazette.
Cheney sees the preservation of political balance as the central issue of Madison’s career. Dismayed that the republic seemed to be breaking up in the mid-1780s, Madison worked to create a stronger federal government to which the states would be subordinate. In opposition to the Federalists of the 1790s, by contrast, he feared an over-mighty federal government, which made him join Jefferson in asserting states’ rights in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. He opposed the creation of a national bank in the 1790s, but later, as president during the War of 1812, came to believe that one was necessary.
Where most historians have understood him to have changed his views over time, Cheney argues for an underlying consistency to which each of these responses was a pragmatic attempt at preserving the balance. He was, however, willing, when opportunity knocked, to deviate from strict adherence to principle. President Jefferson agonized over the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, especially as he had, until then, been outspokenly opposed to bold federal initiatives. Madison, the secretary of state who helped accomplish the purchase, was on hand to soothe the president’s conscience.
The worst moments of Madison’s presidential career came during the War of 1812. A scattering of naval victories could not compensate for successive defeats on land and the feebleness of generals such as William Hull, who surrendered Fort Detroit without firing a shot. When the British Army approached Washington in August 1814, Madison rode out to Bladensburg, Maryland, to oversee his Army’s positions. A determined British advance soon routed the Americans, who, joined by the president and his family, fled through the streets of the capital. Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans a few months later helped restore the government’s prestige, as did Madison’s determination to rebuild the badly burned city of Washington in order to keep it as the national capital.
Is there a connection between the distinguished subject of this book and its distinguished author? A biography in the heroic mode from Lynne Cheney inevitably brings to mind the controversy she sparked in the early 1990s over what American history is, what it is for, and how it should be taught. In 1992, when she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she commissioned the writing of a set of history standards to be followed grade-by-grade in schools nationwide. When, two years later, she saw what her committee had actually come up with, the draft struck her as far too negative about America’s achievements: It was un-heroic, self-critical, and irksomely politically correct. She denounced it in a famous Wall Street Journal op-ed, whose closing words were: “We are a better people than the National Standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it.”
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered lives up to the idea that we should recognize and celebrate our national heroes. It also fits with her claim (made in the same article) that the Constitution stands front and center among America’s greatest achievements. She boldly compares Madison to Mozart and Einstein and declares that Madison, “more than any other individual, [was] responsible for creating the United States of America in the form we know it today.”
Still, that is not an outlandish claim. She backs it up with persuasive evidence, avoids anachronisms, and makes no effort to intrude contemporary political concerns into her narrative. Readers unaware of her identity would never suspect that Lynne Cheney had been, for most of her adult life, a close witness to the political battles of her own era.
Patrick Allitt, professor of history at Emory, is the author, most recently, of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History.