The Magazine

Quietly Revolutionary

The achievement(s) of James Madison

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By PATRICK ALLITT
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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.

Montpelier, home of James Madison, Orange, Virginia

Montpelier, home of James Madison, Orange, Virginia

GEORGE G. MILFORD

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.