By Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, $26.99, 304 pages
In the efforts to illuminate our nation's beginnings either via epic cable series or expertly written biographies - it seems James Madison, proverbial "Father of the Constitution," often gets pushed to the sidelines. Rarely is he given the attention of the other Founding Fathers: He lacked the vivacity of John Adams and failed to earn the reverence George Washington did. But as Richard Brookhiser's new biography demonstrates, he contributed as much to America's origins as his well-known peers, in similar and different ways.
In this short book, Mr. Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review and author of multiple works on thefounders and the nation's first tumultuous century, capably wastes no time describing the details of Madison's political career.
Madison embodied the career politician - America's first. "[He] is more than the Father of the Constitution. ... He is the Father of Politics. He lived in his head, but his head was always concerned with making his cherished thoughts real." It might prove difficult to name a modern-day equivalent to Madison. Mr. Brookhiser asserts that Madison and his closest friend and political confidant, Thomas Jefferson, would be Democrats today, and that the modern Republican Party is an entirely different organization.
Although the modern GOP wouldn't form for more than a century, Madison and Jefferson contributed to the Federalist Papers and proposed many of the ideas that conservatives embrace today. The assertion that Madison and Jefferson would have been Democrats might upset enthusiastic small-government conservatives who are keen on claiming the Founding Fathers as their own.
Mr. Brookhiser's portrayal of Madison boasts a steady stream of facts, figures, political schemes and maneuverings that history buffs will devour with an endless appetite (if they don't already know them). His prose is concise and readable. Still, the lay reader may wish for more of a narrative arc to Madison's story, which is told in mostly footnoted blow-by-blows of his political tactics.
Personal anecdotes and color make only occasional appearances. One wonders whether Mr. Brookhiser intended to depict Madison's political events rather than biographical details since Madison had earned a reputation for being a tactician, pulling strings while constructing a country's delicate foundation, rather than having an unusual upbringing or remarkable personality.
If the Constitution illustrates Madison the thinker and the conventions Madison the politician, his friendship with Jefferson provides insight into Madison the human being. This loyal and sincere friendship was, among the Founding Fathers, as unique as it was steadfast. Beyond the countless hours the two spent discussing all manner of political philosophy and ideology, they penned hundreds of letters that provide a window into the world of two great minds.
Opposite in temperament - Jefferson was quick to react and zealous; Madison appeared more measured and shrewd - the men were similar in intelligence, political goals and beliefs. "Jefferson [was] the philosopher and strategist, Madison the reality check and right-hand man. As time passed, they would, like an old couple, occasionally switch roles ... [b]ut the template would serve them for years."
Halfway through the book, we finally meet Dolley, the widow who would become Madison's wife. She was his perfect match. Whereas he was "learned and thoughtful ... silent, shy and stiff," she was full of charm, exuberance and "panache," a devoted wife and excellent hostess, perfect for White House years.
Mr. Brookhiser describes a surprising struggle that the aging Madison faced. Back at home at Montpelier, the former president failed to reconcile slavery with his public and private lives. How could he, an advocate of liberty, own 100 men? Still, for all of his brilliance and gravitas, he found no solution and did nothing. In the end, Madison simply ignored it and "hoped it would go away."
Madison was something of an 18th-century renaissance man, at least in terms of politics. He lived through a revolution, helped form the Constitution - playing a "triple role as a planner, framer and advocate" - helped breathe life into the Bill of Rights, structured the first political party in America, penned multiple Federalist papers and served as a wartime president. During his presidency he advocated ideas still blossoming today: "Religious liberty, freedom of the press, trade war as an instrument of policy." He also was a tireless champion of public opinion.
In the end, Mr. Brookhiser's "James Madison" captures the delicate, complex and important ideas Madison formed and the lengths he went to to see to fruition the events that have contributed to the success of the experiment of a republic. In a few pages, Mr. Brookhiser illustrates a portion of history that many may have yet to discover for themselves, though they should. It's too important not to.
• Nicole Russell has written for theAtlantic.com, Politico, National Review Online and the American Spectator.
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