BOOK REVIEW: ‘James Madison: A Life Reconsidered’

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JAMES MADISON: A LIFE RECONSIDERED
By Lynne Cheney
Viking, $36, 564 pages

James Madison, the fourth U.S. president, has been called the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Father of the Bill of Rights” by some historians. He co-authored the Federalist Papers, and helped broker the Louisiana Purchase. He organized the Democratic-Republican Party with Thomas Jefferson, which later evolved into the old Whig Party and modern Democratic Party.

With such an impressive curriculum vitae, we should know Madison’s accomplishments like the back of our hands. Yet, he’s one of the most misunderstood presidents of early American history. If it weren’t for his wife Dolley’s sweet tooth for ice cream, most Americans would know very little about him.

This perception doesn’t sit well with Lynne Cheney. The wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney is a respected author, academic and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow. Mrs. Cheney’s superb book, “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” helps “brush off cobwebs that have accumulated around his achievements, and seek a deeper understanding of the man who did more than any other to conceive and establish the nation we know.” In turn, she has redeemed Madison’s good name, political legacy and important presidency.

Madison was born on March 16, 1751, near Port Conway, Va. He was an energetic child in spite of febrile seizures, and “was also bookish, reading the Spectator at an early age.” He went to a boarding school “on the banks of the Mattaponi, where the Madison family had started in America,” and described his instructor, Donald Robertson, as “a man of extensive learning and a distinguished teacher.” His years at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) were “some of the happiest of his life.”

This future president made his mark early on with his intellectual prowess. During the Fifth Virginia Convention, Madison adjusted this sentence in Section 16 from “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion” to “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”

It was a “small alteration that accomplished a mighty change,” in Mrs. Cheney’s view, as it provided “legal recognition that freedom of conscience, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is a natural right.” The author describes this event as “the first example of the double nature of Madison’s genius. He was capable not only of deeply creative thinking, but of turning his thoughts into reality.”

He wrote George Washington’s presidential reply to a House of Representatives address that, of all things, he had also written. As Mrs. Cheney points out, “[n]ever again in the history of the United States would any politician’s voice reverberate as Madison’s did in the early days of the Republic.”

Madison was annoyed by John Adams’ “vanity.”

“He overflowed with self-importance, and that, Madison thought, would be his undoing.” He waged fierce battles with Patrick Henry and Alexander Hamilton as the Constitution was being created. He was friendly with Benjamin Franklin, and “had the sad task of memorializing him and moving that House members wear ‘the customary badge of mourning for one month.’”

Madison’s presidency had its difficult moments. During the War of 1812, he witnessed an unsteady balance of “U.S. victories at sea” with “dreadful performances on land” against Great Britain and Canada. Yet he “would show himself to be their steady leader” and surely rejoiced with the nation after the Battle of New Orleans.

While there was (and still is) some question of what this war truly accomplished, Madison and his wife “basked in acclaim … its citizens celebrated the man who had led them through perilous times to peace and prosperity and the woman who had already created a legend all her own.”

As expected, Madison and Jefferson’s friendship plays an integral role throughout the book.

“Even before he met him,” Mrs. Cheney writes, “Madison was learning how maddening Jefferson could be — and how brilliant.” They were both “reserved,” “loved chess,” “shared disorders that sometimes disrupted their lives,” “hated slavery,” and had a deep love for Virginia. Jefferson was the “more serious thinker” who left “behind some of the most uplifting prose ever written,” whereas Madison’s “genius showed itself in the dismantling of conventional wisdom and the creation of new concepts.” Yet, both men “encouraged, defended, and had a profound effect on each other — and on the nation they helped build.”

This is the James Madison we always should have known about. Thanks to Lynne Cheney’s well-researched book, it’s the James Madison we will now always know.

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