Book Review: James Madison
by Jeff Broadwater
University of North Carolina Press, 2012
Scrupulous and amiable historian Jeff Broadwater, whose biography of “forgotten” Founding Father George Mason is as entertaining a two-hour trot as any reader could want, has now written a similarly nimble book on the loathsome James Madison. Our author is a kindly and humorous craftsman, but there’s a bit of provocation in each of these books. Calling Mason “forgotten,” for instance, seems to thumb a nose in the general direction of the mighty Helen Hill Miller, the Washington doyenne who in 1938 wrote a very good biography of Mason – but maybe in that instance Broadwater was thinking ‘forgotten’ applied to our own history-aphasic modern day. Fair enough. But how does somebody write a biography of James Madison with only the most glancing mention of the monumental six-volume Madison biography by that wise and gentle soul, Iowa’s own Irving Brant? Those books are massive clearing-houses of primary Madison-investigation (and they’re marvellously written as well, as you’d expect from any graduate of the University of Iowa) – indispensable, one would think.
Braodwater largely dispenses with them, and he does a creditable job (although a lonely one and a slightly uncharitable one! Brant is very good company, and he, too, is forgotten by our present age) in his quick-paced and even-handed new biography of this mincing, diminutive, hypocritical, cowardly, petty, hair-splitting Founder. Madison’s posthumous fame rests on his active participation in the drafting of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and on his marriage to Dolley Madison, and on the fact that the War of 1812 happened on his presidential watch. He’s proven an improbably attractive subject for biographers over the centuries, and even though virtually all of those biographers, from his own time to the present, have been well aware of his shortcomings (“an indecisive bungler, an almost colossally inept president”), the verdicts on the man have been bafflingly positive. In his own day this might have made sense, since Madison was a mild, chirpy, funny kind of company in tavern and writing-room and post-carriage. But even then, John Adams could refer to the man’s “thousand faults and blunders” without meaning to say anything controversial, and Alexander Hamilton could issue the ultimate condemnation for a would-be statesman: “although this gentleman is a clever man, he is very little acquainted with the world.”
Broadwater is relatively modest in his claims, and that’s a blessing (Brant, whether in print or over friendly bottles of red wine, could never be dislodged from his suspicion that Madison was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). This new Madison biography is something of a model of moderation, and it finds that virtue in its subject:
At a minimum, it seems fair to say that, over the long arc of his public life, Madison pursed [sic] a political golden mean. He sought to reconcile majority rule with individual rights, to strike a balance between state and federal power, and to find an accommodation between the values of his native Virginia and the welfare of the new nation.
Given the balance of his book, Broadwater can’t be unaware of how much historical hooey there is in even so mild an assessment. Madison may have been a watch-dog of individual rights – but only if those rights were possessed by middle-aged white male property owners. Despite having a wife who was a powerful society hostess, Madison considered women to be null entities politically and intellectually (Abigail Adams overlooked his standard-issue condescension mainly because he could make her laugh, a miracle not many men could accomplish). And as president he allowed some of the first comprehensive and large-scale land-annexations to happen to the American Indian tribes in the Southeast (and pusillanimously ducked responsibility by claiming that mean old general Andrew Jackson often just didn’t listen to his orders to be nice to the “Red-skinned savages”) and had the gall to imply that dispossession would ultimately be good for the dispossessed. And Madison was an active, ruthlessly attentive plantation slave-owner, a whey-faced little worm who talked a good talk about the brotherhood of man and mercy for the poor colored folk who labored in his tobacco fields – but who was perfectly willing to chain, whip, or sell those folk if they disobeyed his brutal overseers or stopped turning a profit. As even Broadwater admits (his long concluding segments on Madison and slavery are his book’s best parts), “With enemies like Madison, slavery needed no defenders.”
Of Madison’s glaring incompetence during the War of 1812 Broadwater is as diplomatic as he can professionally be (is there a glimmer of irony in his offhand description of his subject as a “wartime president”? If so, our author is probably too much of a gentleman to admit it). Little mention is made of graft, greed, or gerrymandering. He settles instead for balanced if necessarily over-generous account of the United States’ fourth president, who referred to his own imminent death as merely “a change of mind” but who didn’t change his own mind sufficiently to free his slaves in his will, even though he’d repeatedly hinted he’d do just that. As a short one-volume work on Madison, Broadwater’s book doesn’t equal the witty eloquence of Richard Brookhiser’s similar book from a decade ago, but it’ll be a welcome addition to the library of any fan of the Founding Fathers – or, because such miserable creatures do exist, though we can scarcely understand why, any fan of James Madison himself.