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Book Review: James & Dolley Madison

By (February 8, 2014) No Comment

James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power CoupleJamesandDolley cover
by Bruce Chadwick
Prometheus Books, 2014

Prolific author Bruce Chadwick’s latest book, James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple offers no definition of its signature term, and how could it? In the 20th-century slang-soup from which it originated, the term “power couple” referred to a public marriage in which the man and the woman doubled each other’s clout and prestige by virtue of the fact that each enjoyed their own autonomous power-base – hence, an inapplicable description of any 18th-century marriage. If instead Chadwick intends some vague evocation of two well-known people who happen to be married to each other, he’s on only marginally firmer ground; in terms of commanding social hosting, Martha Washington well preceded Dolley Madison, and in terms of political activism, Abigail Adams eclipsed her. Unmoored from historical reality, the term starts to look suspicious – an anachronism tossed up to attract the attention of the Twitterati.

It would be nice to report that such a move belies the serious scholarship found elsewhere in James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple, but alas.

Diminutive and intensely intellectual Madison, fourth President of the United States and author of its Bill of Rights, has been the focus of a great heaps of first-rate scholarship, and even his somewhat flamboyant wife Dolley has received her fair share of biographical attention. That the British rashly provoked the War of 1812 on Madison’s watch has added the unlikely allure of military history to the records of his 1809-1817 administration. Hints that this rich material might not be well-served by James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple crop up everywhere in the book, on almost every subject. Take this little paragraph on the British motives for the war:

There was another reason, though – revenge. England continued to smart from its catastrophic defeat in the American Revolution. The empire had lost the war to George Washington and his armies and also been forced into fighting a far-ranging and very costly world war for eight years. The American Revolution had cost Britain nearly twenty thousand solider and sailor lives and tens of millions of dollars. The British had been embarrassed. It was a defeat that would be remembered throughout hundreds of years of their history. They never forgot the debacle.

There isn’t much that’s precisely right about that account, and the idea that the British in 2014 are still seething with embarrassed resentment over the War of 1812 is actually wrong enough to be funny. If you were to ask a typical vacant-eyed Arsenal chav if he’s still bovvered by the War of 1812, he’d immediately throw up on you – but more in sorrow than in anger.

The war – and Madison’s stubborn, valiant efforts to avoid it – features prominently in Chadwick’s book, naturally enough, and it gets him suitably worked up:

All of America’s diplomacy had failed. Politics had failed. History had failed. America was right back where it started, and Britain would continue to bully her. A corner had been turned, though. Now Madison and all Americans saw the British as duplicitous. They were not only never going to change their policy but also would slap down anyone, even their own minister, who even suggested that they might.

A summer darkness fell over James Madison’s White House.

Impossible to know what he means by “history had failed,” but the minister in this case, a studious idiot by the name of D. M. Erskine, hadn’t just “suggested” that the British Navy’s indiscriminate practice of stopping American vessels and dragging American sailors into “pressed” service should stop at once – he’d declared it stopped, unilaterally, with no authorization whatsoever from London. He shouldn’t be held up as the one brave firefly flickering against the summer darkness falling on James Madison’s or anybody else’s White House.

In the hostilities that followed, Dolley Madison deserves the thanks of the nation, one supposes, for having the presence of mind to save the full-length George Washington portrait from the mansion right before it was occupied and then burned by the invading British. Chadwick inflates this quick-wittedness to veritable Gloria Steinem dimensions – he pretty much has to, or his whole scheme of a dual-biography collapses under the combined weight of Madison’s significance and Dolley’s lack of it. Our author works hard to link his power couple on grounds of sympathy and understanding, and it’s never for a moment convincing:

The president listened to many people on canals and highways, and one of them was Dolley. One thing everybody noticed about President Madison was the way that he listened to his wife on everything she had to say, and how he listened in conversations with other women. Most men in the colonial era saw women as second-class citizens, fit for child rearing, housekeeping, and little else. James Madison did not. His years of marriage to his wife had changed his mind about women. He wrote an educator that “the capacity of the female mind for studies of the highest order cannot be doubted; having been sufficiently illustrated by its works of genius, of erudition and of science.”

That quoted bit is from a letter Madison wrote in 1821 to Albert Picket. The rest of the paragraph has no documentation and precious little reason for existing. What “most men” in the colonial era thought about women is probably unknowable, but in any case, what difference does it make? Most men in colonial America thought the colonies should have remained part of the British empire; most men in colonial America couldn’t write the U.S. Constitution in a week; most men in the colonial era couldn’t write their own names. Comparing Madison to a troop of baboons would be about as illuminating. His actual peers in education and upbringing certainly did not view women as “fit for child rearing, housekeeping, and little else.” Madison listened courteously to his wife and other women, yes, but Madison listened courteously to almost everybody (sometimes even to his personal slaves, the sensitive soul); false equivalences don’t add any real power to this couple.

Still, that caution about documentation sounds a worrying note, and that worry continues throughout James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple. There’s plenty of evocative prose here, but long stretches of it aren’t grounded on much of anything outside the author’s own imagination. Take the passage about the yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia (Chadwick for some reason capitalizes the disease; maybe he was sick with The Sniffles when he wrote that part):

Yellow Fever struck the city of Philadelphia, the largest in America, in the quiet, lazy summer of 1793. It arrived suddenly, without warning, as the Yellow Fever always did in colonial America, and attacked voraciously. Thousands died. Medical experts estimated that nearly five thousand people, or close to 20 percent of the residents of the community, were killed in the epidemic. So many people died each day, and their deaths were so well-publicized around the nation, that betting-obsessed gamblers wagered tens of thousands of dollars on the final death toll, turning the Yellow Fever casualties into a macabre lottery.

Many people fled Philadelphia, traveling on horseback, by carriage, in wagons, or by whatever form of transportation they could find, led by President George Washington. The president was not afraid of medical catastrophe. He had not only stayed in the army when smallpox struck his troops, and parts of the country, in the winter of 1776-1777, but also invented a new way to vaccinate his troops, and thousands of civilians, by eliminating the preinoculation “rest” period of two weeks, long believed necessary by the medical profession, and inoculating people at once. Washington had been struck by smallpox at age nineteen and survived. He still had pockmarks on his face from the attack. The general told his soldiers what he wanted to do and supervised town meetings, held in halls, churches, and large barns, to explain the new procedure to civilians who lived near his winter camp, and other winter camps in America. His innovative practice worked; few of those inoculated right away died in the epidemic. Many who were not inoculated perished, and Washington and his soldiers had to bury them in grey village churchyards. George Washington had been praised throughout America, and in Europe, for his efforts and successes. The medically adept president did not feel he was any match for the tidal wave of Yellow Fever that swept over Philadelphia in 1793, though, and he fled the metropolis with his wife, Martha, and his servants to Mount Vernon, on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia, hundreds of miles away.

If you turn to the back of Chadwick’s book and look for his documentation of all this, you’ll find … nothing at all. The summer of 1793 was quiet and lazy? Medical experts (at the time? Doctors, he means?) estimated that nearly five thousand people died? “Betting-obsessed gamblers” (you know, as opposed to the gamblers who are indifferent to betting) not only bet on the final death-toll but bet tens of thousands of dollars, a sizable chunk of all the money in the Western world that year? Washington invented a new method of smallpox vaccination? He held a series of public meetings about it? There are actual figures attesting to its medical success (aside from Chadwick’s slightly imprecise “few” and “many”)? He personally helped to bury the dead in “grey village churchyards”? You’ll have to take Chadwick’s word for all of it – he provides no sources to check.

Worse than its breathless prose and blatant attention-scamming, it’s this slipshod scholarship that’s the main weakness of James & Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple. Chadwick got his PhD in American history from Rutgers University in 1994, and right at the start of his book he tells us, “This book took a lot of time to research and write.” But his “select” bibliography (a wormy term on its face and far too commonly used in books of this sort; what’s a “select” bibliography? Either you consulted a source or you didn’t. If you didn’t, it’s not part of your bibliography; if you did, it is; if you did and it’s not listed in your “select” bibliography, you’re a plagiarist) lists 130 books (including multi-volume biographies and correspondences). Of those 130 books, 106 are histories and biographies written by others (whether from primary sources or not – you’d have to check each book to find out). And of those 130 books, 17 were published after the year 2000. So not only does Chadwick’s book not reflect the latest scholarship about 18th-century “power” politics, it also doesn’t reflect much curiosity about that or any other aspect of his subject. 130 books, 80 percent of which are secondary sources? That’s not “a lot of time and research” – that’s one busy month at the Jersey City Public Library.

His goal was clearly to tell a fascinating story in the most vivid terms possible. The result is a book that arch bookworm James Madison would very likely have scorned. Dolley might have liked it, though – at least the parts about her.