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James Madison

By Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, 2011

Richard Brookhiser is sort of a rock star, at least as far as historians go. He has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Real Time with Bill Maher and has been a guest multiple times on the Colbert Report. He’s also participated in numerous documentaries – many of which appear regularly on The History Channel (or did, in the days before Pawn Stars and Big Shrimpin’ marathons were played on loop). He’s made offerings to blue-collar, armchair historians (What Would the Founders Do?) and business executives (George Washington on Leadership), gaining access to such diverse markets through an easy style engineered to ensure broad appeal. His works are relatively short, unprepossessing general surveys written in a casual vernacular, open to sardonic humor.

The impression he makes in those TV appearances is hard to shake. As I read his newest biography, James Madison, it proved nearly impossible not to hear the narrative in his dry upstate New York accent, possessed of a coolness bordering on disinterest, though with an ever-present wit — not unlike a college professor tolerating a sanctimonious student’s rambling disquisition just so he could deliver a withering quip: “Sounds like somebody’s been drinking the bong water again, young man.”

In James Madison, Brookhiser gives us a short survey, weighing in at only 250 pages, of a man who served at the highest levels of U.S. government for nearly forty years. Perhaps the brevity is Madison’s doing. Though he was a man of letters like most of the Founders, he was more cautious and purposeful about the substance of his paper trail than the temperamental Hamilton or the effusive Jefferson. Indeed, to paraphrase Brookhiser, Hamilton was a rocket, Jefferson was a kite, Madison was a ballast.

Madison, like many of the early leaders of the American Republic, was a man for the people rather than a man of the people. His father was a successful planter who held several important local positions such as justice of the peace and Anglican vestryman. James was the oldest of twelve children, and in a metaphor that will ring true to watchers of Capitol Hill, Brookhiser credits this experience as one that taught Madison to play well with others, noting that “herding small children is good training for certain aspects of legislative work.”

The future revolutionary and president grew up insulated and comfortable. His first real taste of colonial disaffection came while on holiday in 1774. He was visiting a friend in Philadelphia when news of the Benjamin Franklin’s famous “dressing down” before Parliament reached the city. While there, he also learned that the British had closed the Port of Boston, placing Massachusetts under martial law. Then he received news from home; after declaring its support for Massachusetts, the Virginia House of Burgesses was dissolved. With the world appearing to collapse around him, Madison raced home and, along with his father, joined what could best be called the shadow government. Here Brookhiser describes the new paradigm:

Virginia’s elected a convention to meet in Wiliambsburg, the capital, in place of their legislature, and similar bodies sprang up throughout the colonies. They were protorevolutionary institutions, outside the law, but in Virginia they were run by local gentry…these conventions sent delegates to a continental congress in Philadelphia, to coordinate American strategy. Meanwhile, local radical organizations sprang up as well to oversee retaliatory boycotts against Britain… Orange County elected a Committee of Safety, chaired by Madison’s father… Madison, age twenty-three, was the junior member.

This was the beginning of career in public service that stretched (with only brief interruptions) to 1817. By 1779, Madison had climbed from junior committeeman to Virginia’s Governor’s Council, where he met a man who would change his life and with whom he’d collaborate over the course of the next forty years: Governor Thomas Jefferson. The two had much in common, such as a love of books and (eventually) the French. But what made them perhaps the most productive duo in American political history was their differences; each lent the other something they lacked. According to Brookhiser:

Jefferson had a gift of seeing views and making leaps. He was a prophet; he was also a bluejay, snatching at every shiny idea that caught his eye… Madison’s place was to give Jefferson the benefit of his judgment. Madison was often more practical, sometimes more temperate, and Jefferson knew he needed access to these qualities.

This particular friendship would only later yield its fruit; it would be preceded by two other collaborations of distinction.

In the 1780’s James Madison and Alexander Hamilton forged a bond out of mutual frustration with the Confederation Congress. For these two men, as for many others, the final straw for that institution came when tiny Rhode Island derailed a strong national reform movement by vetoing a measure that would have established an impost allowing the national government to raise revenue through import duties.

This defeat reduced the Confederation to a moribund paper-association of independent states. When it came to deciding how commerce and navigation on shared rivers would be regulated, the national government, such as it was, could not legally arbitrate the matter. This is how representatives from Virginia and Maryland came to meet in 1785: to try and hash out a usage agreement for the Chesapeake and the Potomac River. The most important decision reached at the conference, held at George Washington’s home, was an agreement that a larger meeting, comprising all of the states, needed to be held.

The Annapolis Convention was supposed to be the answer to the calls arising from the Mount Vernon Conference. When Madison arrived in 1786 to represent Virginia, he found only a dozen representatives from a handful of states. Among them was Alexander Hamilton. The two decided to capitalize on the situation and produced a report (issued by the convention) petitioning the National Congress in Philadelphia to follow up with a second attempt the next year.

The following summer, Madison was again among the first delegates to arrive in Philadelphia, and he arrived armed with a plan. Madison’s idea, the Virginia Plan, was nothing short of revolutionary. Not only did it scrap completely the Articles of Confederation but it also rejected much of the underlying theoretical foundations of that charter. In place of the Articles, Madison’s plan offered the blueprint for a framework of government on which the Philadelphia Convention’s final product was clearly based; it included branches of government, checks and balances as well as a bicameral legislature. Brookhiser offers this perspective:

The most striking features of the plan were the scope of the new national government and the source of its power. The national legislature would hold sway over American political life. It could make laws “in all cases to which the several states are incompetent” and could veto any state law. The new national government would rest on popular choice. The lower house of the legislature was to be elected “by the people,” in a proportional vote based on the population or wealth of their states. The lower house then chose the upper house. The whole legislature would then choose the executive and the judiciary. The new constitution was to be ratified, not by the state legislatures that had sent delegations to Philadelphia, but by state conventions “expressly chosen by the people.

The haggling over the course of the Summer of 1787 was extensive, but the message that came out of the convention was clear: the nature of national government must be forged anew.

Ratification was the battlefield, and again Madison threw himself into the fray. Armed with his pen, he joined with Hamilton once again to produce a series of essays known to posterity as the Federalist Papers. Writing under the nom de plume of Publius, the two (a third collaborator, John Jay, dropped out after only 5 essays) worked closely together and at a frantic pace described here by Brookhiser:

After Madison joined the project, the essays appeared four times a week, at 2,000 words each. “It frequently happened that whilst the printer was putting into type the [first] parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen, and to be furnished in time for the press.” Madison’s first essay appeared on November 22. In a little over three months, he would write twenty-eight more.

As important as his intellectual contributions to the Federalist Papers were, Madison’s notion to disseminate them throughout the colonies was almost equally important. Brookhiser tells us that after Hamilton’s initial essay and before his own involvement in the project, Madison displayed his talent as a political tactician and forwarded the article to George Washington in Virginia with the suggestion it be reprinted in a Richmond newspaper.

Madison returned to Virginia in 1788 to participate in the ratifying convention there. Virginia was the largest, richest and arguably the most powerful of the states at the time and therefore was a major prize for both the pro and anti Constitution camps. Each side had powerful supporters: Washington was in favor of the new government, while respected statesman like George Mason refused to sign the final draft and was opposed ratification. However the most energetic oppositional voice to arise was the vain, bombastic self-promoter, Patrick Henry (LINK).

While Henry’s opposition took the form of conspiratorial linguistic fireworks, Brookhiser describes how Madison fought back with a low-key approach,

His was the eloquence of the well-informed. Madison’s unprepossessing appearance and manner made his expertise all the more effective. Men who were not threatened by him could allow themselves to be persuaded.

In the end, neither side could win outright without compromising, and acceptance of a bill of rights by the pro-constitution camp was what the opposition needed to see before it acquiesced. Madison was resistant to the idea and even suggested that if “an enumeration of our rights” were made, “will it not be implied, that every thing omitted is given to the general government?” Hindsight however proves his reservations misplaced, and few modern Americans would argue against the first ten amendments to the Federal Constitution. With plenty of notable exceptions (the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Congressional gag rules from 1836-1844, Jim Crow, the Palmer Raids, the Sedition Act 1918, the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII, warrentless wiretapping in the War on Terror, and multiple suspensions of habeas corpus) the Bill of Rights has overwhelmingly been an instrument that has expanded individual liberty, and it stands as the greatest contribution of the Anti-Federalists to American history.

Creating and ratifying the Constitution were great efforts, and Madison was at the center of both. But the next act, the implementation of the Constitution and governing, proved to be fraught with difficulties. Brookhiser tells us:

Once the Constitution was done, it entered the realm of politics. Disagreements about it would destroy many of Madison’s friendships; they would in his lifetime inflame the country to madness, including bloodshed, and threaten worse- secession, civil war. Disagreements would propel Madison to the heights of power (which is one reason he helped foment these disagreements).

Two of these lost friendships were with Washington and Hamilton.

Early in Washington’s first term, Madison served as a confidant and advisor. Madison. He also served Washington’s interests in House of Representatives, where he emerged as an early leader and lobbied Thomas Jefferson on the behalf of the Administration to accept the post of Secretary of State.

However, the bloom quickly fell off the rose. The first cabinet was a brilliant but tremulous assemblage of talent split along ideological fault lines, none greater than the gulf that lay between Hamilton and Jefferson. Their disagreements ranged from economics to international relations, encompassing such issues as assumption, discrimination and a central bank. Each man had his Congressional supporters. Brookhiser sees what happens next as an inevitable, natural progression:

There is no record to tell us when exactly Madison and Jefferson decided to push back against the mistaken policies and opinions of their colleagues. Perhaps there was no single moment. One thing happens, then another; then one realizes war has been declared…

Madison and Jefferson certainly had no intention of founding a party or “faction,” as a political party was then often called…Factions were like germs–ubiquitous and unhealthy… And yet founding a party is exactly what Jefferson and Madison now began to do, while never admitting, even to themselves, quite what they were doing. Soon enough, Hamilton and his allies would found a party of their own, which even Washington ultimately joined, all of them showing the same un-self-awareness.

The result of all this was the hardening of Jefferson’s coalition into a full-throated oppositional party led not by the deferential Jefferson but by Madison, probably the finest parliamentarian of his day.

Thus Madison, perhaps more so than Jefferson, would come to be the architect of Jeffersonianism. Brookhiser sums up the governing philosophy as “agrarian, expansionist, pacific, and populist.” For the burgeoning Republican Party (forebearers of the modern Democratic Party and of no relation to the GOP) developing a manufacturing economy was repugnant and westward expansion was a necessary safety valve to counter overpopulation (especially in urban centers).

Madison was generally considered shy but genial by his intimates, but these were not the character traits he displayed in the apocalyptic, hyper-partisan days in which John Adams ascended to the Presidency, days when Republicans pathologically believed Federalists were seeking to tear up the Constitution and create an American monarchy. Two examples provided by Brookhiser illustrate how partisan and calculating Madison could be:

As 1796 ended, Jefferson felt moved to write the president-elect [John Adams] a letter bathed in the warmth of reminiscence. “The public and the public papers,” he began, “have been much occupied lately in placing us in a point of opposition to each other. I confidently trust we have felt less of it ourselves.” He reviewed the contest, then concluded: “That your administration may be filled with glory and happiness… is the sincere prayer of one who… yet retains for you the solid esteem of the times when we were working for our independence.

On New Year’s Day, Jefferson sent this letter – unsealed, to Madison, for his advice…

Madison’s reply began in accents of modest and deference. “I have felt no small anxiety” in answering, he wrote, given “the importance of [making] a wrong judgment.” But this was also a cue to Jefferson: don’t you make a wrong judgment, friend.

There’s little chance that in 1796 Adams and Jefferson would have been able to rekindle their friendship of the 1770’s, but it’s a seductive proposition for those who believe in the better angels of human nature. Certainly, these old friends were better positioned than any subsequent duo at any other time in American history to forge a sustainable continental political consensus. As it happened though, Jefferson’s uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture of rapprochement was smashed into a thousand pieces by his party whip. The letter was never sent and bitter partisan divisions seeped into the bedrock of the American political landscape.

Shortly after Adams’s inauguration, Madison punctuated the episode with an exclamation point. Brookhiser tells us Adams asked Madison to go to Paris as a special envoy to ease the escalating tensions between the United States and France over American shipping and trading rights. Madison rejected the offer:

… his refusal was political. America’s problems with France, in his view, had been provoked by the Federalists’ tilt toward Britain. Repairing Franco-American relation now would be doing the Federalists’ work for them, and binding oneself, however indirectly, to their agenda and their fortunes. Let Adams clean up his own (and Washington’s, Hamilton’s, and Jay’s) mess. Party lines stretched beyond the three-mile limit.

Partisanship did not diminish as as war fever grew in the United States over the next few years, reaching a boiling point when news of an American diplomatic delegation’s poor treatment in the so-called ‘XYZ affair’ reached American shores. Adams’s courageous efforts to foil the hawks in his own party and in defiance of popular passions in order to prevent the Quasi-War from escalating into a full-blown military conflict was the finest hour his Presidency (always modest, Adams renamed his estate Peacefield in commemoration of his actions). And was a feat achieved with no help from or appreciation by the Francophile Republican leadership.

While Adams was focused on international events, Jefferson and Madison’s attentions were fixed on domestic issues. There is an observable pattern in American history that when war fever is in the air, a noticeable surge of patriotism manifests itself in unusual levels of support for the government. The Quasi-War was no different in this regard and seemingly overwhelming public support led the Federalist-controlled Congress to overplay its hand and pass two particularly foul pieces of legislation that had as much to do with partisanship at home as they did with security: the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws allowed for the deportation of foreign born non citizens deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety” of the United States and promised arrest for those who too strongly criticized the federal government. The Republicans rightfully found these laws worrisome for several reasons. First, supporters of the Republican Party were disproportionately comprised of new arrivals to the country. Second, the new laws seemed to violate the First Amendment. Brookhiser tells how the Republican leaders planned to counterpunch:

The plan they devised was for each of them to write a set of resolutions to be adopted by a friendly state legislature – Madison’s in Virginia, Jefferson’s in Kentucky. The resolutions would function as Republican Party position papers-statements of grievances and rallying points for the party nationwide. Each set would be introduced by a surrogate (their true authorship would not be known for decades).

The two essays were reflections of the men who wrote them: Madison’s was the better crafted, more substantive argument while Jefferson’s was the more bombastic and highfalutin. Despite stylistic differences, the arguments roughly boiled down to state’s rights manifestos declaring that the states were the true arbiters of constitutionality for the Union; if a state believes a federal law to be unconstitutional, it has the right to nullify it. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions opened a Pandora’s Box that would hound the republic for years beyond the lives of their authors, echoing in the debates at the Hartford Convention, in the words of the South Carolina Exposition and in the first cannon blasts upon Fort Sumter.

Madison withdrew from the capitol in 1797 to begin coordinating Jefferson’s non-campaign for president and returned upon the tide of a major Republican sweep, the Revolution of 1800, as his friend’s Secretary of State and most trusted advisor. As the head of the State Department, Madison inherited a headache that dated back to the Washington administration and would dominate much of his time as Secretary and later his presidency. The wars of the French Revolution had evolved into the Napoleonic Wars; Britain and France continued their death struggle and the still fragile United States continued to try and walk a fine line of neutrality that was perpetually becoming finer.

The Washington administration had been able to avoid a war with Britain through the Jay Treaty, the Adams administration had been able to avoid war with France through diplomacy and patience, and initially the Jefferson administration was able to make tensions between France and Britain work to the United States’ advantage in acquiring the Louisiana territory. However, as Brookhiser explains, respect for non combatant soon came to an end:

In November 1806, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree… No ship that stopped in Britain or its colonies would be permitted to land in France or a French-controlled port. Early in the new year, Britain responded with… a royal proclamation – forbidding neutrals to sail from port to port of Napoleonic Europe. Over the months that followed, Napoleon and George III’s ministers issued escalating restrictions until each superpower forbade the United States to trade with the other in any way whatsoever.

Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) tax-cutting, small government administration had left the tiny navy the Federalists had begun to build starved for funds, incomplete and unable to defend American rights on the high seas. After the great powers dismissed their carefully crafted (highly rational, based in maritime law and custom and thoroughly naïve) protest, Jefferson and Madison learned firsthand something Benjamin Franklin had published in Poor Richard’s Almanac years earlier: “Force shits upon Reason’s back.” With few other options, Jefferson simply asked Congress for – and got – an embargo that forbade any American ship from entering a foreign port. The embargo did nothing to change the policies of France or Britain, but as Brookhiser reports it did “make great strides in strangling American trade: in 1808, exports declined by nearly 80 percent, imports by almost 60 percent.”

The embargo and the dynamics that led to its adoption still lingered when Madison assumed the presidency in 1809. Though he had in many ways acted as a co-president over the previous eight years, when he came into power in his own right that experience could not compensate for Madison’s lack of executive temperament. This may have been in accordance with the Jeffersonian philosophy of governing, but it certainly resulted in significant failures of leadership. As Brookhiser admits,“Madison was a keen politician, but the politics he knew best was that of legislatures, committees, and party councils.” He lacked qualities such as decisiveness and directness.

Unlike Adams during the Quasi-War, Madison was ultimately unable to combat the hawkishness of a House of Representatives dominated by cocksure (largely western) freshman like Speaker Henry Clay, who were far more determined to stand up for American honor than their (eastern and) senior counterparts.

On the other hand Madison possessed a personal flexibility when reality confronted and bested his ideological suppositions, a characteristic too often in short supply in leadership positions. Madison’s presidency is rife with examples of contradicting positions from those he held in the wilderness years of the 1790’s (much as his opinions in the 1790’s often in conflicted with those he’d held in the 1780’s).

After the War of 1812, Madison called for Congress to promote manufacturing – as Hamilton had done. After he and Jefferson had cut military funding, Madison now called for a standing army and military academies. The charter for Hamilton’s bank had been allowed to expire in 1811 but was re-chartered in 1815. In 1815 Madison also called for the Federal government to pay for the construction of a national infrastructure by financing the building of roads and canals (he however vetoed the bill Congress submitted to him because it relied on Hamilton’s implied powers – a leap he couldn’t make – instead of initiating a Constitutional amendment in order to make such a power explicit as he had instructed). Here Brookhiser summarizes the evolution of Madison:

On some things he had changed his positions: he supported a stronger national government when he expected to be influential in it and stronger state governments when his power base shifted to that level… But we have to remember Madison’s job: politics. We will not find complete consistency in his career; we should not look for it. Politics always creates new situations, springs surprises, and throws unexpected problems, friends, and enemies at those who practice it. It should be enough for us that a great mind gave it his best thoughts for as long as Madison did.

Madison was also able to suspend principle to ensure his political viability. Midway through his first term Madison looked to shore up his political base by mending fences with another Jefferson protégé, James Monroe. A mild rivalry arose between the two when some Republicans, dissatisfied with the Jefferson administration and too timid to attack the iconic president directly, transferred their unhappiness onto Madison and sought his removal in favor of a “more pure” Jeffersonian, i.e. Monroe. Madison then used his position at the head of the State Department to undermine negotiations Monroe had undertaken with Britain before ultimately rejecting the treaty he had brokered (in fairness this seems to have been for substantive reasons, with Jefferson’s concurrence rather than bald political calculation), thus humiliating the diplomat. Brookhiser breaks it down like this,

If Monroe became his ally again, Monroe could also be his heir- the next Virginian in line for the White House… So the Virginia Dynasty was born. One Virginia Republican in the White House was an event; two made a partnership. The prospect of three was like a royal act of succession. Virginia Republicans, with the persistence of cicadas, accused Federalists of yearning for monarchy, but they had established the elective equivalent…. The Virginia Dynasty arranged the future and solidified Madison’s home-state base.

This sort of high level hypocrisy would normally have me ready to skewer an author for trying to defend his subject. However to his credit, Brookhiser is extraordinarily candid about the human failings of Madison throughout his book and as a result this biography makes no case for his beatification. Absent from James Madison is the cardinal sin a biography can commit – the white-washing of its subject. Brookhiser does not mould a smooth porcelain bust of Madison; he recognizes the politician’s virtues (sharp, influential, effective) but also catalogues his vices (he was passive aggressive, conspiratorial, subversive and perfectly comfortable with slavery). As has already been demonstrated here, in this biography the reader will bear witness to a consummate politician who can rationalize away inconsistencies in his changing policies or principles (no matter how irrationally) to justify the correctness of his actions in the moment. This sort of stolid objectivity is Brookhiser’s great virtue.

However, James Madison has vices of its own. One of the most rhetorical of these is the author’s voice itself. Brookhiser’s informality flows like a college lecture punctuated by too many hypothetical questions, which instead of engaging the reader often has the opposite effect: it becomes a distraction that throws the reader off the trail just as often it drives a point home.

The book fails to forge a connection between subject and reader. The reader therefore fails to become emotionally invested in the subject, and that type of emotive response is what separates the run of the mill biography from the upper echelon such as McCullough’s John Adams or Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, both of which accomplish what James Madison fails to do: make us care about James Madison the person, his successes, his defeats, his place in history.

James Madison is a solid work, at times a rather enjoyable read. It does however have all the hallmarks of a book for the “Gifts for Dad” display of your local book megastore. In that capacity it will serve the consumer well but for those who expect more depth, more investigation or just plain more, it will inevitably, like its subject, come up short.

Thomas J. Daly is a frequent Open Letters contributor living in Boston.