Lynne Cheney, a historian and the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, believes it is time to “clear away misconceptions” about the founder and fourth president, James Madison; to “brush off cobwebs that have accumulated around his achievements” and recover his “fine reputation,” which somehow has gotten lost over the past two centuries. “He is popularly regarded today — when remembered at all — less as a bold thinker and superb politician than as a shy and sickly scholar, someone hardly suited for the demands of daily life, much less the rough-and-tumble world of politicking.”
Since the past decade has seen a spate of books on Madison, some of them emphasizing just what a tough-minded politician he actually was, this seems an exaggeration. But no matter. If it justifies another book on Madison so much the better. We can’t know too much about a man who, Cheney says in “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” “did more than any other to conceive and establish the nation we know.”
Madison was the rarest of American politicians: He understood the nitty-gritty of democratic government and was skillful in engineering legislation through the most difficult circumstances, yet always tried to make sense of what he was doing; he wrote some of the most incisive essays on politics that we have. Not only was he the major architect of the Constitution, but he was also one of the strongest proponents in American history of the rights of conscience and religious liberty, as well as the co-author of “The Federalist Papers,” surely the most significant work of political theory in American history. He may not have been quite the “creative genius” that Cheney claims he was — the political equivalent, she says, of Mozart and Einstein — but no one can deny his importance.
Madison was born in Virginia in 1751, and like most of the founding fathers he became the first of his family to attend college. Rather than enrolling, like many Virginian gentry, in the Anglican College of William and Mary, he went to the Presbyterian College of New Jersey (later Princeton), where he was introduced, through the president, John Witherspoon, to the ideas of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. In college Madison revealed an intellectual intensity and earnestness he never lost.
In 1772 he returned to his father’s plantation, depressed and worried about his health, with no plans for a career. He seems to have been afflicted with what he later described as a “constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy, and suspending the intellectual functions.” These attacks frightened him and affected his behavior throughout his life. He refused to travel to Europe, for example, for fear that he might have an attack and fall into the sea. Realizing the strong prejudice against epilepsy, he referred to his moderate seizures as an “experience.”
The Revolution brought him out of his doldrums and started his political career, a career that his father’s slave-based plantation wealth supported. In 1776, at age 25, Madison was elected to attend Virginia’s provincial convention, the body that brought about the Revolution in Virginia and wrote its state constitution, and in 1777 he was elected to the eight-man Council of State that shared executive authority with the governor. He worked with Gov. Thomas Jefferson for several months in 1779, and, Madison said, “an intimacy took place” that began a lifelong friendship between the two Virginians. It became the most important political friendship in American history.
The two men shared a liberal passion not just for toleration but for full religious freedom. In the mid-1780s Madison shepherded through the Virginia legislature Jefferson’s famous bill neutralizing the state in religious matters. From this success he went on to engineer the calling of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the writing of the Virginia Plan that scuttled the Articles of Confederation and became the working model for the new federal Constitution. The Confederation had been a league of 13 independent states held together by a treaty not much different from those undergirding the European Union today. Madison’s 1787 Constitution created a very different kind of national government, not a union of states but a real government that operated directly on individuals.
Madison went on in 1789 to become the dominant member of the new House of Representatives. He not only helped President George Washington organize the executive branch, he was also the person most responsible for producing the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which became the Bill of Rights. One problem that Madison couldn’t deal with was slavery. Although he believed it was “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man,” he realized the political opposition to abolition was too great, and he hoped against hope that time would solve the problem.
Although Madison had collaborated with Alexander Hamilton (and John Jay) in writing “The Federalist Papers” in defense of the Constitution, he became the leader of the opposition to the Federalist Party and Hamilton’s program to finance the debt and create a national bank in emulation of England. Together with Jefferson he organized the Democratic-Republican Party, and in 1798 he wrote the Virginia Resolutions that declared that the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional assertions of federal power that threatened the Union.
The election of Jefferson as president in 1800 eased the crisis. Madison served as Jefferson’s secretary of state for two terms before becoming president himself in 1809 and serving for two terms. The British invasion of Washington and the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 may have hurt Madison’s subsequent reputation among historians, but, as Cheney correctly points out, the fourth president emerged from the war in 1815 more celebrated than ever.
Cheney mingles these political events of Madison’s career with the circumstances of his “harum-scarum” personal life. She includes a multitude of details, among them descriptions of tobacco farming, the experience of a British prisoner of war, Madison’s boarding bill in Philadelphia, the purchase of table settings from James Monroe, Gilbert Stuart’s painting of Madison’s and Dolley’s portraits, an abscess on Dolley’s knee, a duel by Dolley’s brother-in-law — all of which, however trivial, contribute to the richness of her biography. She nicely describes Madison’s college experience and the personality of President Witherspoon. She spends several pages on Madison’s engagement at age 32 to the 15-year-old Kitty Floyd. Madison was disappointed when Floyd broke off the relationship, but he did not totally despair. “For myself a delicacy to female character will impose some patience,” he wrote, and “hope for . . . some more propitious turn of fortune.” That turn finally came in 1794 when Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widow who, when she became first lady, tended to overshadow her reserved and diminutive husband.
So easily does Cheney move from the personal to the political and back again that she tends to flatten out her narrative line. There is not much highlighting of the truly important events. Since people usually live their lives this way, perhaps blending the significant with the trivial is justified in a narrative biography. But analysis tends to get lost in this kind of smooth storytelling. Cheney, for example, never stops to explain fully what lay behind Madison’s extraordinary sense of crisis in the mid-1780s, which led to his writing of the Virginia Plan. In her telling, he saw the Articles as unworkable and the states misbehaving, and that was that. Nor does she pause to analyze Madison’s radical change of opinion in the early 1790s toward the federal government he had done so much to bring about. She simply assumes Madison’s “emphasis had . . . changed from what the federal government could do to what it couldn’t.”
Still, Cheney’s biography is lucidly written (her description of the Madisons’ actions during the burning of the buildings in the capital in 1814 is especially dramatic), and she clearly brings to life the character and personality of Madison. Apart from Ralph Louis Ketcham’s 1971 life, this is probably the best single-volume biography of Madison that we now have.
A Life Reconsidered
By Lynne Cheney
Illustrated. 564 pp. Viking. $36.