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American Moses

James Madison in full, thanks to the excellent Richard Brookhiser.

By 10.12.11

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James Madison
By Richard Brookhiser
(Basic Books, 287 pages, $26.99)

Over the last half century Americans have sought a more enlightened, often politically correct, evaluation of their founders. Not for us, for example, are Parson Weems' tales about George Washington or Washington Irving's affectionate treatment of the father of our country.

But modern appraisals of America's earliest statesmen, which too often dwell on their failings, of which they had many, rather than their virtues, of which they had many more, shed light on our own times and mores rather than those of the founding generation.

It is a challenging and important task to recognize and understand the founder's faults without losing sight of their greatness while illuminating their enduring significance along the way. No historian does this better than Richard Brookhiser.

For nearly two decades, he has produced brief but profound, clear but challenging, explorations of America's early history. His latest effort, James Madison, is a small, unvarnished monument to its diminutive namesake.

Drawing from and explicating Madison's own public and personal writings, Brookhiser, employing equal doses of his customary acumen and wit, walks readers through the man's eight decades in little more than 200 pages. It is an honest and at times unflattering rendering, but one that reaffirms Madison's genius, and proves authoritatively that his fingerprints remain all over our institutions.

Though he is most celebrated for creating America's Constitution, here, however, he is less its father than its "midwife." Madison was the great multitasker and collaborator of the Founding. He could, in Brookhiser's words, "execute double plays by himself" -- laying the groundwork for the Constitutional Convention in Annapolis, then returning home to Virginia to secure the participation of his own commonwealth; producing the blueprint of the Constitution, bringing it to fruition through compromise and then to parchment with the help of Gouverneur Morris, all while recording the proceedings for posterity. He then huddled with Alexander Hamilton to seal the deal through the Federalist Papers. And finally he assumed the role of, in Brookhiser's words, an "American Moses," by crafting the first ten amendments to the document.

This is the legacy we are most likely to recognize and honor. But as Brookhiser points out, we might be a bit more hesitant to celebrate Madison's other progeny: When he and Thomas Jefferson (his mentor and dear friend) clashed with Alexander Hamilton, they constructed the country's first organized political faction -- the Republican Party (today's Democrats.) To accomplish this, Madison cultivated strategic regional alliances, recruited sympathetic minds and pens, and then through a series of, by Brookhiser's estimation, crudely written and realized essays in the National Gazette (a freshly launched Republican instrument) laid out an ideology extolling the value of an agrarian economy and the wickedness of cities and manufacturing. 

Madison was also one of the first American leaders to understand the importance of public opinion. Consultation with constituents was instrumental; "Public opinion was a loop, sustaining leaders even as they shaped it," Brookhiser writes. And though it is less pleasant to contemplate, he, along with Jefferson, coolly participated in what modern parlance describes as "the politics of personal destruction." Though they would not dirty their own hands, they had no objections to letting the likes of scandalmonger James T. Callender raze their rivals. An examination of this period will dispel any notions of a long-past era of civility in American politics. It has been cutthroat since the start; Madison's imprint can be found here too.  

He not only facilitated America's birth, but also brought it from infancy to adolescence. First in Congress, then after helping Jefferson find his way to the White House, as Secretary of State, and then as president himself, Madison played his part, either behind the scenes or on the dais, in guiding the country into the 19th century and opening its western territories.

As a leader, Madison's weaknesses surfaced. His blinding love of France, paranoid detestation of England, and misguided faith in trade embargos and other forms of commercial warfare (Hamilton once remarked that he was "a clever man, but very little acquainted with the world") riled the popular opinion he so valued and led America into a second war with England. Brookhiser gives Madison's record as an executive mixed reviews. His management style was "timid and snide." Lackluster appointments crippled the country in the War of 1812, and left the young capital smoldering. But he corrected course, made the necessary changes, and ultimately guided the country to victory in what the author describes as "a war of national self-assertion."

Of course there were inconsistencies. Madison and the Republicans accused John Adams of lusting after an American monarchy. But by electing Jefferson, succeeding him, and then paving a path to the presidency for fellow Virginian James Monroe, Madison created an Old Dominion dynasty of his own. He was also prone to jettison his own ideas and arguments when they obstructed his ambitions and purposes. The greatest blemish, though, was slavery. Madison, like many of the founders, owned slaves but also understood the institution was a direct affront to the principles he helped build a country upon. But he did nothing, neither in rhetoric or deed. His extraordinary mind could only conjure foolish schemes to send blacks to Africa, or diffuse slavery by expanding it westward. 

These offenses, viewed with understanding of the time and the nature of man, do not diminish Madison. He was flawed, but great. The two qualities can reside in the same host. Brookhiser's portrait presents both.

Fittingly, the book ends at Montpelier, Madison's scenically-positioned home in sight of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The founder rests under an unremarkable obelisk, not far from the estate. The grave gives little indication of its occupant's accomplishments. It need not. His legacy -- our Constitution, our freedoms, our political system -- are far too vast to capture in stone. But in James Madison, Richard Brookhiser's words bring them brilliantly to life.

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About the Author

Ryan L. Cole writes from Indiana.