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Author photo. Received from publisher for use in SOTT

Received from publisher for use in SOTT

Richard Brookhiser: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Richard Brookhiser's James Madison was published in October 2011 by Basic Books.

You've previously written biographies of Washington, Jefferson, the Adamses, and Gouverneur Morris. What about Madison made you decide to turn to him next as a biographical subject?

Thinking about the episode that opens the book: the morning of August 24, 1814. The British are coming to attack Washington DC, and in the midst of alarm and screw-ups, President Madison, short, slight, 63 years old and utterly un-military, mounts a borrowed horse, borrows a set of pistols, and rides out to Bladensburg, Maryland, where the battle is to be joined. I thought that was pretty impressive.

In his jacket blurb, Joe Ellis calls Madison "the only founder more elusive than Jefferson." Do you agree, and if so, what is it about Madison that makes him so elusive?

Madison is circumspect, a good writer rather than an eloquent one, and emotionally undemonstrative. He is also a very cunning politician. All these traits combine to make him seem opaque, although I think quite a lot can be penetrated if you look and think hard enough.

What about Madison surprised you most as you researched him?

Everyone knows he is smart. I was interested to discover he was tough. Madison never quit. When he lost a fight, which happened often enough, he always thought: what next? what now? how do I go on from here? This is why he generally prevailed in the end. The history of the early republic is littered with the broken careers of people who got in his way.

Madison's personal life and relationships weren't a particular focus in your book: why not? It seems like a deeper exploration of his relationship with Dolley, his parents, even his stepson might have been fruitful areas to examine.

I do explain that his tight family life, especially with his parents—he was James Madison, Jr., and his mother lived until he was in his 70s—trained him in working well with others, a quality that served him well in collaborations with Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson. I also describe Dolley's role as first political wife—the extrovert hostess who completed Madison's public personality. John Payne Todd, his scapegrace stepson, was merely a cross.

More generally, like your other biographies this is a pretty slim volume. There must have been aspects of Madison's life and career that you wanted to be able to dig into more deeply: what were they?

I think recent biographies, as a rule, are too long. Too many authors want to show they've read everything, and too many publishers want doorstops that people will buy as Christmas presents. I agree with the man who apologized for writing such a long letter because he did not have time to write a short one.

You write that Madison's two great monuments are American constitutionalism and American politics, "the behavior that makes constitutionalism work." Can you explain what you mean, for those who might have not have the chance to read the book yet?

Though all the founders were politicians—some of them quite gifted (Jefferson, Washington)—they seemed to think, in the twin glow of winning the Revolution and ratifying the Constitution, that factionalism might cease, or at least that they themselves could rise above it. Madison was the first to break out of this cocoon—to see that political contention would be ongoing, and to think of ways and means (parties, partisan media) of conducting it. The Constitution is the rules, politics is the game—Madison starts figuring this out as early as 1791.

Madison's often-keen political instincts seem to have done him no favors during the War of 1812, when many of his cabinet officers and military commanders just didn't or couldn't get the job done. What happened there, anyway?

He carried along with incompetents because they were politically useful, without focusing early enough on his impending challenges as Commander in Chief. His legislative background hurt him: parliamentary leaders are coalition builders, hence patient with all sorts of folks; executives are goal driven. To his credit, he cleaned out the losers eventually, and won his war—or close enough for bragging rights.

Do you have a favorite example of Madison's writing that you'd like to share?

There is an appeal to the venturesomeness of the American people in some of his contributions to The Federalist which strikes me as noble. For example, he argues, "Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favour of private rights and public happiness."

If you could spend the afternoon with one of your biographical subjects, who would you choose? And what would you most like to talk about?

I revere Washington, but the one I would like to befriend is Gouverneur Morris. If you were thrown in jail, brought to the emergency room, dunned for $10,000, or looking to plug a last minute hole in a guest list, he is the man you would call: he'd bail you, visit you, loan you the money, and shine at your party (just don't seat him near your wife).

Tell us a bit about your next project: can we expect another founder biography?

I'm still enmeshed in this one! But I hope to do a PBS documentary with producer/director Michael Pack on Thomas Jefferson.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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