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James Madison by Richard Brookhiser
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James Madison (2011)

by Richard Brookhiser

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The fourth President of the United States, James Madison - whose two terms as chief magistrate of the nation stretched from 1809 through 1817 - is often referred to as "The Father of the Constitution," in honor of his central role in creating that document, and shepherding it through the rocky process of ratification; and is celebrated as one of the three contributors, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, to The Federalist Papers. In this brief biography, Richard Brookhiser sets out to explore another aspect of Madison's long career: his role as the "Father of Politics" (by which we are clearly meant to understand "American Party Politics"), and the result is a book that, while it falls somewhat short as a general biography, will undoubtedly be of interest to those students of history who are particularly concerned with the development of our political system, in the early days of the republic.

I found Brookhiser's James Madison, chosen as the fourth selection for my Presidential Book-Club - begun as a personal project to improve my own knowledge of American history, it has grown to a bi-monthly book-club with friends and family, and involves reading a biography for each president, in chronological order - a moderately informative read. I learned a little bit more about Madison - details about his political and intellectual partnerships, about his wife, Dolley, and about his retirement - that I hadn't gleaned from our previous selections (Chernow's Washington: A Life, McCullough's John Adams, Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson), but was left with the impression that there was so much more to know, so much not being presented. I didn't get much sense of Madison as a man, perhaps because the author's focus was more political than personal, and I have to confess that I missed having a section of images included. Granted, this latter is a minor point, but I would have liked to have an image of Dolley, about whom some risque remarks were made, over the years, or of the Madison home at Montpelier to refer to, when reading about them.

In addition to wishing for a more extensive account of Madison's life - he came from a large, close-knit family, for instance, but the details of his family life, and how they affected him, are not to be found here - I also sometimes found the author's tone rather off-putting. Stray references to modern realities and technologies - no, I don't need to be reminded that they didn't have Twitter, back in the 18th century! - find their way into the text, as does an oft-repeated reminder that the Republican Party of the late-18th/early-19th centuries (the fore-runner of the modern-day Democratic Party) is wholly unrelated to the modern party of the same name. Supplying your readers with this information once might be considered helpful, doing it two or three times can start to look like condescension, particularly when you made a point to include it in your foreword. It begs the question - does Brookhiser not trust his readers to recall this vital piece of information?

Finally, and perhaps most troubling of all to this reader, was Brookhiser's rather inconsistent analysis of the events he sets out for his readers, his editorializing - presented as statement of fact, in the text, rather than as opinion - and his apparent inability to separate himself from his subject's viewpoint. This latter is particularly evident any time the character of John Adams is raised, and one gets the sense that Brookhiser, rather than just presenting Madison's views on our second president as one perspective amongst many, has embraced them as gospel, content to ignore any evidence to the contrary. He will occasionally admit that Adams may not have been as dastardly a fellow as Madison imagined - he grudgingly allows, at one point, that, despite Republican fears, Adams was not really a monarchist - but is curiously silent on the fact that Adams, whatever one might have to say against him (and the Alien and Sedition Acts certainly provide ample material, on that score), did not engage in the same sort of party politics as Madison, and was quite willing to stand against his own "side" (ie: the Federalists), when he thought it right. Perhaps Brookhiser is conscious that a more detailed exploration of the tense relationship between these two founding fathers - something like that found in McCullough's John Adams - might show his hero in a negative light? Or is it party politics itself - something the author, a political commentator for most of his life, clearly revels in, and sees as self-evidently beneficial - that he doesn't wish to see tarnished, by an honest analysis of Adams' more independent virtues?

However that may be, it's fascinating to see him, without blinking an eye, or offering any negative commentary, describe Madison as engaged in "the politics of personal destruction," whilst subsequently labeling James Callender - the pamphleteer and journalist that Jefferson and Madison used to attack both Washington and Adams, without getting their own hands dirty - as sleazy, for revealing the sordid details of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings. Apparently the difference, between a perfectly acceptable "gentleman" engaged in party politics, and a sleazy political journalist, employed by that selfsame gentleman, is that one was powerful and managed to conduct his character assassinations in secret, while the other was humble, and conducted his dirty business before the public eye. There is even the implication, presented by Brookhiser as a throwaway possibility (and nothing to worry too much about!), that Callender was assassinated for his activities.

Needless to say, I finished this slim volume with some significant qualms about Brookhiser, who seems, as a historian, to lack objectivity, and as an analyst, to have some curious moral blind spots. This was a low three-star title for me - I found it easy to read, and did learn some new things, so I can't in good conscience give it only two stars - and I came away with the wish that I had chosen a more substantial analysis of Madison for my club. Although I think this book has something to offer readers with an interest in the development of the American political system, I recommend reading it with caution. When it comes to the recent crop of authors writing about the founding generation, Brookhiser is no Chernow or McCullough, and I don't think I'll be picking up any more of his work. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 1, 2013 |
The biography read more like a novel than a biography which helped keep up interest in the book. However I wished that there were more details. I realize that it would have resulted in a longer book, but several areas good stand a lot more detail especially his presidency. The book needed more detail about Dolly Madison and Jame's relationship with his stepchildren. Despite these minor complaints this book is a good entry into James Madison's life and times and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in early American history. ( )
  BobVTReader | Sep 21, 2012 |
It is difficult to believe "factions" or political parties, as we know them today, are only as old as our country. The battle involving constitutional thought drove the two main ideologies into separate camps; deep seated political differences became even more vitriolic during the first few presidencies.

Learning about James Madison proves politics as usual were little different from our "modern day" politics. The press continue to be organs for parties, politicians change their philosophies over time, and moderates are really inconsequential in the battle between left and right powerbrokers.

Richard Brookhiser's book is an abashed examination of James Madison's life. Given the resurgence of Revolutionary studies and interest from the general public, it would be easy to draft a book which only promotes Madison as an impeccable legislative mind. Brookhiser, instead, writes an honest evaluation of Madison's public career.

Despite his fame as being the Father of the Constitution, Madison's political prowess was enhanced by the collaboration of Thomas Jefferson. The precursor to the Democrat party became a political dynasty capable of rendering extinct the Federalist party.

Using anonymous essays in newspapers and pamphlets to shape political opinions, Madison and others were able to avoid responsibility for envelope pushing thought. Conveniently, decades later, Madison would take credit or cite himself as politically expedient. Another favorable aspect of anonymously writing is, Madison (like many others), contradicted himself over time, but his contemporaries would never know.

Patronage has been a tool since George Washington's first term; I don't think most politicians would have careers without the system of payback, including Mr Madison.

I am glad Richard Brookhiser continues the recent trend of honest reflection upon those we could find no fault in. Even those we consider as most virtuous and guileless were partisan, conniving and self-serving; in other words: just plain human. ( )
  HistReader | Nov 26, 2011 |
He may be the "Father of the Constitution," but we haven't seen nearly as many James Madison biographies published in the "founders chic" era of the past decade as we have for some of his contemporaries (perhaps his time is coming, as we get into the bicentennial of "Mr. Madison's War," but we'll see). Rick Brookhiser has taken a whack at it with James Madison (Basic Books, 2011), which joins his previous biographies of Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and the Adamses.

Short (just 250 pages), sparsely cited, and drawn from a wide range of outdated texts and recent trade publications (only a handful of recent scholarly publications are cited, and the ongoing Papers of James Madison project is, shockingly, not among them), Brookhiser's book breaks no new ground. It skims the surface of Madison's life, but rarely penetrates into any particular aspect of the man's career or personality. His personal relationships are barely mentioned, while his professional relationships (with Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, et al.) are treated at only slightly greater depth.

Brookhiser's main point seems to be that we should see Madison as the father of modern politics, and he's correct to examine the man's role in the first party struggle of the 1790s (and to look closely and Madison's careful political strategizing throughout his career). But if you know anything about Madison at all, you'll probably come away from this book wanting more than you got. It felt to me like I was reading an abridged version of something that would have been better in a more complete original form.

The book was also marred for me by several errors, including, on the first page of the first chapter, the statement that Edmund Pendleton signed the Declaration of Independence; he did not. And the middle name of the Federalist presidential candidate in 1804 and 1808 was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, not Coatesworth.

Useful perhaps to whet a reader's appetite for Madison or as a very basic introduction to his political career. But if you're looking for the man, look elsewhere.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2011/10/book-review-james-madison.html ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Oct 9, 2011 |
Showing 4 of 4
The amount of scholarship chronicling these events is immense, and although Brook­hiser is somewhat sparing in acknowledging his debts to historians who have preceded him, his sprightly narrative will serve as an entertaining introduction for those who are making their first acquaintance with Madison. Moreover, Brookhiser’s book is a useful corrective to some of the recent works in the fields of political science and law that place excessive emphasis on Madison the theorist.
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465019838, Hardcover)

James Madison led one of the most influential and prolific lives in American history, and his story—although all too often overshadowed by his more celebrated contemporaries—is integral to that of the nation. Madison helped to shape our country as perhaps no other Founder: collaborating on the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights, resisting government overreach by assembling one of the nation’s first political parties (the Republicans, who became today’s Democrats), and taking to the battlefield during the War of 1812, becoming the last president to lead troops in combat.

In this penetrating biography, eminent historian Richard Brookhiser presents a vivid portrait of the “Father of the Constitution,” an accomplished yet humble statesman who nourished Americans’ fledgling liberty and vigorously defended the laws that have preserved it to this day.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:23 -0400)

Chronicles the life and career of the fourth American president, including his work constructing the U.S. Constitution, his role in shaping American politics, his influence on partisan journalism, and his leadership during the War of 1812.

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