Regular readers in this forum might remember recent biographies from both Kevin Gutzman and Jeff Broadwater highlighting the achievements of the fourth U.S. president. Now a column from James Piereson in The New Criterion spotlights the newest biography of James Madison.
Strangely enough, Madison’s achievements were little appreciated through much of our history. Through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, he was brushed off as a secondary member of the founding generation. He labored for much of his career in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson. He appeared inconsistent, working successfully to strengthen national power in the 1780s but then teaming up with Jefferson in the 1790s to weaken it. He was modest to a fault, a virtue that may have led historians to underestimate his contributions to the early Republic. He refused to take credit for writing the Constitution, insisting always that it was “the work of many heads and many hands.” Madison’s presidency, in addition, was generally judged a failure, and he emerged from it with a reputation as a weak and indecisive leader, “a wizened applejack of a man,” in the words of the arch-Federalist Washington Irving. After the Civil War, some northern historians looked back upon Madison (erroneously) as the architect of the discredited doctrines of nullification and states rights.
Lynne Cheney, the former Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, succeeds impressively in bringing Madison’s achievements into the open in her estimable biography of our fourth president, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.1 Her study is valuable on many counts, not least because it unfolds in a straightforward narrative fashion with its focus constantly on Madison the public man and statesman rather than on academic disputes of the kind that mar too many biographies of Madison and his contemporaries. Ms. Cheney’s biography cuts through the interpretive barnacles that have long encrusted her subject to give us a clearer view of Madison and his achievements. Yet her study develops important themes, challenging the received narrative according to which Madison was “a shy and sickly scholar” unsuited to the rough-and-tumble world of politics and a weak and inconsistent leader whose career went downhill after the ratification of the Constitution. She uncovers a strong thread of consistency in Madison’s public life and shows that, far from being a weak and indecisive leader, he was an unusually able and effective one.