American History Book Review: James Madison | HistoryNet MENU

American History Book Review: James Madison

By Peter Onuf
8/10/2017 • American History Magazine

James Madison

by Richard Brookhiser; Basic Books

Readers of founder biographies generally like them fat so that they can immerse themselves in another, better time. But in this smart, stylishly written portrait, Richard Brookhiser plays against expectations, rushing headlong through America’s formative decades. He is no hagiographer: His Madison not only has predictable warts—his inept “management style,” his delusional “Anglophobia,” his “pathetic…intellectual and moral failure” on slavery—but he is also more fundamentally flawed, as were his contemporaries, and as we are today.

If Madison is “Father of the Constitution,” he is also “Father of Politics,” and these twin paternities cannot be disentangled. Drafting the Constitution was a political process; it previewed the new regime that Madison was so crucial in shaping, as a leader of the Jeffersonian Republican opposition to the Federalists and then as President Jefferson’s key coadjutor and successor. Pundits quipped that the diminutive Madison was “a mighty figure, and a little guy.” But the little guy worked well with and through others, recognizing that Constitutionwriting, nation-making and party formation are all collaborative enterprises.

Brookhiser’s concision yields interpretive dividends. The genius of Madison’s Virginia Plan, which broadened and focused the Constitutional Convention’s debates, was to expand “the arena of political contention”—not, as he might have imagined at the time, to put a reactionary lid on democratic excesses in the states. Madison is famous for his conception of the “extended republic,” eloquently set forth under the pen name “Publius” in Federalist No. 10: The greater the “variety of parties and interests,” the “less probable” that majority rule will run amok. Brookhiser, unlike most present-day political theorists, is not awestruck by Madison’s wisdom on the vexing question of faction and party—nor was Madison himself. Perhaps, Brookhiser writes, constitutional checks and balances and the new federal system’s distribution of authority could serve as “a bulwark of liberty,” but Madison “came to believe that appealing to popular opinion through the arts of argument and politics was a bulwark at least as strong.”

The key turning point came with Madison’s series of polemical essays in the National Gazette in 1792, which would serve as his “party’s platform for the next twenty years.” Brookhiser’s ambivalence about these poorly written, “puerile” essays—“one almost feels he is writing down, as if for readers who move their lips as they read”—is crucial to his balanced and persuasive portrait. As “Publius,” Madison relied on “the very complexity of the government” to sustain Americans’ wobbling experiment in republicanism. Now, only “four years later, he relied instead on public opinion,” a loop that drew “energy” from the “‘will’ of society,” even as “government’s ‘reason’ instructed society’s understanding.” Brookhiser clearly prefers to spend time with The Federalist’s learned and profound authors. But the National Gazette essays (I don’t think they are as bad as Brookhiser thinks) provide a better sense of where Madison was coming from and where our politics are headed, for better or worse.

There is much more to savor—and quarrel about—here. Sometimes Brookhiser stumbles: The Republicans, he says, “had pulled nearly even in the Senate” in the Seventh Congress (1801- 03), when they actually enjoyed an 18-14 majority. A Federalist Senate would have thrown more than a few wrenches into the Jeffersonian juggernaut. And critical readers might question some of his judgments. Is Madison really “smarter than Jefferson, perhaps even smarter than Adams”? Yet these sometimes glib verdicts add to this book’s many pleasures: These are, after all, the sorts of things we are supposed to argue about.

 

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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