Jul 04

James Madison, by Richard Brookhiser ★★★★

I had originally planned on reading Ralph Ketcham’s biography on James Madison, a lengthy and well written document, though written in a very dry fashion. Getting through a few pages of Ketcham’s book, I realized it was not a good “fit” for me, and purchased the biography by Brookhiser. Though Brookhiser shared in Ketcham’s love for dry writing, this was a shorter book and one that I was able to read within the course of a few weeks. Brookhiser offers a very brief summary of Madison’s childhood, how he got involved in politics, and how he developed a life-long friendship with Thomas Jefferson. The details of Madison’s life through the Revolutionary War, and his involvement in the writing of the constitution, as well as his friendship (and loss of friendship) with Alexander Hamilton are mentioned though not developed at any length. There is much discussion as to how James Madison brought the art of politics to the US government, including the development of the political parties and factionalism in government. Madison’s service in Jefferson’s government led to him being promoted to two terms as president of the United States, a presidency best marked by the foolish engagement in war with England, known as the war of 1812. The greatest lesson of the Madison presidency was how incompetent the government was at that time. The government had poor means of taxing citizens, no funds for war, yet voted to go to war with England when entirely unprepared to do so. How the USA survived that episode in its history is nothing short of a miracle. Madison, in the aftermath of his presidency, turns again to writing, while living in his estate at Monticello. He does not present himself as a wizened statesman like Washington or Jefferson, but manages to outlive all the other presidents including his successor, James Monroe. Issues with the supreme court are discussed, but oddly, in the chapter on his post-presidency years. More odd, the most important court decision of his time, Marbury v. Madison, is left unspoken of. The issue of slaves is discussed, this time Brookhiser suggested that Madison’s approach to this difficult issue was to simply ignore it as a problem; Madison did not free his slaves at death.

Brookhiser does not give me a reason to consider Madison as one of the “greats” of the founding fathers. There is nothing peculiar about him, save for his establishment among the elite classes of Virginia. The Madison presidency was a complete disaster, with Madison failing to make good decisions, and ending his life as a near pauper, having poor management of his household economics. What in particular makes James Madison stand above many of the other founding fathers of the USA? This book certainly does not answer that question. It is a brief but lackluster recount of the life of a perhaps great man. Maybe I should have labored through the much lengthier tome by Ketcham?

I will next be reading more on the Indian wars before tackling the life of James Monroe.

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