Dubbed the “father of the Constitution” by the historian Charles Jared Ingersoll in 1825, James Madison resisted the title. Yet it is by this title that Madison remains best known. While biographies of the “Founding Fathers” continue to meet the public’s appetite —there have been new biographies of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton in recent years—books on Madison, especially those that break into the popular fold, tend to be historical studies of the early years of the Republic. Madison has become inseparable from the nation he helped bring into being. Indeed, when the late Marvin Meyers gathered together the first comprehensive one volume edition of Madison’s writings in the early 1970s, he titled it The Mind of the Founder. And what better way to get at the bookish Madison than by reading.
First published in 1971, but brought out in paperback by the University of Virginia Press in 1990, Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography is the best one volume biography of Madison’s life. As an early editor of the Madison Papers when the project was housed at the University of Chicago, Ketcham had access to material that was not available to earlier biographers. (Material on Madison continues to come out from the University of Virginia Press under the editorship of J.C.A. Stagg.) Ketcham’s biography not only traces Madison’s career, it gives us a sense of the man. As Madison said of his early years in Virginia under the study of Donald Robertson, who introduced him to thinkers like Montaigne and Montesquieu, “all that I have been in life I owe largely to that man.” It also captures a side of Madison that is less rarely on display (including a portrait of the beautiful Dolley Madison, who was introduced to Madison by Aaron Burr, and has also come into her own with a recent biography A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor.) The slight and frail man dressed in republican black had an impish sense of humor and was a lively presence among friends.
This should come as no great surprise. Madison led the charge in revolutionary Virginia to establish religious liberty, was the most important mind at the Constitutional Convention, joined with Alexander Hamilton to offer the great defense of the Constitution in The Federalist, crafted the Bill of Rights, and was behind the creation of political parties that helped bring about what Thomas Jefferson dubbed “the revolution of 1800”—the first peaceful transfer of power in history. To be so influential, we would expect a certain amount of persuasive character. Witnessing Madison’s exchanges with the gifted orator Patrick Henry in the Virginia ratifying convention, John Marshall called Madison the most eloquent speaker of his age. And yet, it is this very sweep that has often led to charges that Madison was inconsistent and vacillating—a lesser figure who fluctuated between the pull of Hamilton and Jefferson. To follow Madison through this tumultuous period, one could do no better than Lance Banning’s The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Banning’s book has the great virtue of reconstructing Madison’s thought from Madison’s preoccupations. The result is a Madison that is at once a skillful politician and a great thinker—he is neither Jefferson’s, nor Hamilton’s second.
If Madison was a masterful politician, he has not been seen as a great president. He left office extraordinarily popular, but history has been stern. Madison’s temperate claims of executive power make for intriguing reading against such judgments. The best history of his presidency remains Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison first published in 1890. Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams, has an overwrought sense of irony in his treatment of Madison. He is a New Englander who on occasion seems to think of Madison, like the first other four presidents who were not Adamses, as one of those damned Virginians. And, to be sure, many modern historians have offered a more rounded and sympathetic account of Madison’s presidency—even insisting the War of 1812, for all of its faults, helped sustain American independence for the long haul. Still, Adams’s great history is worth reading as it offers a detailed account of Madison’s presidency—coming in at over a 1,000 pages—and is itself one of the first great works of history written in the United States.
Madison lived beyond his contemporaries as the “last of the founders.” This from the frail youth who just after graduating from Princeton wrote that he did not expect “a long or healthy life.” Well, he lived until 1835 and witnessed the development of his handiwork for nearly another two decades. The nation returned to the issues of the 1780s and 1790s in debates over the national bank, the tariff, slavery and, most of all, nullification. Charges of inconsistency returned to haunt Madison and, a lifelong addict to politics and newspapers, Madison himself returned to the fray. Drew McCoy’s Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy takes up Madison the elder statesmen, weaving together Madison’s late career with his early career in a wonderfully illuminating fashion. In McCoy’s able hands, we get a finely textured history that also happens to be a deeper education in Madison’s thought and the nature of the republic he helped birth.
Above all, Madison is an original constitutional thinker. Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution is about the ideas and interests that framed the Constitution, but it is written with Madison as its central figure. Rakove captures what it means to make a constitution that is intended to endure for ages to come, but also how this begins from historical problems. When it comes to original meaning and its current application, Rakove offers somewhat ambivalent answers. But, following Madison, Rakove turns to the right questions, which are much broader than our unfortunate preoccupation with the Supreme Court and constitutional law. There is almost certainly an important lesson in the fact that Madison, our great constitutional thinker, was not a lawyer.
If you do not have the time—or is it the virtue?—for a longer book, or want only one book on Madison, you might pick up Rakove’s very brief James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic. For the republican side of Madison, you might try Colleen Sheehan’s James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Government. It’s a bit academic, but is engaging and readable; it even ends with a tribute to that great Madisonian—Harry Potter. If you are more adventurous, read Madison himself. He is imminently readable. You might be surprised how much sense and logic is packed into his short essays, and how relevant they remain for thinking about our Constitution and our politics.
George Thomas is Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of The Madisonian Constitution (Johns Hopkins).