Madison has an enormous impact on the history of the United States, and his impact will be felt for as long as America remains a Republic thanks to his being the primary author of the United States Constitution, the foundational document of our republic. However, this is...
Madison has an enormous impact on the history of the United States, and his impact will be felt for as long as America remains a Republic thanks to his being the primary author of the United States Constitution, the foundational document of our republic. However, this is not a great biography of James Madison, rather it is a well written study of Madison’s presidency.
For people trying to read a biography on each U.S. President, here is where the trail starts getting rough. Readers have numerous fascinating and well-written biographies on the first three Presidents (Washington, Adams and Jefferson) from which to choose. Such an option does not exist for James Madison. Perhaps it never will. There are some very-long biographies of Madison, and some substantial criticisms of each as being very biased.
I chose to take the shorter route for Madison. Choosing the Wills biography as a result of author Wills’s Pulitzer prize winning status; the fact that the book was part of “The American Presidents” series that is edited by noted historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Junior; and, superficially, since it was a hardcover, which the alternatives were not, and would look better on a bookshelf with the other Presidential biographies I have read.
Ultimately, wanting to know more about Madison, I have decided to read Lynne Cheney’s biography of Madison, although her book has received mixed, but largely positive, reviews as well.
Wills openly limits himself to answering the question how could Madison, who, as the primary author of the U.S. Constitution, is perhaps the greatest legislator of all time, be such a weak and ineffective president. Along the way, much is missed.
Unique among all of the U.S. President’s, little is known about Madison’s youth. Some biographers resort to fiction to fill in the gaps, while Wills takes the high road, and simply never mentions it.
Strangely, Wills never explains why Madison ran for President. Based on Wills’ well-written section concerning his very introverted personality, there is no explanation as to why Madison ran, nor is there any explanation for why he received the nomination of his party. The book is only 160 pages long, but still, if the central hypothesis of your book is why was Madison such an ineffective President, the subject of why and how he became president would be worth discussing. Also, given its brevity, Wills must assume that the reader is familiar with early US history.
Wills starts with the consensus view that Madison is one of the great Founding Fathers, but not a great President. He then describes Madison’s early work in the government.
Madison is a mass of contradictions and eccentricities, that he became president, and then was re-elected is never fully explained. Madison worked best in committees and had no executive experience. He was very studious, and extremely well read. He worked well behind the scenes. While a member of the House of Representatives, he wrote Washington’s Inaugural Address; then the House’s response to the address; and finally, Washington’s thank-you to the House for its response.
Wills provides insight into Madison’s character traits. Personally, Madison had a weak constitution, he always thought he was going to die young. Once writing a Princeton classmate when he was 21 that he did not need to make plans for the future. In fact, he managed his health obsessively and lived until he was 85. He never traveled outside of the United States. After he left office, his wife Dolley wanted to travel to Paris. Madison instead went back to his father’s estate in Virginia, and only left once during the remainder of his life, to visit Richmond.
Madison was very-short at 5 feet 4 inches and almost anti-social. Married only at the age of 43 at a time when life expectancy was at best 45 years. He would sit in a chair in the corner of a room, while his very extroverted wife Dolley served as Hostess.
Madison is viewed as the father of the constitution and in a 14-page chapter Wills brilliantly outlines the role Madison played and why he received that title. Wills explains how what we now call the Constitutional Convention was treasonous at the time, and in fact was the anti-constitutional convention, how he convinced Washington to attend, then raced to New York to work on the Federalist Papers with Hamilton, then back to Virginia to get his home state to ratify the new constitution all in a two-year period.
Wills also explains how Madison’s study of all forms of government, for years prior to writing the constitution, has been described as “the most fruitful piece of work ever carried out by an American”.
Wills however, enjoys dropping esoteric phrases into the writing that make it challenging for most readers such as “faute de mieux” [meaning “for lack of something better”] and “mutatis mutandis” [meaning “the necessary changes having been made”] when more accessible phrases perhaps would have been better.
So, having brilliantly husbanded the design of the American republic, Madison is little discussed subsequent to his role in the framing of the Constitution. Neither his role as a legislator before his presidency nor even his presidency are much discussed. Wills explains why this is the case.
In essence, Jefferson and Madison take a turn for the weird. Having largely created and established the Federal government through their respective drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, these two Founders decide since they made the rules, the Federal Government will now perform to their liking. Unfortunately for them, while Jefferson and Madison were circulating in the Virginia Plantation Society, or in Jefferson’s case Europe, Alexander Hamilton was getting schooled in the rough and tumble business world of Manhattan, then, as now, perhaps the toughest business environment in the Country.
Consequently, when Hamilton enters Washington’s administration as Secretary of the Treasury, he begins to masterfully espouse the pro-business, centralized government philosophy that is anathema to Jefferson and Madison who have idealized an agrarian republic. (Also deep inside this debate are the roots of the civil war between the industrialized north and the agrarian south. Amd what is the current divide between the red states and the blue states.) Madison proceeds to spend the next twelve years undermining the government he helped form.
The next chapter of the book deals with Madison’s role in the three presidential administrations preceding his own: Washington’s, Adams’, and Jefferson’s. Once again we encounter an exceptionally well-written chapter. Wills describes how, at the outset, of the first administration, Washington rarely made a move without consulting with Madison as Washington knew that everything he was doing was precedent setting, and no one knew better than Madison as to how the government should function, as Madison had in fact designed it through the constitution.
However, Madison and his mentor, Jefferson, soon began losing political battles to the Federalist point of view espoused by Alexander Hamilton. This grew increasingly frustrating to Madison and Jefferson. As Wills points out, Jefferson was losing arguments in the cabinet and Madison in the legislature. Eventually the two co-conspirators reach the point of delusion such that Hamilton must be a royalist who is attempting to restore the British monarchy. Madison along with Jefferson embark on the course of saving the government by destroying it. Madison and Jefferson, while essentially accusing Hamilton of treason, embark on a course of behavior that could only be described as treasonous. Meanwhile Washington, who watched Hamilton lead the fight against the British at Yorktown, while Jefferson retreated to the Virginia backcountry, was infuriated with Madison’s behavior. Eventually Washington caused Jefferson to resign as Secretary of State and refused to engage in any further manner with Madison. Putting this into historical context, Washington and Madison were from the upper strata of Virginia’s plantation society that stressed hospitality over virtually everything. Short of a duel, there is no greater insult that Washington, considered then, as now, the greatest American hero, could have inflicted upon Madison.
Moving on to the Presidency of John Adams, where Jefferson served as Adams’ Vice-President, Jefferson and Madison once again see treasonous behavior on Adams part, who they again think is a closet royalist. In particular, the Alien and Sedition Act dismayed them, when in fact the Act was an affront to the Constitution. However, Adams was misguidedly attempting to save the republic, not destroy it. The solution put forth by Madison/Jefferson, essentially allowing each state legislature to veto a Federal law within its boundaries, a position contrary to everything Madison fought for at the Constitutional Convention, is so draconian that had it succeeded, it is safe to assume that America, as we know it, would not exist today.
With the start of the Jefferson’s administration, Madison became Secretary of State, an unusual position for a man who never left the United States during his entire life. Wills points out the that the administration was largely run by Jefferson, Madison and Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. Gallatin was the pragmatist, while Jefferson was, in Wills’ words “otherworldly” and Madison was “provincial.” The three men were collectively known as the Triad.
Wills book assumes you know Madison’s history before you read the book. No where in the six pages focusing upon Jefferson’s presidency does Wills state that Madison was Jefferson’s Secretary of State for the entire eight-year period of Jefferson’s term as president. If I did not know better, Madison appears to have been some type of presidential advisor, not a cabinet officer.
In an extremely creepy and little-known era of American history, Madison mistakenly believed that the best course for America was to stay out of the Napoleonic Wars involving France and England, by refusing to trade with both sides. The U.S. embargoed all trade with its two largest trading partners, which was but a minor inconvenience to either Britain or France, while it devastated the burgeoning U.S. economy with exports falling by 80 percent in 1808 from the last pre-embargo year of 1807. U.S. citizens who violated the embargo were jailed for treason or periodically executed. Enforcing the embargo was so difficult that Jefferson empowered the army to arrest and try U.S. citizens. Indeed, there were so many violators who could have been executed, that Jefferson instructed the army to only execute the most flagrant smugglers as there would have been too many executions for the public to bear. Gallatin realized the embargo would not work, however Madison insisted that all it required was more time and resources. Madison clung to this naïve point of view until the last day of Jefferson’s administration when the embargo was terminated by an act of Congress. This is the only time in U.S. history that the president was empowered to use the army to enforce the law among ordinary citizens. Wills describes Jefferson’s actions as state sponsored terrorism and believes that it was far worse than the Alien and Sedition Acts from the Adams administration, which Jefferson and Madison so vehemently opposed as unconstitutional.
The next section of the book deals with Madison’s first term. As mentioned earlier, Wills provides no explanation as to why after being ostracized by Washington, detested by Adams, and a miserable Secretary of State under Jefferson that (1) the American public would elect Madison to be President, (2) Madison’s own party would even nominate him, and finally (3) why the anti-social and obviously frustrated Madison would want to be president. Some explanation would be appreciated by the reader.
The remainder of the book covers the ineptitude of the early Madison administration and over time his growing competence in running the government during his second term.
Wills documents the challenge an idealist such as Madison faces when forced to deal in a complex reality with many differing agendas, in particular since Madison is incapable of leading and resorts to attempting to work behind the scenes like a legislator, when the role of president requires a considerable degree of high-profile activity. Then, as now, confusion reigns during these circumstances. The Federalist party weakens much to Madison’s approval, however his Republican party splinters into four factions. He has two open Supreme Court seats where the appointment process is downright comical. He rejects one qualified individual’s petition for the post, while appointing someone who refuses to take the post. Another nominee is going blind and recuses himself suggesting a fourth individual to Madison, who flees across the Canadian border as a result of financial improprieties.
A major portion of the book is devoted to the little discussed War of 1812 that Madison blundered into. It is easy to see why this time period of U.S. History and the War of 1812 are glossed over in U.S. History books (ever seen or heard of a War of 1812 Memorial?) Wills concludes this section by pointing out that the War of 1812, for as inconsequential as it appears in US history from our present perspective, and from the fact that so little was accomplished or changed, but that there were three significant impacts of the war. First, that five veterans of the war either heroes, or perceived heroes, in the case of William Henry Harrison, would become U.S. presidents in the future. Second, that the superior performance of the very earliest graduates of West Point, America’s first service academy, legitimized the institution and led to increased funding for it. Third, and most tellingly, rather than dampen the interest in the US public for additional conflict, the War of 1812 created a strong desire in the American public for future military campaigns that would become an almost generational constant down to the present day.
Within the US, the Federalists are kept at bay by the Virginia backed Republicans, who strongly supported a weak federal union and states’ rights. The Virginia Republicans would hold the White House for an unprecedented twenty-four years through the consecutive two-term presidencies of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – yet the Federal government grows ever stronger under the supervision of all three Republican Presidents, as they struggle to protect and govern the small but growing nation. Another noted Republican from Virginia, John Randolph, stated that the Republican’s had won, but sold their souls in the process.
As Wills later concludes, neither the Federalists nor the Republicans prevailed during Madison’s presidency. Instead, it was the forces of modernism that prevailed. As a result of the practical necessity of governing the growing country, the Republicans were forced from their long held ideal of an agrarian republic. Banks for commerce and a standing navy and army to protect its interests were all becoming necessities to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the citizens of the United States. Ultimately, as again pointed out by Wills, it is a growing sense of nationalism rather than regionalism or states’ rights, that is the greatest legacy of the Madison presidency.
While this battle for states’ rights continues to the present day, and was in many ways at the forefront of the domestic policies of the Trump Administration (hopefully ending three days after I write this review, on January 20, 2021), it could be stated that the seeds of the coming Civil War, only 45 years from the end of Madison’s presidency, while germinated during the American Revolution, are tragically planted during the Madison Presidency.
On one whimsical note, Wills discusses Madison’s involvement in a large land scandal involving all the territory from Florida to the Mississippi River centering upon the Georgia legislature. It is known as the Yazoo scandal, and Madison and his colleagues are known as the “Yazoo men”. I have always loved this scandal, simply for the name alone, which is perfect for a land swindle gone bad, which is what it was.