James Madison. By Richard Brookhiser. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. Pp. 287. $26.99.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 132–133, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Ketcham, R. (2013), James Madison. By Richard Brookhiser. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. Pp. 287. $26.99.). Historian, 75: 132–133. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_9
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
This book is a concise, well-informed, well-written interpretive biography of James Madison. The author evaluates Madison's multiple and sometimes complicated motivations, the successes and effects of his major actions in politics, and his relationship with Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and other leading figures in Madison's life. One learns, then, about Madison's leading role at the Constitutional Convention, about his signal contributions as an author of The Federalist and at the Virginia Convention of 1788, and his major role again as close advisor to the first president and as floor leader in the First Congress. His careers as secretary of state, as president, and as active sage in retirement also receive judicious treatment. In doing this, Richard Brookhiser makes good use of The Papers of James Madison, as well as the many excellent secondary works on his life and times. Thus, although the outlines of Madison's life are clear and engagingly told, there is not a full, richly detailed account of his life, told with a narrative timeline that lets the reader know the details and nuances of the months and years of his life as he experienced them. Rather we have Brookhiser's interpretation of that life and career—concise, lively, and insightful, but not told in narrative fullness.
The major flaw in this volume, however, follows from Brookhiser's remark at the end of his summary of Madison's forty-year career in public life:
Madison biographers who want their hero to be consistent in all things will not be pleased with this analysis; political philosophers who value intellectual elegance and constitutional lawyers, who seek guidance from the Father of the Constitution, will be even less so. … We will not find complete consistency in his career; we should not look for it (222).
Brookhiser doubtless would be pleased, though, with political analyst Karl Rove's blurb that “James Madison is … our country's first practical politician. He founded not just the first American political party, but also the American system of party politics itself.”
It is true, as Brookhiser explains, that Madison did help found an early political party; that he did favor states' rights more in 1798–1800 than he did in 1787–1788 (or in 1830 for that matter); that he did change his mind, between 1791 and 1816, on the constitutionality of a national bank; and that he was in many ways a skilled “practical politician.” But Madison did not expect or hope that the political “party” he helped form would become anything like the modern conflict-of-interest entities currently basic to “the American system of party politics.” He, like Washington, thought parties a terrible menace to good government, and believed, as he said nine times in “Federalist no. 10,” that parties (the same as factions) should be overcome by concern for the public good. And Madison regarded his shifting on the national bank as a model of balanced attention to the uses of both loose and strict interpretation of the Constitution. Readers must beware of this misunderstanding by Brookhiser of Madison's life and thought, while enjoying his otherwise fine and useful book.