Friday, August 8, 2014

James Madison

I have always been interested in this, one of the most interesting of the Founding Fathers and I would have been even if I didn't live in a city named after him and hadn't taught for two decades at James Madison Memorial High School. Lynne Cheney's new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, is described by The Weekly Standard's reviewer as "consistently engrossing." From that review:
.... He was still in his early 20s and only recently out of Princeton when the crisis of the Revolution began. From that moment on, he lived and breathed politics, learning at a phenomenal rate and quickly drawing favorable notice from domestic and foreign observers. ...[T]he French minister to the new republic, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, described him in 1783 as “the man of the soundest judgment in the Congress.” On the other hand, he never suffered fools gladly and had no small talk. Martha Bland, a more frivolous contemporary, described him as a “gloomy, stiff creature,” adding that he was “the most unsociable creature in existence.”

Short in stature, unprepossessing in appearance, a workaholic, plain-spoken and typically unemotional, he suffered from a form of epilepsy. This affliction kept him out of the Army when the Revolutionary War began and dogged him throughout his career, especially at moments of great stress. His many friends and admirers cautioned him against working himself to an early grave, though he outlived all the other Founders, surviving until 1836 to die at the age of 85. ....

Cheney sees the preservation of political balance as the central issue of Madison’s career. Dismayed that the republic seemed to be breaking up in the mid-1780s, Madison worked to create a stronger federal government to which the states would be subordinate. In opposition to the Federalists of the 1790s, by contrast, he feared an over-mighty federal government, which made him join Jefferson in asserting states’ rights in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. He opposed the creation of a national bank in the 1790s, but later, as president during the War of 1812, came to believe that one was necessary.

Where most historians have understood him to have changed his views over time, Cheney argues for an underlying consistency to which each of these responses was a pragmatic attempt at preserving the balance. He was, however, willing, when opportunity knocked, to deviate from strict adherence to principle. President Jefferson agonized over the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, especially as he had, until then, been outspokenly opposed to bold federal initiatives. Madison, the secretary of state who helped accomplish the purchase, was on hand to soothe the president’s conscience. .... [more]