As the US fights a war that raises questions about the future of Americans' personal liberties, prolific cultural critic Wills (History/Northwestern Univ.; Venice: Lion City, 2001, etc.) insightfully assesses the career of the man who was both the principal draftsman of its Constitution and its first wartime president.
While acknowledging Madison’s great achievements as a Constitutional framer, Wills focuses more on his lackluster presidency, asking why it fell below the level of excellence reached in other areas of his life. For answers, he looks to specific policy errors, such as a misapprehension about the nature of the British empire, and identifies characteristics that served Madison well (or at least not ill) in his earlier career but became liabilities in the White House. These traits included a legislative temperament that made him effective in committees but less suitable for executive office, a bookish remoteness from people, and a tendency to work through powerful intermediaries such as Jefferson in politics and extroverted wife Dolley in his personal life. Madison sometimes developed impractical enthusiasms for policies that had no chance of success and pursued them to the point of disaster. The central event of his administration, the War of 1812, achieved none of Madison’s objectives. But Wills points out that the war was a great nationalizing force, waged without diminishing the liberties of the American people, and that Madison left office more popular than when he entered. On balance, Wills argues, even if Madison was not a great president, “as a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer. . . . No man could do everything for the country,” he asserts. “Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough.”
Not a groundbreaking study, but a typically thoughtful and sympathetic evaluation of the complex character that made Madison a great theoretician of government but a mediocre practitioner of it.