JAMES MADISON by Ralph Ketcham


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Despite his colorless niche in American folklore, Madison is of course the most important Founding Father and arguably the most interesting for those concerned with the play between theory and practice. This study, based on Irving Brant's six-volume biography, the Madison papers and further research, amply fulfills the minimal requirement of readable compression of a great deal of scholarship; its emphases are intelligent, notably the stress on how the Western lands question dominated the Constitutional Convention and political battles before and after; and Ketcham's narrative at best is keenly interpretive, as in his sortings-out of regional and ""states-rights"" vectors in the 1770's-'90's. Madison came from a politically active nexus of Virginia planter clans, and after the stimulation of a progressive Princeton rose to national leadership and scholarly reputation at an early age. Ketcham unfortunately treats the Federalist papers without inspiration, slights the formation of political parties, and for some reason neglects the Madison-Jefferson correspondence which underlines these matters, though he makes a rather pedestrian much of Jefferson's reliance on Madison. Ketcham takes pains to refute Beardian allegations that the Founding Fathers were motivated by personal gains, and he also tries conscientiously to delineate general economic clashes of interest, but he aspires to no profound treatment of nation-building alternatives, nor even explains why the Virginia elite stood at odds with Madison over the years on basic issues. As a record of Madison's intellectual preceptors (from Cardinal de Retz to Hume), his legislative and forensic accomplishments, the Louisiana Purchase and the burdens of a weak cabinet during an unpopular war by an unprepared nation in 1812, the immanent Dolley and cumulative evasion of the slavery issue, this is an impressive, fully annotated, absorbing contribution. With greater analytic depth, it would have been a triumph. But a full one-volume biography is badly needed and will be quickly sought.

Pub Date: March 8th, 1971
Publisher: Macmillan