A Founding Father gets a respectful reappraisal.
Author and former second lady Cheney (We the People: The Story of Our Constitution, 2008, etc.) puts another feather in her patriotic hat with this life of James Madison (1751-1836), fourth president, forger of the Constitution and friend of Thomas Jefferson. While he never studied the law or pursued the military, mostly due to his ill health, which was perceived then as epilepsy, Madison was a doer, translating his passionate defense of the Baptists’ right to worship in Virginia into activism in the patriotic cause of the Virginia Convention. Working with Jefferson in fashioning the Virginia constitution, Madison was drafting the blueprint that would become the U.S. Constitution, including the important early tenet for religious liberty. A diligent member of the Continental Congress, he, along with Alexander Hamilton, proposed a states’ revenue to pay the new country’s debts and promoted Jefferson as peace negotiator in Paris. Drawing from his deep readings in Enlightenment philosophers, Madison was taking notes during every moment in the Philadelphia debates concerning the overhaul of the Articles of the Confederation, as the delegates wrangled over every aspect of the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. He suspected that the approved Constitution failed to rein in the “unwise and wicked proceedings” of the states. The threat of New York’s failure to ratify prompted Madison, Hamilton and John Jay to anonymously pen the Federalist Papers. Madison’s most famous was Federalist 10, which warned of “factions” in causing government failure. Beating James Monroe for representative to the First Congress from Virginia, Madison helped George Washington revise his inaugural address, and he shaped the Bill of Rights. As president, he weathered the British storm of 1812 and kept the union intact. Cheney duly covers her subject’s life in a thorough yet somewhat bland narrative.
A proficiently argued account for Madison’s greatness, but it lacks the political thrusts of Garry Wills, Richard Brookhiser and other historians.