An attorney and author looks at the early life and career of our fourth president.
Though he’s the principal architect of our constitutional form of government, James Madison (1751-1836) remains, for most Americans, the least distinct of all the Founders, better known as Hamilton’s and Jay’s co-author, as Jefferson’s lieutenant, as the beguiling Dolley’s husband. In this highly readable and often insightful treatment, Signer (Demagogue: The Fight to Save America from Its Worst Enemies, 2009, etc.) colors in the portrait, finding the essential Madison in the young man as he charts the diminutive Virginian’s “evolving character and his emerging ideas.” A remarkably intense, indefatigably hardworking youth, Madison mastered self-control in part to mask his raw sensitivity and frail health. Signer convincingly diagnoses his infirmity—contra Madison biographer Lynne Cheney—as “severe anxiety-driven panic attacks that made him ill.” Despite this weakness, he consciously set out to become a statesman, regularly asserting himself in the public, rough-and-tumble world of politics, using, oftentimes anonymously, the power of his ideas and the elegance of his pen to shape the debate. With a character influenced by his father, his tutor, and especially his college president, the Presbyterian cleric John Witherspoon, Madison drew ideas from his voluminous reading and all-encompassing scholarship. Finding the Socratic method distasteful and inadequate, he fashioned his own search for truth and developed it into a singular political strategy. Signer describes Madison’s method as an “interlocking set of nine tactics” that primarily emphasized ideas, preparation, timing, and, most of all, the quelling of passion in oneself and one’s opponent. The author offers some dramatic set pieces demonstrating Madison’s method in action—the 1784 fight against religious assessments in Virginia, the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia ratification battle, etc.—illustrating its effectiveness against more conventional tactics and politicians. He’s particularly good at showing how Madison’s discipline, relentless logic and faith in reason allowed him to triumph over his in-state antagonist, Patrick Henry.
A perfect introduction to a deeply private and immensely important man.