Feldman (Law/Harvard Univ.; Cool War: The Future of Global Competition, 2013, etc.) returns with a substantial biography of our fourth president.
The title's "three lives" refer to distinct phases in the career of James Madison (1751-1836). He appears first as the primary architect of the Constitution at the Philadelphia convention in 1787 and a major proponent of its ratification, accomplishments which alone would have cemented his place in history. There followed a bleak period leading the opposition in the House of Representatives during the Federalist ascendancy in the 1790s. Finally, Madison returned to executive power as Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state and then as president. Introverted and bookish, Madison was inclined to grand political theories and a naïve expectation that people and nations would act rationally. He crafted a political system intended to accommodate the clash of disagreement while maintaining personal amity, and he went to great lengths to maintain friendships with his opponents. Ironically, he nevertheless became a leading partisan in a system he had designed to render parties unnecessary, and he began the unfortunate practice of labeling policies he disagreed with as unconstitutional, leading to breaks with former friends George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Feldman's scholarly yet accessible account emphasizes the evolution of Madison's views on the Constitution and his hard-earned flexibility as well as the maturation of his viewpoints and skills as he learned to adapt pure theories of government to political realities and then to make public virtues of the practical necessities. The richly detailed narrative, while occasionally lacking fire, is suitable for general readers; Feldman's presentation of Madison's adventures when the British burned the capital in 1814 is particularly rousing. The author skates over some setbacks and controversial decisions, like the rejection of a British armistice offer early in the War of 1812, and makes a brave job of harmonizing Madison's lifelong devotion to personal liberty with his status as a slaveholder.
A timely biography presenting a valuable counterbalance to the current enthusiasm for Hamilton.