Brookhiser (Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, 2009, etc.) explores America’s tangled two-party political system and the man instrumental in creating it, James Madison (1751–1836).
The author investigates Madison’s transition from ideological framer of the Constitution to a fervent party man who fought against the Federalist party for decades and led his Republican party during its first military foray, the War of 1812. Though he came of age under the influence and tutelage of luminaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Brookhiser’s portrayal of Madison grounds him in the backbiting, often inglorious machinations of his contemporary political system; this approach is both significant and refreshing in presenting Madison as a flawed man, rather than a godlike “founding father.” The author focuses exclusively on Madison the politician, and thereby exposes some of Madison’s less respectable motives for tackling his political enemies—one favored strategy was to enlist vocal, if not always reliable, journalists to spearhead political attacks in the rough-and-tumble world of early American periodicals. This practice, coupled with Madison’s lifelong faith in the power of public opinion and his commitment to protect the freedom of the presses, opens an interesting avenue into this early usage of public opinion and blustering journalism to shape public policy. This is a slim volume, noticeably so in a biography of an instrumental man like Madison; as such, there are episodes of both personal and political moment that would greatly benefit from additional context and analysis. How, for example, could two such close allies, Madison and the fiery Alexander Hamilton, find themselves at opposite ends of a bitter political feud over the role of central government? What was at stake, other than a rather parochial land lust, for Madison and Jefferson as they pursued western expansion? How did Dolley Madison, historically recognized as the first “political wife,” contribute to his politics and his personal life?
A useful introduction to a man who is often outshone by his presidential predecessors but who nevertheless was instrumental in creating our modern political system.