Lynne Cheney has written what may be the most authoritative and comprehensive book ever on the life of Founding Father and president James Madison. It offers a fascinating perspective into how brilliant Madison truly was – possibly even more so than any of the other Founding Fathers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Adams and James Monroe are also covered extensively, with some rather unsavory things revealed about Hamilton and Henry in particular.
For those who don’t know much about the Founding Fathers, or need a refresher, Cheney’s 564-page book is an excellent resource. Cheney includes everything, including social history, philosophical analysis and coverage of the nation’s early land and sea battles. It is an enjoyable way to learn about the Federalist Papers, instead of simply reading the original texts without any background. Cheney explains why the Founding Fathers found the need to use pen names, in order to protect their jobs in government. Sometimes they would even anonymously attack each other while working for each other. Although Madison was a good friend of Washington’s, he occasionally took slight jabs at Washington’s policies using pseudonyms.
Cheney reveals the infighting that went on between the Founding Fathers. They disagreed over many of the principles we take for granted today, and it was a long and arduous process getting the states to agree to ratify the Constitution. For the most part, Madison got along well with Washington, and was close friends with Jefferson, but he frequently got into disputes with Hamilton as time went on. Of course, these disputes were usually not the outrageous feuds of today over massive government spending and radical programs, but addressed the need for a standing army, excise taxes or immediate adoption of a Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, there were still some parallels to today’s debates. Alexander Hamilton famously said during one such session, “What even is the Virginia Plan but pork still, with a little change of the sauce?”
Cheney provides a detailed account of the process of drafting the Constitution, revealing which position each Founder took on various issues. Madison was the ultimate pragmatist, who often reeled in the more radical Jefferson. Jefferson would run his writings past Madison first, knowing Madison would tone them down to sound more reasonable. For example, at one point, Jefferson said 19 years is the length of time that any generation should be at the height of power, and should not be able to require future generations to pay debt. As a result of Madison’s sage advice, Jefferson referred to Madison as “the greatest man in the world.” John Quincy Adams talked about “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other.” Cheney relays several fascinating stories of how Madison strategically operated in moves akin to chess, getting his agenda implemented despite so many divisive players.
It was intriguing to learn that Jefferson was an instigator, constantly prodding Madison to write anonymous hit pieces. Madison frequently obliged him. The volume of writing Madison did was phenomenal.
Washington became the first president at the same time Madison was elected to Congress from Virginia. Madison drafted Washington’s inaugural presidential speech. After the inauguration, Madison drafted Congress’s response to the speech. Then he went back and ghostwrote Washington’s reply! Finally, Madison ghostwrote Washington’s response to the Senate. “Never again in the history of the United States would any politician’s voice reverberate as Madison’s did in the early days of the Republic,” Cheney writes.
Madison’s curious progression from a Federalist to a Democrat-Republican is traced, as he began to realize that too big of a central government is dangerous. Hence the ingenuity of the name behind today’s conservative legal organization the Federalist Society, which features Madison’s profile as its symbol to reflect both traditions. Madison ultimately came around full circle in some ways, initially opposing the creation of a national bank urged by Hamilton, to finally accepting and even agreeing with its existence. Madison served as Secretary of State under Jefferson, becoming president after him.
There is a great deal of information about the French Revolution and its initial appeal to some of the Founders, particularly Jefferson and Madison. But as time went on, they began to see the bloodshed and its less democratic aims did not reflect the ideals and principles of the American Revolution.
There was a split among the states in the nation’s early years whether to side more with England or France throughout the various battles, with the New England states favoring England, and the southern states preferring France. The War of 1812 and Napoleon’s rise to power are covered in detail, revealing how the fledgling United States tried to play neutral despite having its ships attacked by both the French and the English. When the country finally went to war with England under Madison as president, the victories served to unite the divisive factions within the country, resulting in the disintegration of the Federalist Party. The stories of the various battles are the most exciting part of the book, and include many famous names, including Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and Tecumseh.
Madison’s wife, Dolley, is prominently featured in the book. It is telling of the inferior role women played at the time, when she stressed to him her “want of talents” and “diffidence in expressing her opinions [on matters] always imperfectly understood by her sex.” However, they seem to have enjoyed an equal and loving marriage, and Dolley did have considerable influence within the political scene.
Many of the Founding Fathers were very young when they helped draft the Constitution and served in office, in their 30s. Men during that time frequently died young, in their 40s or 50s. Some, like Madison, received a good deal of their funding from their parents, consoling to those of us today who feel rather inadequate in comparison.
Madison suffered from epilepsy, and Jefferson suffered from headaches, which would cause him to avoid work for hours during the day as president until they subsided. “John Adams was known to collapse and once lay in a coma for five days.” Yet all three overcame their frailties to serve as president of the fledgling United States of America.
The one troubling part about Madison’s life is he never freed his slaves, nor did Jefferson. However, Madison did become a founding member of the American Colonization Society, an antislavery organization that sought to relocate freed slaves to Liberia. Madison saw slavery as did many southerners at the time; it “was a great evil, which the current generation had not caused and saw no way of ending quickly without destroying the south.”
Madison painstakingly went over his writings in later years, and revised some of them to reflect the legacy he wanted to leave, in particular, softening criticisms he had made of other leaders like Lafayette.
Both Madison and Jefferson died practically penniless, selling off many of their belongings, a stark contrast to recent comments made by Hillary Clinton complaining that she and Bill Clinton were “broke” after he left office as president. After the Clintons left the presidency, where he made a $200,000 annual salary, he continued to receive a large pension, which started at $161,000 in 2001. He’s received $15,938,000 total from the federal government since leaving office in 2001. In contrast, presidents prior to 1958 received no pension after leaving office.
Thanks to the knowledge Lynne Cheney gained from serving on the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, and her diligence visiting libraries all over the country digging up obscure documents, we can now know James Madison for the real genius he was, in fact. Perhaps due to so many of his writings being anonymous, he has never been accorded the acclaim George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have received throughout the annals of American history. This book may just change that long-held view.