James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney (Four Stars)

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney

Four Stars out of Five

Why write another biography of a historic figure, who every school child knows all about? Because modern scholarship allows the diligent researcher to retract exchanges by letters, some in cipher, with official records and contemporary media accounts to give a fuller picture of who said and did what to and with whom. This approach is especially fruitful with eighteenth century figures whose correspondence was saved. Through these we learn that the office of Vice President was an accident, the British assault of Washington a spur-of-the-moment venture and Monroe was as often Madison’s foe as his ally.

Everyone knows Madison was The Father of the Constitution, but they don’t know the man. This tome corrects that. Often described and small and sickly, Madison was in fact cautious of recurring seizures but robust by any standards. (Once, when a rain-swollen stream blocked his way, he disassembled his carriage and carried it across in pieces, then reassembled it an went on.) He was short, simple of speech in a world or orators, and willing to change his mind in a world of close-mindedness. He was a scholar who sought historical solutions for contemporarily issues.

Politics was partisan, bitter, apocalyptic and (occasionally, in those days of duels) deadly. The media cared as little about truth as now. Often your friends blocked you as much as your enemies.

Madison, like Jefferson, owned slaves even as he troubled over the morality of slavery. Neither man found an workable solution, though Madison supported the American Colonization Society efforts to resettle freed slave in Liberia.

More important Cheney leads us into the inner thoughts of the creative men and women who founded this nation to help us understand what drove them. Modern politicians would do well to consider how Madison’s opinions and actions evolved as the nation faced new challenges.

Dolly Madison also benefits from a reconsideration which gives depth to the fashionable airhead too often depicted.

As one overlays biographies of Franklin, Washington, Henry, Jefferson, Adams and Madison on studies state and national history, a real feeling develops for these people as people. There greatest and their foibles recede from epic to human scale. And spotting the off-key note becomes easier. This biography of Madison harmonizes with those others mentioned.

Sadly, like that entire generation of Virginia Presidents, the declining economics of slave-based plantation life left Madison impoverished in his old age. Old Washington seems to have bucked the trend by diversifying his crops and industries.

The author is wife of the former Vice President. She acknowledges her ringside seat to Washington politics added her both motivation and access to complete this work. Her prose is clear and enjoyable. Political bias one might expect is absent.