James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

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James Madison Book Cover James Madison
Lynne Cheney
Biography & Autobiography
Penguin
May 5, 2015
576

This majestic new biography of James Madison explores the astonishing story of a man of vaunted modesty who audaciously changed the world. Among the Founding Fathers, Madison was a true genius of the early republic. Outwardly reserved, Madison was the intellectual driving force behind the Constitution and crucial to its ratification. His visionary political philosophy and rationale for the union of states-so eloquently presented in The Federalist papers-helped shape the country Americans live in today.

“Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore . . . all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate.”

–James Madison

 This book started out a little scattershot and superficial in its presentation — but as the history evolved, the significance of Madison developed into an amazing commentary on the difference between a politician and a statesman.  In today’s volatile, politically restive world, many of us find ourselves wondering who, exactly those in public office are serving.  I don’t think I am alone in having thought and even voiced the opinion that politicians of today work only for their own self-interests, with little consideration for the people they are supposedly representing.  Cheney’s book offers a good look into why that dissatisfaction exists.  It is well written, although some of the history is a little shallow in its coverage.  But it gives us a great insight into the mind behind our U. S. Constitution, and a firmer understanding on how the loss of statecraft has left our modern political arena devoid of powerful leaders.

The name Madison has been associated in our cultural consciences with the authorship of the Constitution since our earliest history lessons.  However, this book provides an amazing insight into the man behind that authorship.  Cheney gives us an appreciation for the man who was willing to give up everything for the well-being of his country.  His devotion to the ideals he immortalized in his historic document were a part of his life that could not be separated from the man.  In the face crisis, differing opinions, the rise of party factions, the loss of friendships and even through the devastation of war, Madison demonstrated the importance of the concept of the American Republic.  Through Cheney’s book, we are able to expand our understanding of his passions and beliefs — in order to gain a fuller understanding of how he became the most pro-constitutional president our nation has ever known.  

Cheney shows us the man who has the same gift for writing as that of Thomas Jefferson, with whom he shared a passion for reading, learning and evolving in the political sphere.  Like Jefferson, Madison was a man of contradictions, living in a world that could not be wholly reconciled with his inner-most beliefs. Those contradictions reflected in his defense of those he could never completely trust, his faith in the absolute superlative quality of the constitutional foundations at the head of a nation that still subscribed to slavery as a way of life and even his belief that “partial interests had to be put aside in order to support the general government, which had been ‘instituted for the protection of all'” while maintaining a plantation on the backs of slaves. (Cheney, pg. 189).  

The core of Madison’s political beliefs — one that we frequently find missing today — is that the Constitution is a document of enumerated powers granted to government.  Anything that was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution remained forever and unquestioningly in the sphere of the States and the people.  The Federal government could not take to itself anything beyond what the Constitution allotted to it.   This was as absolute in times of peace as in times of conflict and even war. Nowhere was this more evident than at the close of the War of 1812 when it was generally believed that “he had proved that a republic could defend itself and remain a republic still,” by waging war, while still maintaining unfalteringly to the governmental powers outlined in the Constitution, without abridging the rights of the people or compromising the integrity of the government he helped create.  As he left the presidential office it was even said of him:

Power and national glory, sir, have often before been acquired by the sword; but rarely without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty . . . When we reflect that this sword was drawn under your guidance, we cannot resist offering you our own as well as a nation’s thanks for the vigilance with which you have restrained it within its proper limits, the energy with which you have directed it to its proper objects, and the safety with which you have wielded an armed force . . . without infringing a political, civil, or religious right.  (Dr. James Blake, as quoted by Lynne Cheney, pg. 426).

Madison was more than the author of the Constitution.  He was one of the great founding fathers.  Cheney has presented a great book for demonstrating his iron will commitment to the principles he outlined for the foundation of the American government. She allows us a glimpse into the beginnings of this government, as well as some great points to ponder in regards to where that government is today, in relation to the high ideals that originally defined it in the days of Madison.  A must read and well worth the time.

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