Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Three Lives of James Madison, by Noah Feldman

A political biography of the fourth President, "Father of the Constitution."

The Three Lives of James Madison

Random House, 2017, 816 pages

A sweeping reexamination of the Founding Father who transformed the United States in each of his political "lives" - as a revolutionary thinker, as a partisan political strategist, and as a president.

Over the course of his life, James Madison changed the United States three times: First, he designed the Constitution, led the struggle for its adoption and ratification, then drafted the Bill of Rights. As an older, cannier politician, he cofounded the original Republican party, setting the course of American political partisanship. Finally, having pioneered a foreign policy based on economic sanctions, he took the United States into a high-risk conflict, becoming the first wartime president and, despite the odds, winning.

In The Three Lives of James Madison, Noah Feldman offers an intriguing portrait of this elusive genius and the constitutional republic he created - and how both evolved to meet unforeseen challenges. Madison hoped to eradicate partisanship yet found himself giving voice to and institutionalizing the political divide. Madison's lifelong loyalty to Thomas Jefferson led to an irrevocable break with George Washington, hero of the American Revolution. Madison closely collaborated with Alexander Hamilton on the Federalist papers - yet their different visions for the United States left them enemies.

Alliances defined Madison, too. The vivacious Dolley Madison used her social and political talents to win her husband new supporters in Washington - and define the diplomatic customs of the capital's society. Madison's relationship with James Monroe, a mixture of friendship and rivalry, shaped his presidency and the outcome of the War of 1812.

We may be more familiar with other Founding Fathers, but the United States today is in many ways Madisonian in nature. Madison predicted that foreign threats would justify the curtailment of civil liberties. He feared economic inequality and the power of financial markets over politics, believing that government by the people demanded resistance to wealth. Madison was the first Founding Father to recognize the importance of public opinion and the first to understand that the media could function as a safeguard to liberty.

The Three Lives of James Madison is an illuminating biography of the man whose creativity and tenacity gave us America's distinctive form of government. His collaborations, struggles, and contradictions define the United States to this day.

Madison on Twitter

The Three Lives of James Madison divides Madison's political career into three acts: revolutionary patriot and architect of the Constitution; partisan politician who helped Jefferson create the Democratic-Republican party; and POTUS #4, who would be the first president to lead America into a declared war.

This being the fourth book in my sequential track through presidential biographies, I enjoyed reading once again about all the Founding Fathers seen through yet another lens. As before, I've found that biographers tend to be more sympathetic to their own subjects than their rivals, even when not being completely uncritical. Noah Feldman doesn't paint a flawless picture of Madison, pointing out his fumbles at romance and diplomacy, among other things, and addressing his mealy-mouthed stance on slavery in a final chapter. But he does write of Madison admiringly, and there is a lot to admire, even if there's a lot to criticize as well. I finished this book liking Madison better than I liked Jefferson, but still thinking that these Virginia plantation owners have a lot to answer for.

The Three Lives of James Madison is a dense and somewhat dry book, because Madison's political thoughts are dense and somewhat dry. He was an unexciting policy wonk and political theorist. His childhood is barely mentioned: he was the son of a wealthy Virginian plantation owner, so he never really had to worry about working. (Though he proved to be pretty inept at running a plantation, and died leaving his wife, Dolley, in debt.) There isn't much here about the Revolutionary War either, as Madison was already serving in the Virginia legislature. He wouldn't actually see battle until the War of 1812.

"Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death! (and fuck your federalism and your Constitution)"

Americans hold the Constitution as nearly sacred today, and seeing how the sausage was made back in 1787 puts into perspective just how much of a compromise the Constitution was. Nearly the entire first half of the book is about the Constitutional Convention and the political battle to ratify the Constitution, and a deep dive into Madison's thoughts on how to establish the Republic. Many different schemes were proposed and discarded. Every possible way of dividing up the powers of the government, voting rights, and political bodies was considered, and every one would give some incremental advantage to some states and disadvantage to others. Every state basically wanted the federal government to have only powers that wouldn't affect them.

The Constitution was never uncontroversial. Looming large in Madison's life at this time was that old revolutionary firebrand Patrick Henry, who was now Governor of Virginia and giving some real barn-burner speeches about the tyranny of the proposed Constitution, and worse, a "Bill of Rights" which would give the government even more laws it could use to oppress the states.

(The Bill of Rights, in fact, was Madison's attempt to prevent a second Constitutional Congress, which he anticipated would be a disaster from his Republican perspective.)

Patrick Henry on Twitter

While at times I found many pages of Madison's political philosophy less than enthralling (I admit I have yet to actually read the Federalist Papers), it is certainly important and useful knowledge that would benefit a lot of contemporary voters. Why? Because today we tend to have a Giants Walked the Earth In Those Golden Ages view of American history: once upon a time, wise, patriotic, freedom-loving, incorruptible, God-fearing men with only the best of intentions wrote the Constitution and created a new nation (and every administration since has been a downward slide). You see this rhetoric constantly. Some of the people deploying it know better; others would probably be genuinely shocked to learn that many of the Founding Fathers hated each other's guts, and for all their gnashing of teeth over activist judges, usurper Chief Executives, and cries of the Constitution being "dead," etc., fail to remember that these very same arguments were alive even when the ink was still wet.

Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Henry, Hamilton, all those guys — they did the best they could. With conflicting interests, self-interest, cognitive dissonance, and partisan blind spots. They created a compromise that would hold shit together, and complained about how their opponents sabotaged the results. Just like today.

Against the Antidisestablishmentarianists

Although Madison was less heretical in his religious beliefs than Jefferson, he wasn't particularly zealous and he was strongly in favor of freedom of religion. This led him into several early battles with the antidisestablishmentarianists, and Feldman recounts his opposition to various schemes to fund state churches or protect religious liberty only for some denominations.

Ironically, he was not so adamant about political free expression. He believed in freedom of speech, and especially the First Amendment, and he was incensed with the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams administration, and so in the opinion of some of his peers, he was later perhaps too tolerate of anti-republican sentiments during the War of 1812.

Adams on Twitter

That said, while earlier in his life he tried very hard to separate political disagreements from personal ones, as he became more of a partisan politician, he came to see his political rivals as not just wrong, but wrong. He would even succumb to the temptations of populist invective, dipping into rhetoric contrasting true, red-blooded, honest tillers of soil who actually grew food and made things with their hands, and scheming Northern bankers who pushed paper around and created imaginary wealth out of thin air.

In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground
We create, you just wanna move our money around
This financial plan is an outrageous demand
And it's too many damn pages for any man to understand
Stand with me in the land of the free and pray to God we never see Hamilton's candidacy.

— yet another Hamilton lyric

This was particularly true of Alexander Hamilton. Madison and Hamilton co-wrote the Federalist Papers, and collaborated to persuade their fellow delegates to ratify the Constitution. Madison regarded Hamilton as a friend, until he began viewing with alarm the rise of Hamilton's Federalist party.

Hamilton on Twitter

The Room Where It Happened

Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room

Diametrically opposed

They emerge with a compromise
Having open doors that were previously closed

The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power
A system he can shape however he wants
The Virginians emerge with the nation's capital
And here's the pièce de résistance

No one else was in the room where it happened

In 1790, Jefferson (Secretary of State), Madison (then a House representative in Congress), and Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury) met at Jefferson's residence in New York City. The "dinner table bargain" came to be known as the Compromise of 1790. Hamilton secured Jefferson and Madison's support (or in Madison's case, a promise not to oppose it too strenuously) for his Assumption plan, whereby the federal government would assume state debts for the Revolutionary War. In exchange, the nation's capitol, which was then likely to have become either New York City or Philadelphia, would be established on the Potomac. This would shift the nation's center of power to the agrarian South, and would also be a major economic benefit to Maryland and Virginia. Thus did Washington, D.C. come to be.

That was the last time Madison was able to cooperate with Hamilton. The two of them irrevocably split over Hamilton's national bank, which Madison viewed as a project to shift economic power from the agrarian South to the mercantile North. Madison, as much as Jefferson, came to see Hamilton as a diabolical threat to the Republic, with monarchical intentions. It was more than a little bit distressing to Madison that Hamilton's national bank was proving Patrick Henry's fears of federalism correct.

This wouldn't be the last time Madison lost friends over political disagreements. Long a Washington supporter, despite Washington's increasingly Federalist leanings, and considered by Washington a friend and ally as well, Madison would become extremely critical of the John Jay Treaty with Britain. Like many Americans, Madison believed Jay had sold the country out to British interests, and this reflected on Washington, who ratified it. The implied criticism of his judgment stung the ever-dignified Washington, who was very concerned about his posterity, and after a last dinner at the White House, the two men never spoke again.

Washington on Twitter

The Great Little Madison

Madison was smart (though lacking Hamilton's genius), even-tempered, calm, patient, and, well, a little dull. Even his contemporaries hobnobbing with him in Philadelphia and Washington described him as uninteresting and basically not much fun at parties. He was not a hit with the ladies.

One of the few insights Feldman provides into Madison's personal life was his failed attempt to court Catherine "Kitty" Floyd, the daughter of one his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress. Kitty was 15 at the time; Madison was 32. This was only maybe a little tiny bit creepy in the 18th century, and apparently Madison's fellow politicians at the boarding house where they all stayed enjoyed subjecting him to the usual male encouragement/roasting as he went about his wooing. His friend Thomas Jefferson even tried to play Cyrano, interceding on his behalf with Kitty.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison: The Hostess with the Mostest.

The two of them "dated" for a while, meaning they took a few walks together, and things progressed far enough that Madison seemed to believe there would be an engagement soon. Then, in a letter to Jefferson, he casually mentions that it was all off and Kitty was out of the picture. What happened? According to Feldman, we don't know. There is only speculation. Maybe Kitty was just leading Madison on while waiting for the guy she really liked to propose. Maybe she was just going along to avoid offending him until she could negotiate an exit ("No, Dad, really, I don't want to marry that boring old dude!") Maybe Madison got handsy one night and Kitty took offense. Who knows? But Madison got jilted and he seemed to suck at romance generally.

Years later, in Philadelphia, he met Dolley Paine Todd, the most eligible widowed hottie in town. Supposedly Aaron Burr helped arrange introductions between them. Dolley had recently lost her husband and son to a yellow fever epidemic, and was struggling to support her surviving son. Despite her precarious financial situation, however, she was young and attractive and not lacking in prospects, so Madison must have had some game. She called him "the great little Madison," with evident affection. Although the two of them never had children, by all accounts their marriage was a good one.

Scoring Dolley was a stroke of luck for Madison personally and politically. Dolley had all the social skills he was lacking, and became the first First Lady to really fill out the role, turning the White House into the Place To Be.

One of the more amusing anecdotes in this book is of Dolley trying to coach the hapless Madison and Thomas Jefferson both as they are entering a White House dinner and about to inadvertently snub the wife of the British ambassador. "No, you idiots, escort her, not me!" she whispers. (Well, she didn't actually say "you idiots," but she was probably thinking it.)

Republicanism Meets Reality

It's during his "second political life" as Congressman and partisan that Madison becomes the anti-Hamiltonian politician depicted (somewhat unfairly as Jefferson's tool) in Lin-Manuel Miranda's play.

Thomas Jefferson was Madison's friend and mentor. Like Jefferson, Madison eschewed partisan politics. Unlike Jefferson, he meant it. But like Jefferson, he was unable to avoid the reality of partisanship, and so the two of them formed the Democratic-Republican Party (which later became simply the Republicans), in opposition to Hamilton's Federalist party. One of the points Feldman makes repeatedly is that Madison sincerely believed in separating political disagreements from personal feelings, and tried to remain friends even with his adversaries. This is why he managed to stay friends with James Monroe, who despite being a Virginia Republican like him, repeatedly ran against him and even fought against ratification of the Constitution. But as Hamilton grew in power and influence, Madison came to see Hamilton as not just a political adversary, but someone who was bent on subverting and destroying the Republic: not just an opponent, but an enemy.

Madison, unlike Jefferson, was fairly consistent in his principles, and when his position changed, it was generally because his thinking had genuinely evolved, and not just because his principles were no longer convenient. His strict Republican ideals led to him opposing Hamilton's national bank, and even during the War of 1812, he tried to avoid the necessity of raising a standing army.

The White House burning

Yeah... that didn't go so well.

Madison's "third life" was of course as the fourth president, following Jefferson's two terms. Madison's presidency was, by most measures, successful. He left office after two terms with the country bigger, more powerful, and wealthier than when he took office. However, he certainly made some blunders along the way, arguably the greatest of which was the War of 1812.

In hindsight, the war was probably more to America's benefit than not — it established the country as a world power, set the United States up to assert its sovereignty over North America, and basically bought us some "street cred" with Europe. However, at best the war could be considered a draw for the U.S.. Madison's repeated failures to invade Canada showed how inept the American military was at the time, and he totally got outfoxed by France and Britain diplomatically. He attempted to negotiate peace with both powers and play them off against each other. Instead, Napoleon succeeded in playing America off against Britain. Dolley had to flee the White House just before British troops arrived to burn it.

But at least Madison got us Florida...

Florida Man

It seems strange now to imagine a United States without a military, or even the idea that a world power could exist without one, but Madison wanted to rely entirely on militias, even during the war, and only reluctantly came around to recognizing that we actually needed an army and a navy.

This wasn't the only area where Madison's earlier republican ideals began to give way to reality. Besides becoming increasingly partisan and seeing political opponents as enemies of the Constitution, Madison also proved a little bit hypocritical about state power vs. federal power — though he went in the opposite direction as Jefferson. While seeking ratification of the Constitution, Madison had argued for a federal government, in opposition to anti-federalist Patrick Henry. Now, he wanted to preserve states rights, and awkwardly found himself sometimes having to rein in the increasingly radical Jefferson, who seemed at times to want to completely deconstruct the Constitution Madison had created.

Jefferson on Twitter

The Legacy of the Least Fun Founding Father

James Madison

Lastly, there is that elephant in every Virginian Founding Father's room: slavery. Madison was, perhaps, not quite as big a hypocrite as Jefferson, but he still shared in the same hypocrisy as his mentor, condemning slavery, speaking unequivocally of its moral injustice and even the understandable desire of slaves to be free, even rejecting the assumption that Africans were inferior to whites... and yet, he owned slaves, and never made any real efforts to free either his own or anyone else's. Like Jefferson (and Washington, and Monroe), he hedged, talking about how blacks and whites could not coexist peacefully as blacks would harbor resentment against their former masters (hmm, you think?). To his credit, he did spend quite a lot of time after he left the White House coming up with a grandiose scheme whereby the federal government would sell land to raise the cash to outright purchase all slaves, and then send them to a new country in Africa that would be established for them. This was laudable in principle, perhaps, if not in execution. But unlike Jefferson, at least Madison tried.


My takeaway from this book was that Madison was a much more principled man than Jefferson, and while perhaps he didn't have Jefferson's intellectual curiosity or congenial personality, in the modern day he'd have been a pretty good ex-president. He wasn't a very interesting man personally, but his political careers were eventful and showcased his intellect, and if the Constitution he architected was flawed and compromised, it was probably also the best that could have been produced under the circumstances.

The Three Lives of James Madison was not exactly enthralling, but that's partly the fault of its not exactly enthralling subject. I did find Feldman's writing to be thorough, fair, and unafraid to delve into the nitty gritty of early American politics, putting together a complex picture of all the issues Madison faced, locally, federally, and internationally. Partisanship was as complicated and aggravating then as it is now; the personalities and ambitions of individuals equally capable of derailing any plans built on a foundation of logic and reason. In the words of his future wife, he was "the great little Madison," small in stature and not exactly a hit at parties, but definitely one of our most important Founders.

This was a good history book, but unless you're taking a deep dive into POTUSes like I am, or you have a particular interest in James Madison, I can't say it should necessarily make it to the top of your reading list.

My complete list of book reviews.
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