One of my favored methods for exploring United States history is through the biographies of American presidents, which often provide a critical lens to their respective eras. I have read books on some eighteen of the forty-four men who have held that office to date, and my personal library contains volumes for all of them. More than once I have entertained the notion of reading them in chronological order, but each attempt stumbled on James Madison, number four on the list. One of the most prominent figures of the early Republic—a celebrated Founder who long before he was Chief Executive was renowned as “Father of the Constitution,” key author of the Federalist Papers, member of Congress, partner to Jefferson in creating the first political party, Secretary of State, and so much more—Madison has largely defied biographers because despite his distinguished achievements his elusive personality has somehow mostly been lost to history. We know so much about him, but so little of him. Thus, most attempts at biography drape enormous scholarship over a somewhat colorless outline of the man, and the final product tends to the dull and uninspiring, hardly doing justice to one of the greatest figures of his day.
Fortunately, David O. Stewart has come along with Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, a fresh and unique approach that relies upon key interactions with those whom Madison worked most closely with to sketch in many otherwise obscure contours of a fascinating if somewhat enigmatic character. Madison was physically tiny, and some have sought to cleverly contrast his diminutive size by casting him as a giant of a statesman, but it might be more accurate to instead emphasize his outsize role in the shadows of more flamboyant figures. That is the tack Stewart takes here by examining what we can learn about James Madison from his critical relationships with four other significant Founders—Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Monroe—and with his own wife, Dolley. In the process, Stewart crafts an episodic, well-written narrative that also serves as a kind of standalone history of key events in the early Republic.
Madison’s work with Hamilton as they teamed up as chief authors of the Federalist Papers and framers of the new Constitution—one that deeply alarmed those who jealously guarded state sovereignty—is a familiar story. Also much chronicled has been Madison’s long association with fellow-Virginian Jefferson, one that gained strength as they privately connived to turn “faction”—which was widely disparaged as odious—into a legitimate political party. The product of their collaboration was the (first) Republican Party (also known as the Democratic-Republican Party), which was to supplant the rival Federalists identified with Washington, Adams and Hamilton, and go on to dominate the nation’s political landscape for three decades to come.
Less studied but perhaps no less relevant was the close relationship Madison formed with Washington, as speechwriter, advisor and trusted confidante. Alas, this rapport was not to last, as Madison went off to serve in the nation’s first Congress, and Washington spent much of the first several years of his tenure contending with the bitter rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson, key cabinet members who represented two competing views of the role the federal government should play in the life of the new Republic. Madison stood on both sides of many of these issues, at least initially, but over time he was to align ever more in lockstep with Jefferson and thus increasingly in enmity with Hamilton, eventually alienating Washington by extension. One cannot help but wonder at alternative outcomes had Madison been part of that first cabinet rather than serving as legislator outside of Washington’s direct orbit.
Madison’s relationship with Monroe, another fellow Virginian and slightly younger contemporary, was in many ways far more complicated. Monroe—proud, ultrasensitive, and less cerebral than Madison or the others—was nevertheless a gifted negotiator and strong leader. Sometime rivals, what turned out to be a long association managed to survive strains and even fractures. It is in their on-again off-again alliance that Madison’s willingness to cede center-stage to those seeking the spotlight while nevertheless quietly and skillfully directing the action behind the scenes is made most evident. It was not that Madison was unambitious—he hardly could have achieved offices like Secretary of State or President if that was the case—but unlike many of his peers he did not wear this ambition as a badge, but was content to sidestep the jockeying for recognition that so obsessed the others, while he brilliantly if unobtrusively maneuvered for influence and power. Stewart’s portrait of Madison ever engaged in partnerships is not simply a narrative device; Madison genuinely thrived in these relationships. It may be that Madison has eluded us for so long largely because his other biographers have overlooked the centrality of this key ingredient.
As Madison’s Gift reveals, his “partnership” with Dolley was no less consequential than with those other notables. Madison was middle-aged when he met and married the much younger and taller winsome widow who was to forever define the role that would later be dubbed “First Lady.” It is only through her that we can better discern the man behind the curtain, who was apparently in the semi-privacy of his extended family quite playful and romantic, given to wine, a wicked sense humor, and even foot races. Stewart shares a delightful anecdote in which “Dolley, who was ‘stronger as well as larger than he,’ sometimes ‘could – and did – seize his hands, draw him upon her back, and go round the room with him.’” Finally, a palpable glimpse of the flesh-and-blood Madison that once walked the earth!
Stewart plainly admires his subject, but this is no hagiography; slaveowner Madison gets no pass from the author in this regard. The scholarly consensus is that by far the greatest flaw of the Founders was their collective failure to address the institution of human chattel slavery, which led directly to the Civil War that was to cost more than six hundred thousand American lives, and Madison was more than complicit in this later catastrophe. The once much-heralded three-fifths compromise that counted enslaved human beings as partial people for the purposes of representation was a cheat that evaded the existential crisis ahead. The Founding generation was evidently deeply disturbed by the contradictions in their own cries for liberty and equality when juxtaposed with what they themselves clearly acknowledged as an immense evil. We have ample evidence of these great men—Patrick Henry, Washington, Jefferson and indeed Madison—decrying slavery while failing to combat it. The striking ambivalence is perhaps best articulated in Jefferson’s famous “wolf by the ear” analogy that sounds more like an excuse than a rationale. For the sake of his own legacy, Washington had the good fortune to die before the eighteenth century expired while manumitting his slaves in his will. Jefferson and Madison lived on with their human property to bob-and-weave intellectually, while toying with African colonization schemes, and ever making excuses against abolition. Indeed, later in life Madison actually went on record blaming abolitionists for spawning crises rather than slaveowners for enabling a morally abhorrent system that hardly shielded them from the ever-looming debt and bankruptcy that the planter aristocracy rode upon.
Madison’s Gift revisits the elderly statesman’s final public role as representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829 that also featured other ancient stand-ins from the early days of the Republic such as John Marshall and Monroe. The revered Madison appeared anachronistically clad in eighteenth-century attire in what turned out to be an epic failure to address slavery, representation, and a more equitable expansion of the franchise. He also lived through the Virginia House of Delegates sessions of 1831-32 that debated abolition, but was not a participant. [Each of these grand missed opportunities is covered in great detail in Susan Dunn’s magnificent Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia.]
When Madison died in 1836, he had outlived nearly everyone of significance of his era (Aaron Burr passed only a few months later), but this great issue of human bondage lingered. Only twenty-five years later, the Republic was ripped asunder over it. To make matters worse, Jefferson’s cries during the crisis over the Alien & Sedition Acts that a state might resist federal laws—a notion Madison seemed to echo, with a pronounced nuance others overlooked—regained a stubborn currency in the march to secession. With a tragic irony, the great Madison, who had done so much to make and give polish to the new nation, left behind sharp edges for another generation to fashion into weapons wielded to sever and unmake it.
I first encountered Stewart in his earlier work, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, which introduced a brilliant new perspective that unsettled established historiography. This accomplishment is made even more impressive by the fact that the author is not a trained historian, but an attorney! That this achievement was no fluke is powerfully demonstrated in Madison’s Gift, a superb contribution to history and biography that significantly furthers our interpretation of the figures that peopled the early Republic. And, thanks to Stewart, I can check off Madison and resume my chronological challenge: now it’s on to Monroe!
My review of: Dominion of Memories is here:
I reviewed other works by David O. Stewart here: