• Richard Brookhiser, James Madison, New York: Basic Books, 2011, 304 pages, $26.99.
He’s known as the Father of the Constitution, despite the fact that he didn’t much like the product that emerged from the secretive convention that created that document.
He served as the fourth American president under the Constitution. Few at the time would have disputed his job qualifications, even after such Revolutionary Era titans as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson had elevated the executive office’s status.
Constitutional scholars and limited-government advocates regularly quote his words. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” “If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” You can track each of these aphorisms in the same hastily crafted essay.
Yet despite his resume, James Madison seems to reside on a slightly lower plain than the Father of Our Country, the man behind the Declaration of Independence — even the prickly president chronicled in a recent HBO miniseries.
National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser seeks to shine a light on Madison’s record in this new book, and not just because of the subject’s record as constitutional shepherd, president, and author of timeless political philosophy.
“Madison’s circumambient monument is American constitutionalism — the laws of doing and not doing, and all the debate and revisions they have generated (debating and revising are among the laws; some of the most important ongoing debates — over the power of the federal government, and of the courts; over free speech and freedom of religion — go back to Madison's lifetime),” Brookhiser notes. “Many other people helped build constitutionalism, including enemies of his, and he would be the last person to deny his collaborators. But he played a major role.”
But Madison’s achievements extended beyond the lofty realm of constitutional rhetoric. “His other monument, coequal if not greater, is American politics, the behavior that makes constitutionalism work: the ways and means of acquiring, conferring, and rebuking power, the party organizations and partisan media that are the vehicles of interest, ambition, and thought,” Brookhiser explains. “He was at the birth of the American political system, and he understood it better than almost all his great peers. Like the Constitution, politics has changed since he died, but not in ways that would make it unrecognizable to him, or that make him foreign to us. It is all around us, in election years, and every day between elections as well.”
Speaking of politics, Brookhiser notes the particular skill with which Madison handled relations with his most prominent political partner, the man who preceded him in the White House. Through a friendship that lasted for decades, Madison continually offered practical responses to Thomas Jefferson’s wild-eyed philosophical pronouncements.
Take, for example, Madison’s response to a 1785 letter in which Jefferson wondered aloud about abolishing feudal forms of inheritance and instituting progressive taxation. “Madison’s answer shows how he handled such starbursts,” Brookhiser writes. “He started with praise — Jefferson’s reflections would be a ‘valuable lesson’ to lawmakers everywhere. Then he tried to slow his friend down. He did not even address Jefferson’s suggested solutions. …”
Many observers have questioned Madison’s changing attitudes about the size and strength of government. He supported a stronger government when he was in a stronger position to guide it, Brookhiser notes.
“Madison biographers who want their hero to be consistent in all things will not be pleased with this analysis; political philosophers who value intellectual elegance and constitutional lawyers, who seek guidance from the Father of the Constitution, will be even less so,” he writes. “But we have to remember Madison’s job: politics. We will not find complete consistency in his career; we should not look for it. Politics always creates new situations, springs surprises, and throws unexpected problems, friends, and enemies at those who practice it.”
Those who tackle Brookhiser’s book should not be surprised when they encounter more interesting insights and analysis.