Gordon Wood praises Lynne Cheney's biography of James Madison in the NYTHistorians in the News
tags: Founding Fathers, James Madison
Lynne Cheney, a historian and the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, believes it is time to “clear away misconceptions” about the founder and fourth president, James Madison; to “brush off cobwebs that have accumulated around his achievements” and recover his “fine reputation,” which somehow has gotten lost over the past two centuries. “He is popularly regarded today — when remembered at all — less as a bold thinker and superb politician than as a shy and sickly scholar, someone hardly suited for the demands of daily life, much less the rough-and-tumble world of politicking.”
Since the past decade has seen a spate of books on Madison, some of them emphasizing just what a tough-minded politician he actually was, this seems an exaggeration. But no matter. If it justifies another book on Madison so much the better. We can’t know too much about a man who, Cheney says in “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” “did more than any other to conceive and establish the nation we know.”...
The election of Jefferson as president in 1800 eased the crisis. Madison served as Jefferson’s secretary of state for two terms before becoming president himself in 1809 and serving for two terms. The British invasion of Washington and the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 may have hurt Madison’s subsequent reputation among historians, but, as Cheney correctly points out, the fourth president emerged from the war in 1815 more celebrated than ever.
Cheney mingles these political events of Madison’s career with the circumstances of his “harum-scarum” personal life. She includes a multitude of details, among them descriptions of tobacco farming, the experience of a British prisoner of war, Madison’s boarding bill in Philadelphia, the purchase of table settings from James Monroe, Gilbert Stuart’s painting of Madison’s and Dolley’s portraits, an abscess on Dolley’s knee, a duel by Dolley’s brother-in-law — all of which, however trivial, contribute to the richness of her biography. She nicely describes Madison’s college experience and the personality of President Witherspoon. She spends several pages on Madison’s engagement at age 32 to the 15-year-old Kitty Floyd. Madison was disappointed when Floyd broke off the relationship, but he did not totally despair. “For myself a delicacy to female character will impose some patience,” he wrote, and “hope for . . . some more propitious turn of fortune.” That turn finally came in 1794 when Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widow who, when she became first lady, tended to overshadow her reserved and diminutive husband.
So easily does Cheney move from the personal to the political and back again that she tends to flatten out her narrative line. There is not much highlighting of the truly important events. Since people usually live their lives this way, perhaps blending the significant with the trivial is justified in a narrative biography. But analysis tends to get lost in this kind of smooth storytelling. Cheney, for example, never stops to explain fully what lay behind Madison’s extraordinary sense of crisis in the mid-1780s, which led to his writing of the Virginia Plan. In her telling, he saw the Articles as unworkable and the states misbehaving, and that was that. Nor does she pause to analyze Madison’s radical change of opinion in the early 1790s toward the federal government he had done so much to bring about. She simply assumes Madison’s “emphasis had . . . changed from what the federal government could do to what it couldn’t.”
Still, Cheney’s biography is lucidly written (her description of the Madisons’ actions during the burning of the buildings in the capital in 1814 is especially dramatic), and she clearly brings to life the character and personality of Madison. Apart from Ralph Louis Ketcham’s 1971 life, this is probably the best single-volume biography of Madison that we now have.
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