One might think it would be difficult to exaggerate James Madison’s accomplishments. After all, the man played the central role in elevating religious freedom to prime place on the totem pole of American political principle, and he outstripped all competitors in committing the United States to an experiment with written political constitutions. He also developed the argument for strict construction of the Constitution, founded America’s first federal political party, co-authored the United States’ most famous work of political science, and played a key role in the Louisiana Purchase.
Yet historians do exaggerate Madison’s achievements. So do recent accounts by non-historians, including this offering from Lynne Cheney. She explains her decision to produce yet another—I nearly said “laudatory,” but “adulatory” seems more appropriate—biography of Madison by reference to the public’s general unfamiliarity with the subject. The idea that Madison has been neglected in recent decades marks Cheney’s book as a rather odd product from the beginning: as Thomas Jefferson’s star has fallen from the sky, James Madison has become a special favorite of most historians. He has held that position for well over three decades now.
In James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, Cheney repeats the standard view consistently. Thus, despite his own insistence that the Constitution was the work of many hands and his great dissatisfaction with the Philadelphia Convention’s finished product, Madison here is “Father of the Constitution”; despite his stated intention that the federal Bill of Rights should have very little practical effect, she makes his role in securing its adoption an epochal triumph; despite the paucity of evidence that The Federalist persuaded much of anyone to vote to ratify the Constitution, she makes it the central feature of the ratification campaign; despite the fact that Madison’s experiment with substituting economic for military power in foreign policy resulted in the burning of the capital, Cheney has essentially nothing critical to say about Madison as a war president; and so on and on.
Madison’s contemporaries considered Benjamin Franklin their country’s great intellectual ornament. Cheney judges Madison greater, but she does not stop there: although a good case can be made that Sir Isaac Newton was history’s greatest scientist, Cheney says that Madison was more brilliant than he. (Thomas Jefferson would have been shocked to find himself ranked above Newton as well.) She reports Madison’s 1818 address to the Albemarle Agricultural Society without even hinting that it was long an object of derision.
Although a slaveholder, and a substantial one, to the end of his days, Madison in Cheney’s account was unhappily so. One has not the slightest hint here that contrary to the practice in the preceding Jefferson administration, Dolley Madison stationed a slave at the elbow of every table guest at White House dinners. My point is not that this is surprising: in fact, Madison does seem to have held more liberal racial views than Jefferson. Still, he was an extremely wealthy politician whose power was built on slavery, and he did essentially nothing to change that. Further, he raised no objection when slaves were excluded from the Virginia Declaration of Rights’ statement that all men were born free and equal. That Madison continued to advocate “colonization”—repatriating free blacks overseas—for years after Thomas Roderick Dew of the College of William and Mary showed it to be impracticable, and that he occasionally lamented slavery’s existence, should not be twisted into an account of a tormented conscience.
Here we may pause to recollect that Lynne Cheney first came to public attention in an imbroglio 20 years ago over proposed national history standards. She was perhaps the only person in the know who was surprised that a process headed up by UCLA social historian Gary Nash had produced a proposal stressing academia’s holy trinity of race, class, and gender. (Nash was right to wonder what else she expected when she, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, funded the project.) In response, Cheney advocated a polar-opposite fixation on Great Men and their Great Deeds. Her rhetorical response to Nash’s product assumed an almost cartoonish posture of admiration for the traditional heroes of America’s story, citing the numbers of times particular words appeared in the proposed standards and listing various names that did not—as if their exclusion from the standards amounted to a proposal to ban mentioning them.
The breathless, one might almost say schoolboy attitude underlying Cheney’s criticism of the proposed standards is in evidence in James Madison: A Life Reconsidered at various junctures. For example, she opines that “The homes of the early presidents are sources of enlightenment and inspiration for anyone working in the founding period.” Her time at Madison’s Montpelier, she says, helped her “to better understand the greatness of Madison’s accomplishments.” A visit to the National Archives provided an opportunity to “marvel” over the Constitution.
Not only is the Constitution marvelous, but so apparently is each Madison datum she has collected. Cheney seems to have determined not to allow a single notecard to go to waste. Over and over, she tells what color and style Dolley was wearing, what type of flower or tree was in bloom, what kind of precipitation occurred, which obscure relative accompanied the Madisons from Washington to Montpelier or from Montpelier to Washington, etc. One truly does find these trivial details wearisome.
They are also odd because they fill space that Cheney might have devoted to more substantial topics. She devotes attention to only a handful of essays from The Federalist, for example, and extended attention to fewer. Although that book’s importance in securing ratification is now greatly overrated, its place in any account of Madison’s life and legacy must be significant. Her account of the Richmond ratification convention pays inadequate attention to other federalist delegates and rivals her appraisal of Madison’s status among his contemporaries in its exaggeration of his role.
On the other hand, the one contribution Cheney makes to our knowledge of Madison is substantial, and it concerns the Framer’s health. Scholars of the subject have always followed Madison in saying that he suffered throughout his life from a malady that was akin to epilepsy; Cheney goes far toward proving that he suffered epilepsy itself.
She has consulted leading experts, perused the relevant portions of medical texts purchased by Madison’s parents early in his life and read by Madison himself, and carefully compared the accounts of his recurrent bouts with the problem, and she leaves me persuaded. She also ingeniously relates Madison’s illness to the apparent change of heart he experienced at Princeton as a youth, when he seems to have abandoned Anglican Christianity. Faced with Western Christianity’s tradition of calling epilepsy demonic, Cheney avers, Madison rejected basic elements of Virginia’s traditional religion. Alas, there is no evidence directly on point, but her cogitations are valuable. They will need to be borne in mind by future scholars.
Cheney’s attention to her hero’s health as he climbs to the very highest offices in American government likely owes to her own life story. After all, her husband, Vice President Richard Cheney, not only served two terms as an influential vice president at the culmination of a career that found him in various other important leadership positions, but also suffers from a severe heart ailment. We do not know the private details of his suffering, but there is a special poignancy in Lynne Cheney’s sympathetic descriptions of Dolley Madison’s ministrations to James. One supposes, too, that Cheney family travails recently much in the news may have prompted the author to think about the relationship between traditional Christian descriptions of urges and afflictions as “demonic” and the evident waning, or at least metamorphosis, of whatever faith young man James Madison once had.
The most important aspect of Madison’s career by far is his role as Framer and expositor of first Virginia’s, then the federal Union’s, fundamental law. Surprisingly, this former head of the NEH judges Madison simply right and Alexander Hamilton flat wrong about implied powers and the Constitution. Each time she comes to this point, one cannot help but wonder whether she recognizes the irony. Like virtually all other Madison biographers, she accepts her subject’s attempt at squaring the circle of his both inventing the argument that federal statutes chartering banks were unconstitutional in the 1790s and advocating passage of such a bill in the 1810s. Madison had learned in the interim that chartering a bank could be very useful, you see.
Cheney’s familiarity with Madison scholarship seems rather slight, to put it mildly. Yet nuance is not her goal: this book is a love letter to James Madison. Her approach to the American past stood her in good stead as an author of children’s books and made good grist for the mill of a debate with Gary Nash, whose approach was almost entirely opposite. As the basis of a biography of a very significant politician, however, its effect is shocking.
Kevin R.C. Gutzman is the author of James Madison and the Making of America.