James Madison remains one of the most important political thinkers in American history. His eloquently expressed opinions and leadership were indispensable to the development of the young republic and remain crucial and relevant to our lives today, yet some of his many contributions in a long career are often misunderstood or even forgotten. Fortunately, Kevin R. C. Gutzman, relying for the most part on primary sources, gives us an authoritative, vivid and wide-ranging exploration of Madison’s public career in James Madison and the Making of America.
Madison is often called “the father of the Constitution,” and he certainly was a major figure in its drafting and ratification by the states as well as its implementation. Gutzman makes all of this activity come alive in such a way that it is easy to imagine you are watching it firsthand. Before the 1787 Philadelphia Convention Madison engaged in research, reading deeply in ancient, medieval and modern writings on history and politics, and was the chief note-taker for the proceedings. Considering that he was a leader, thinker and orator who spoke more than 200 times himself, this last role seems almost impossible. A delegate from Georgia, who was neither his ally nor his opponent, described Madison as a combination of a profound politician and scholar and the best-informed man in every debate. But Madison himself was not enthusiastic about the prospects for the Convention before it started and remained ambivalent about its value after it was over. In a letter to his close friend Thomas Jefferson recounting the entire session, Madison described how difficult it had been to reconcile different views, by far the most difficult being how to resolve the division of powers between the federal government and the states. He felt that without a federal veto of state laws and with members of the Senate elected by state legislature, the Constitution was bound to fail.
Despite Madison’s major role with the Constitutional Convention, Gutzman thinks that his greatest accomplishment was his work with Jefferson on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Madison felt strongly about the separation of church and state, writing that for legislators to overstep the bounds of their authority and try to regulate religion would make them “tyrants.” Gutzman emphasizes that freedom of religion, freedom to emancipate one’s slaves and free trade were critical elements in Madison’s overview of society and government.
Gutzman gives a careful analysis of Madison’s major contributions to The Federalist Papers and a riveting account of the debate for ratification in Virginia. Madison had never felt the necessity for a bill of rights as part of the Constitution. When he finally did propose what evolved into the Bill of Rights, there was contentious legislative activity, but its adoption seemed far less momentous than we regard it today.
A perfect example of the high esteem in which Madison was held came right at the beginning of the new government. It was Madison who drafted his friend George Washington’s first inaugural address. Madison also drafted the House response and then the Senate’s response to that address—and he also drafted Washington’s responses to the House and Senate.
Gutzman points out that “Madison was at his best in mastering large bodies of data, in synthesizing extensive bodies of information, in wrestling measures through parliamentary assemblies.” As Jefferson’s secretary of state and as president, Madison did have some successes, but his most significant achievements had come earlier as thinker and legislative strategist. Madison’s presidency is usually remembered for the British burning of the White House and the Capitol during the War of 1812.
James Madison and the Making of America is a solid and insightful biography that should appeal to both those readers who know a lot about Madison and those who want an introduction to him.