James Madison


By Richard Brookhiser

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James Madison led one of the most influential and prolific lives in American history, and his story — although all too often overshadowed by his more celebrated contemporaries — is integral to that of the nation. Madison helped to shape our country as perhaps no other Founder: collaborating on the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights, resisting government overreach by assembling one of the nation’s first political parties (the Republicans, who became today’s Democrats), and taking to the battlefield during the War of 1812, becoming the last president to lead troops in combat.

In this penetrating biography, eminent historian Richard Brookhiser presents a vivid portrait of the “Father of the Constitution,” an accomplished yet humble statesman who nourished Americans’ fledgling liberty and vigorously defended the laws that have preserved it to this day.


Right Time, Right Place
George Washington On Leadership
What Would the Founders Do?
Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris—
The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution
America's First Dynasty: The Adamses 1735–1918
Alexander Hamilton, American
Rules of Civility
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington
Way of the WASP
The Outside Story

Bert and Nina Smiley

Eighteenth-century writing had somewhat different rules than today's, and even the well educated followed them rather loosely. Proper names were often spelled whimsically. In his notes on the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote of Govurneur (Gouverneur) Morris, Oliver Elseworth (Ellsworth), and Roger Sharman (Sherman). William Pierce, meanwhile, wrote of Mr. Maddison.
All spelling and punctuation have been modernized in what follows.
American presidents in Madison's lifetime sent "ministers" abroad, not "ambassadors," and picked "secretaries of departments," not a "cabinet." The newest capital of the United States was called "Washington City," not "Washington." I have sometimes preferred anachronism to quaintness. The Republican Party that Jefferson and Madison founded is the ancestor of today's Democrats; the modern GOP is a different, later organization.

August 24, 1814, began as a typical summer day in Washington: bright and cloudless, promising heat and humidity as the day wore on. For years, James Madison, the president, had fled high summer in Washington and other low-lying cities for the healthier air of his inland home in the Virginia Piedmont. But this August his presence was required in the capital. America had been at war with Britain for two years. Mr. Madison's war—he had asked Congress to declare it—had been fought along the Canadian border; against Indians on the frontier; on the high seas. Now the war was coming home.
A week earlier, on August 17, twenty British ships carrying 4,500 troops had anchored in the Patuxent River in Maryland, only thirty-five miles away from Washington to the southeast. The president had suggested "pelt[ing] the enemy from the start with light troops." But nothing was done. Instead the British disembarked and made a leisurely stroll up the Maryland countryside, perhaps bound for Baltimore, a booming port, the third-largest city in America. Secretary of War John Armstrong thought so: they would "certainly" not come to Washington, he said; "what the devil will they do here? . . . No, no! Baltimore is the place, sir."
But now the British had made a left turn. Just hours earlier, at midnight, the president had gotten a note from the field: "The enemy are in full march for Washington.... Destroy the bridges.... Remove the records."
When James Madison had been a congressman, a quarter century earlier, he had helped move the nation's capital from New York to an undeveloped site on the Potomac. The new capital was still hardly more than a small town, stretching from Rock Creek in the west to Capitol Hill in the east: a ragged arc, decorated by a few incongruous public buildings, as if built by ancients or aliens. In the midst of it stood the White House. Madison was the third president to have lived there. John Adams, whom Madison scorned, had spent the dismal last days of his administration in a shell inside a construction site. Thomas Jefferson, whom Madison loved above all men, had run it like a Virginia plantation house, hosting intimate dinners for congressmen and diplomats with good food, excellent wine, and his own sparkling conversation. Madison's White House was grander yet, thanks to his wife, Dolley, who brightened it with banquets and soirees, red velvet curtains and green gilt-edged china, a piano and a macaw.
Now, a little before eight o'clock in the morning on August 24, a message came to this republican palace from Gen. William Winder, commander of the Potomac military district. It was addressed to Armstrong, but the president opened it himself. The general wanted advice, as fast as possible; Madison mounted his horse and left the White House for Winder's headquarters at the Navy Yard.
The Navy Yard was a mile south of town, on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, now called the Anacostia River. There was a bridge there, about where the Eleventh Street bridge is now. All morning, Madison conferred with officers and cabinet secretaries, who came and went. The three most important represented all the types a president typically finds about him in moments of crisis: those who might help, those who won't, and those who can't.
James Monroe, secretary of state, was a Revolutionary War veteran who had known Madison for decades; he had quarreled with him and reconciled with him. He was the man who had sent the midnight warning about the British march on the capital, and he had thrown himself into the effort to defend it. He had talent and energy, and had decided to serve Madison.
John Armstrong, another veteran of the Revolutionary War, had been appointed secretary of war six months after hostilities had begun, to retrieve the disasters of an incompetent predecessor. In a year and a half on the job, he had cleared out deadwood and promoted fresh faces, but he had also fallen out with the president. He disliked Madison personally and disagreed with him strategically, ignoring Madison's suggestions to hit the enemy as soon as they landed and instead focusing all his attention on Baltimore. Armstrong, too, had talent and energy, and had decided by August 1814 to use neither on Madison's behalf.
The man immediately responsible for the capital's defense was William Winder, a thirty-nine-year-old former lawyer, who had been in the army for only two years. He had received his current assignment in July, largely because he was the nephew of the governor of Maryland. He had been unceasingly busy. "The innumerably multiplied orders, letters, consultations, and demands which crowded upon me . . . can more easily be conceived than described," he wrote. Yet he had accomplished nothing. He had energy, and no talent at all.
At ten o'clock word reached the Navy Yard that the British were making for Bladensburg, Maryland, a village northeast of the capital. There was a gap in the hills there, and a short bridge over the Eastern Branch, five miles up from the Navy Yard, where the stream is narrow. It was the natural route for attacking Washington from the east. Monroe rode off to alert whatever American troops were already there. Winder followed with reinforcements.
Armstrong came to the Navy Yard only after Monroe and Winder left. Madison asked him whether he had any advice to give. He didn't but added that, since the battle would be between American militia and British regulars, "the former would be beaten." Madison suggested that Armstrong really should take part in the coming engagement (" [I] expressed to him my concern and surprise at the reserve he showed," was how Madison recalled it). Armstrong answered that if Madison "thought it proper," he would go off to Bladensburg, too.
The president, who sensed the importance of the coming engagement even if his secretary of war did not, decided to ride to Bladensburg with his attorney general, Richard Rush. He borrowed a set of pistols and, because his horse suddenly went lame, a second mount, and set off.
James Madison was sixty-three years old. He had never heard a shot fired in anger. He was a small man—just over five feet tall, just over a hundred pounds—and a sickly one: all his life, he was subject to what he called bilious attacks (upset stomach and bowels) and, less often, "attacks resembling epilepsy, and suspending the intellectual functions." He had talent and energy in spades: he was smarter than Monroe, Armstrong, and Winder put together; smarter than Jefferson, perhaps even smarter than Adams. Over a lifetime of public service he had put his mind—forget his shoulder—to the wheel, reading, writing, speaking, and thinking, driving himself so hard that he often undermined his already weak constitution.
But Madison was not a warrior. Two years earlier, the day war was declared, he had made himself ridiculous by visiting the War and Navy Departments in "a little round hat and huge cockade"—a crude attempt to become a military leader by dressing like one. It is arguable (and some of his contemporaries did argue it: Madison, said Rep. John Calhoun, lacked "commanding talents") that he was not by nature an executive. But that morning he was the chief executive and commander in chief. War was five miles away, and he rode to meet it.
He and Rush took the road that is still called Bladensburg Road, overtaking American units as they went. After an hour in the saddle, they came down a hill, alongside an orchard, and toward the bridge that led over the Eastern Branch to Bladensburg's main (and only) street and its brick houses. An American horseman waved them back. The president and the attorney general had ridden ahead of their own front line; the British were already entering the town from the opposite direction. Winder, Monroe, and Armstrong were posted on the hill they had just descended, to the rear. Madison and Rush rode back toward them.
It was now about one o'clock. There were 7,000 Americans on or near the field, a mixture of militia and regulars, plus 500 sailors who were still marching with cannon from the Navy Yard—more than enough to beat back the British, if they were well-positioned and well-led. If the Americans crumbled here, however, there was nothing to stop the enemy from taking the capital—and perhaps the president and his cabinet as well. The Americans had been arranged in three lines, two close to the Bladensburg bridge, a third a mile farther back. Monroe had taken charge, altering some of the dispositions at the last minute, not to advantage (he pulled troops from the orchard and into fields, where they had no cover). Winder was frantic, unable to make decisions or give orders. Madison asked Armstrong whether he had made any decisions or given any orders. The secretary of war answered that he had not. "I remarked," wrote Madison, "that he might offer some advice." (Armstrong was not the only passive-aggressive personality outside Bladensburg that morning.)
Madison and Armstrong rode up to Winder for a last-minute consultation. Muskets and artillery were already firing back and forth across the stream. Spooked, the president's borrowed horse reared and plunged so that Madison could not take part in the conversation. When the secretary of war and the general were done speaking, Madison asked Armstrong whether he had offered any advice. Armstrong replied that he hadn't and that "the arrangements . . . appeared to be as good as circumstances admitted."
What John Armstrong said was true. The American arrangements for the Battle of Bladensburg were as good as the circumstances, which included the abilities and deficiencies of the commanders, and the abilities and deficiencies of the man who had given them their jobs, and kept them there, admitted. The charm was wound up. Now the battle for the capital would play itself out.
The courage James Madison showed on the morning of the Battle of Bladensburg is what first prompted me to write about him. It was moral courage even more than physical. He did not put on a hat and a cockade, he put himself at the point of contact. On a bad day that was likely to get worse, he chose to see what was happening and to face the consequences of his actions.
But the War of 1812 is not what people most associate with Madison. He is most famous for his role in producing the Constitution. Madison was called the Father of the Constitution during his lifetime, and he has borne the title ever since.
It is a misleading title if taken too literally. Madison was only one of seven Virginia delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, one of fifty-five overall, and did not get exactly the document he wanted. As the convention wrapped up, he worried, in a letter to his friend Jefferson in Paris, that the Constitution might not "answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgust." (The words italicized here were written in cipher—a practice Madison and Jefferson used to guard their thoughts from prying foreigners—or Americans.)
Other men besides Madison made essential contributions to the Constitution, to the fight for ratification, and to its first and most important amendments. The document was written in its final form by Gouverneur Morris, the peg-legged delegate from Pennsylvania ("a better choice" for a draftsman, said Madison, "could not have been made"). Some of Madison's greatest writing went into his arguments explaining and praising the Constitution in The Federalist, but the impresario of that project was Alexander Hamilton, who picked the authors (Madison and John Jay, in addition to himself) and wrote three-fifths of the eighty-five papers. The strongest argument for ratifying the Constitution was the approval of George Washington, signaled by his presence at the convention and his quiet support afterward. Madison understood that Washington was the heavyweight champion of American public life, which is why he stuck by him, like a trainer, from the planning stages of the convention through the early days of Washington's presidency. Finally, the resistance of the Constitution's opponents (such as Madison's enemy, Patrick Henry) obliged the document's supporters to offer something that they, as authors, had neglected to provide—a Bill of Rights.
But only Madison played a central role at every stage in the Constitution's birth. He was present before, during, and after the creation. He was a delegate to the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which called for the convention in Philadelphia a year later. When the Philadelphia convention met in 1787, he arrived (the first out-of-towner to show up) with an agenda in mind. He never missed a session, and he spoke more often than any other delegate, except the flashy Morris and James Wilson, another Pennsylvanian. "He always comes forward," wrote delegate William Pierce of Georgia, "the best informed man [on] any point in debate." Thanks to The Federalist, published in New York, Madison was a player in the fight for ratification in that state, and he led the pro-Constitution forces in Virginia. Political reality and Jefferson's urging persuaded Madison to accept the idea of a Bill of Rights, and as a member of the First Congress he threw himself into that project with characteristic energy, sorting the proposals of earnest idealists and secret saboteurs into something like the first ten amendments we have today (plus the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which regulates congressional pay raises, proposed in 1789 but not ratified until 1992).
Madison was also the first historian of the Constitutional Convention. As he helped shape the document, he worked to shape the future's view of it. Every day the convention met, he posted himself in front of the head table in Independence Hall. "In this favorable position for hearing all that passed, I noted . . . what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members, and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention I was enabled to write out my daily notes." Madison's notes, the most complete set left by any delegate, have been grist for historians ever since.
Madison earned his paternity of the Constitution. He was a devoted and anxious parent, for he believed "the happiness of a people great even in its infancy, and possibly the cause of Liberty throughout the world," was "staked" on what he and his colleagues had made.
The Constitution was not the only subject that engrossed Madison's relentless mind, however, and the late 1780s were not his only active years. He was a precocious young man, and like many hypochondriacs he lived to be a very old one, and he devoted his long adulthood to analyzing an array of issues, all related to the cause of liberty. What was the basis of religious liberty? How did public opinion sustain liberty? How did war and slavery threaten it?
In 1776, age twenty-five, Madison fought to amend the Virginia Declaration of Rights, from guaranteeing "fullest toleration" of religion to "free exercise." Madison's change of wording grounded religious liberty in nature, not the permission of the state. Toleration is a gift; truly free men exercise their rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was a statement of principles; Madison's principle of "free exercise" was not enacted into law until the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson, was passed ten years later. Jefferson was so proud of this law that he mentioned it on his tombstone. But it was Madison who pushed Jefferson's law through the Virginia Assembly. "I flatter myself," Madison wrote Jefferson after he had succeeded, that " [we have] extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind."
In 1791, after the Constitution was ratified, Madison sat down to rethink some of the most important debates he had just won. In The Federalist he had argued that the very size of the United States and the complexity of its new federal system would buttress liberty, since malign factions would find it hard to seize power. But now he decided that another guarantee was necessary: enlightened public opinion, which would spot threats to liberty and unite "with a holy zeal" to repel them. In a new series of essays published, like those of The Federalist, in the newspapers, he teased out the consequences of this idea. Drowning in poll data, we understand the power of public opinion, though we often doubt how enlightened it is. But in the early 1790s, regularly consulting public opinion was a new concept. Many of Madison's colleagues, including Washington and Hamilton, had little use for it. They thought the people should rule when they voted, then let the victors do their best until the next election. But Madison glimpsed our world before it existed.
Madison was consumed with questions of war and peace. The Bastille fell during his first year in the First Congress, and the wars touched off by the French Revolution continued through the War of 1812. The United States began its national life in the shadow of a world war, as violent as World Wars I and II, longer than both of them put together, and as ideological as the Cold War. Would war advance the cause of liberty or destroy it? It was ironic that Madison had asked for war in 1812 and found himself on a battlefield two years later, for he feared war as the enemy of liberty and had tried, first as Jefferson's secretary of state, then as president, to avoid it. Surely, he believed, trade was a more powerful weapon than arms. Yet when he felt America's honor was compromised, he chose to fight. Both of his attitudes—a disposition to pacifism and a touchiness about America's pride and its position in the world—wind through later American history.
In his long retirement, almost twenty years, Madison grappled with the questions of slavery and union. He heard the coming of the Civil War decades before Fort Sumter. His solutions to the problem of slavery were worthless, a pathetic case of intellectual and moral failure. His position on the problem of union would help solve the problem of slavery.
But Madison is more than the Father of the Constitution, or of other intellectual constructs. He is the Father of Politics. He lived in his head, but his head was always concerned with making his cherished thoughts real. In a free country the road to reality runs through politics. Madison spent as much time politicking as thinking, and he was equally good at both.
He did what came naturally to him: preparing, persuading, setting agendas, conducting committee work, legislative maneuvering. He grew up in a family as large as an oyster bed: good training for a future lawmaker. He worked at what did not come naturally to him: public speaking, campaigning. His voice was both harsh and weak; time and again, the notetakers at debates he participated in left blanks in his remarks or simply gave up, because Madison "could not be distinctly heard." Yet, when circumstances required it, he debated Patrick Henry; he debated James Monroe in the open air in a snowstorm so bitter he got frostbite on his nose (he won both debates).
When he found a political chore he absolutely could not do, he was not too proud to work with men or women who could. Dolley Madison was more than a hostess, she was a political wife, America's first: half a campaign tag team, and often the better half. Likewise, Madison worked with Washington, profiting from his charisma and his judgment, and with Hamilton, profiting from his dash (when Madison was not alarmed by it). He worked with Jefferson, visionary philosopher and politician par excellence, for forty years. He consented to learn something about money from his younger colleague Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant who spoke with a French accent but knew more about America's finances than most natives. Madison was a great man who was not afraid of assisting or deferring to other great men (another legacy of his tight-knit family). He also worked with the less-than-great: hatchet men and gossips, snoops and spies; on one occasion he turned a blind eye to a mob. They do the work of politics too; they are part of the game.
Politics has its own institutions, and Madison invented a few that have lasted as long as the Constitution. In the early 1790s he helped found America's first political party, the Republicans, who later changed their name to the Democrats (the modern GOP is an unrelated organization). Today's Democrats hold Jefferson/Jackson Day Dinners to commemorate their origins, though they might better call them Jefferson/Madison Day Dinners, since their party began in 1791, when Madison joined Jefferson on a trip through New York and New England, supposedly collecting biological specimens for the American Philosophical Society, but actually collecting allies for themselves.
Madison helped found the first party newspaper, the National Gazette, which dissected issues and personalities and ground ideological axes. (The Nation, The New Republic, National Review, FoxNews, and MSNBC perform the same tasks today.) He recruited the paper's first editor, Philip Freneau, an old college chum who wrote poetry. Jefferson gave Freneau a nominal job as a translator in the State Department, and in his free time Freneau smacked Hamilton and Washington in prose. Madison's interest in publicity flowed naturally from his interest in public opinion. Such a powerful force could not be allowed to develop randomly or to be molded by liberty's enemies. If enlightened public opinion was a bulwark of freedom, then leaders must labor ceaselessly to enlighten or manipulate it.
Madison was a cogwheel in one of the first American political machines, the Virginia Dynasty. America revolted against George III and the House of Hanover, but the dynastic temptation remained strong. John Adams, second president and the only founder president with sons, saw his eldest, John Quincy Adams, become the sixth president. But the Adamses were unpopular one-termers. Between them stretched the Virginia Dynasty: two terms of Jefferson, two terms of Madison, two terms of Monroe—twenty-four years of government by neighbors, and ideological soul mates.
One of the iron laws of politics is that what goes around comes around. Throughout his career, Madison was beset by enemies and supposed friends, wielding the same dark arts that he himself practiced. Fortunately for him, he was generally skillful enough to beat them back.
But another iron law of politics is that you can't win them all. Heroes can aspire to perfection, especially if they die young, through the purity of an action, or a stance. But the long haul of politics takes at least some of the shine off almost everyone. Madison had an unusually good record when it came to winning elections; not quite so good when it came to sizing up issues and men. The years would see many achievements, as well as rigidities and blunders, from demonizing people and countries to mishandling his own associates.
We pay much less attention to James Madison, Father of Politics, than to James Madison, Father of the Constitution. That is because politics embarrasses us. Politics is the spectacle on television and YouTube, the daily perp walk on the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report. Surely our founders and framers left us something better, more solid, more inspiring than that? They did. But they all knew—and Madison understood better than any of them—that ideals come to life in dozens of political transactions every day. Some of those transactions aren't pretty. You can understand this and try to work with this knowledge, or you can look away. But ignoring politics will not make it stop. It will simply go on without you—and sooner or later will happen to you.
Dolley Payne Todd, in the first excitement of meeting a possible suitor, her future husband, told a friend "the great little Madison" had asked "to see me this evening." All his life, Madison's acquaintances rang the changes on this contrast: he was a mighty figure, and a little guy. The contrast has a moral dimension, too. James Madison was a great man who helped build a republic. He was also an ambitious and sometimes small-bore man who stumped, spoke, counted votes, pulled wires, scratched backs, and stabbed them. He was not afraid of the contrast, for his deepest thinking told him that the builders of liberty had to know and sometimes use the materials of passion and self-advancement.
If war is the continuation of politics by other means, it makes sense to introduce Madison on a battlefield, even a dubious one. Americans ignore him there, too, because we divide our wars into two categories—those we look back on as stirring (Washington's crossing, Pickett's charge, D-Day) and those we ignore as unseemly, or botched, or both. But our present experience of Afghanistan and Iraq may illuminate the War of 1812. There were miscalculations and disasters in Mr. Madison's war. But there were also moments of valor, discipline, and learning from mistakes—even at Bladensburg.
But Madison rode to Bladensburg more than sixty years into his life, forty years into his career. Let us begin at the beginning.

Youth, Revolution


  • "[Brookhiser's] sprightly narrative will serve as an entertaining introduction for those who are making their first acquaintance with Madison."—Richard Beeman, New York Times Book Review
  • "Brookhiser is a remarkable biographer--there are no wasted words in this slim volume, but plenty of fascinating insights."—Michael Schaub, NPR
  • "Concise and highly readable.... [Brookhiser] conveys the man in full."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Brookhiser's engaging biography gives readers a deeper understanding of who [Madison] was."—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs
  • "In this congenial biography, the fourth President does indeed shine.... [Brookhiser's] descriptions...combine sentiment and anecdote in irresistible proportion."—NewYorker

On Sale
Sep 27, 2011
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Richard Brookhiser

About the Author

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author of thirteen books, including John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, and James Madison. He lives in New York City.

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