Review of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” by Lynne Cheney


Cheney’s biography is a thorough and very well-written but ideologically driven account of James Madison’s life and especially his influence on the Constitution. She writes:

By the time of the Philadelphia convention, Madison was the political equivalent of Mozart in the late 1770s, who after years of writing music was about to create his greatest works. He was Einstein, who after years of studying with ‘holy zeal’ was on the verge of his annus mirabilis, the miracle year of 1905, in which he would establish the basis of the theory of relativity and quantum physics.”

This paragraph is a good example of one of the main problems I had with this book. The hyperbole about Madison is way over the top. While Cheney occasionally mentions at least some of the intellectual contributions of other Enlightenment thinkers in the 1700s (all of whom influenced both Jefferson and Madison) including Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire, basically Madison is to Cheney an original thinker showing a rare genius with few equals in history. She never even mentions the large impact made by the American, Roger Williams, with his seminal 1644 treatise about the freedom of religion, which inspired the Enlightenment figures (particularly John Locke) who then in turn influenced the Americans of the next Century.

Furthermore, she downplays the huge role of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, which is absurd considering that he produced most of the essays. Rather, Cheney contends, it was Madison who was the chief architect and primary interpreter of the Constitution, and “more than any other individual . . . responsible for creating the United States of America in the form we know it today.” Most historians would list Jefferson, Hamilton, and even George Washington in that capacity before they would throw Madison’s name into that hat. [Hamilton’s Reports on the Treasury were also voluminous, brilliant, and consequential for the evolving shape of the country.]

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Another complaint I have is Cheney’s depiction of the issues that fired the quest for independence. She mentions the imposition of taxes, for example, but completely omits how many objections to them were related to the fact that they would cut into the profits of successful smugglers, like John Hancock. She also never mentions the anger the colonists felt over the British having the nerve to enforce treaties they made with the Native Americans, rather than just allowing the colonists to take over all that rich land. Similarly, she takes no note of the role George Washington played in actually starting the French and Indian War, only observing that he had a reputation for great courage in that conflict. In other words, like other conservative historians, she is eager to cast the early Americans in the best light, leaving out evidence of their greed, hypocrisy, and other instances of bad behavior.

1772 portrait of Washington painted by Charles Willson Peale, showing Washington in uniform as a colonel of the Virginia Regiment.

1772 portrait of Washington painted by Charles Willson Peale, showing Washington in uniform as a colonel of the Virginia Regiment.

Speaking of bad behavior, Cheney, in enumerating all that Madison had in common with his BFF Jefferson, avers:

They both hated slavery, upon which Virginia’s culture and commerce were built. They understood the contradiction between the liberty they sought for mankind and the servitude they witnessed daily, yet at the end of long lives they would both die owning slaves.”

What she elides over here is that they didn’t just “witness” servitude, they actively participated in it, particularly Jefferson. Jefferson not only pursued slaves who ran away, but had his overseer whip the young male slaves when they didn’t work hard and long enough. Moreover, neither freed their slaves upon their deaths, even, in Jefferson’s case, in spite of promising at least to free the offspring of his mistress, Sally Hemings. (Madison did in fact have a legal problem with dower slaves, so that he wasn’t entirely able to free all of them upon his death even if he so desired. Jefferson, who had no living spouse, did not have that excuse.)

But the meat of the book is a very exhaustive account of Madison’s political life. Cheney provides a lot of minutiae, and quotes extensively from Madison’s papers. Even Dolley, as delightful as she was by all accounts, doesn’t get much coverage in this book. While this makes the book a welcome resource for scholars, it makes it a little too dense for leisurely history reading.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Discussion: Some critics have argued that the agenda of the book is to establish Madison’s supremacy as a Constitutional “Founding Father.” This would definitely be of assistance to the right wing of the current Supreme Court because of Madison’s advocacy of strict construction and states’ rights. Madison did in fact write in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”


But Madison, like Jefferson, discovered that once he held the office of President, he regarded the power split quite differently. In fact, he was driven to claim that the very idea that he once supported state nullification was totally wrong. (He seems to have forgotten that he actually authored the Virginia Resolution of 1798. Cheney contends it was Jefferson who inserted the words “null, void, and of no force or effect” into Madison’s draft, but that Madison was too loyal to his friend to point that out.) She also records Madison’s outrage on Jefferson’s behalf when Jefferson’s private letters were disclosed revealing his own lack of hesitation to wield executive power when he thought circumstances called for it. Madison huffed that private communications should remain private.

Cheney also downplays Madison’s darker side. Just to take one example, consider Madison’s authorship of the so-called Helvidius essays. Jefferson often used Madison to do his dirty work. In this instance, in 1793, he wanted Madison to attack Hamilton:

For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”

Usually, Madison was a willing patsy for Jefferson, although this time, he was not eager to do it for a variety of reasons, some of which had to do with his health and other commitments. In any event, Cheney merely notes that Madison argued “the nuances of legislative versus executive power” and other such academic issues. Ron Chernow, in his biography of Hamilton, provides specific quotes from the essays to show that Madison (anonymously of course) showed little reticence in print, revealing a great deal of animosity as he “flayed Hamilton as a monarchist ….”

Evaluation: Cheney is very polished as a writer, and very detailed (at least when it suits her agenda) as an historian. In most respects, this biography provides a thorough, if a bit white-washed and exaggerated account of Madison’s participation in, and importance to, the founding of the American Republic.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014


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