A politician for his time — and ours

The enduring appeal to Americans of our founding generation lies not in the genius of its members, who were smart but no smarter than typical students at a first-rate law school today; not in their high-minded devotion to the common weal, for they could be as petty and provincial as any local pol in our times; not in their deep insight into human nature, which was no greater and arguably was less than that of the modern scientific age.

Rather, the appeal of the founders lies in the fact that we have no idea what they would have thought about the pressing issues of our times. Consequently liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans can claim the founders and cite their words and actions in support.

Though demonstrating this ambiguity is not Lynne Cheney’s intention, her graceful and balanced life of James Madison shows it well. The author, who has written several books of history primarily for young readers, works a bit too hard at justifying a new biography of Madison. She contends that the common view of Madison is of a “shy and sickly scholar, someone hardly suited for the demands of daily life, much less the rough-and-tumble world of politicking.” The more general impression is the one Cheney herself conveys: of a brilliant, shrewd statesman who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the Constitution. Yet she needn’t have worried: A good story bears retelling, especially a story as important as Madison’s.

Interestingly, given Cheney’s criticism of what she takes for the conventional wisdom on Madison, she devotes substantial space to his physical maladies, especially a syndrome involving attacks akin to those of epilepsy. Madison shunned that label, not least because epilepsy still carried connotations of demonic possession. But the attacks understandably distressed him, until he concluded from his reading that the physically challenged could be the most intellectually able. “The strongest and soundest minds possess the most infirm and sickly bodies,” he wrote in his commonplace book. “The knife cuts the sheath, as the French materially express it.”

Madison’s ailments didn’t prevent him from diving precociously into politics. At 23 he helped push Virginia toward revolution and independence. At 36 he conspired to overthrow the existing American government and replace it with another. At 37 he guided the convention that committed the overthrow to writing, and in the following months he collaborated on an anonymous propaganda campaign to ratify the radical new Constitution.

Cheney doesn’t dwell on the radical nature of the events of America’s founding. Conservatives generally don’t, as they lay special claim to the founders and generally want to keep things as they are, while revolutions turn things upside down. But it is also further evidence that history is a dubious guide to current politics. Madison was an unabashed early advocate of big government, especially a big federal government. He proposed granting the new Congress a veto over all state laws but settled for a veto over state laws that contradicted federal laws. Even then he fretted that the Constitution didn’t go far enough to counter the “unwise and wicked proceedings” of the states.

But would Madison have been a modern liberal? Would he believe that bigger is always better in government? There is no way of telling. Cheney demonstrates that Madison wanted a bigger central government than existed in 1787, but this doesn’t mean he would have wanted a bigger central government than exists in 2014.

Cheney makes clear that Madison was a practical politician. “He was capable not only of deeply creative thinking,” she writes, “but of turning his thoughts into reality.”

He was willing to change his mind — and change it again. After helping establish a government far stronger than the one it replaced, Madison promptly sought to restrain the new government. Having argued against a bill of rights in the Constitution, he drafted what became the Bill of Rights. When Alexander Hamilton, an ardent advocate of big government, put forward a plan for a national bank, Madison as a member of Congress opposed it. But later, as president, he backed the idea. Madison in Constitution-drafting mode wanted to give the federal government a veto over state laws; as a member of the opposition party in Congress, he anonymously argued that states should be able to take action against federal laws they deemed unconstitutional, in particular the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

On this point and others, Cheney does a nice job of showing how Madison was a cooler version of Thomas Jefferson, his mentor and sponsor. Jefferson employed the verb “nullify” in describing the appropriate response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. His words prompted the state legislature of Kentucky to threaten secession. Madison preferred the less provocative “interpose,” which gave his and Jefferson’s Republican Party the issue they wanted in the election of 1800, without encouraging the fire-eaters.

As Jefferson’s secretary of state and then his successor as president, Madison had to deal with Jefferson’s disastrous Embargo Act of 1807, which sought to punish Britain and France for their depredations on American shipping by the bizarre device of imposing economic sanctions on Americans. The embargo failed, and war with Britain ensued. Cheney successfully argues that the War of 1812 wasn’t as dismal as it is often portrayed. It confirmed U.S. independence and opened the West to American growth (at the expense of the Indians, some of whom had fought on the American side).

Cheney might have written a book that made Madison a prop in today’s political battles. She did not, which is greatly to her credit and true to the life of the man. Madison was principled but pragmatic, sincere but complex. His world was complicated. So is ours, and it can use more people like him.

H.W. Brands reviewed this book for the Washington Post.