Samples, John, The Cato Journal
New York: Basic Books, 2011, 287 pp.
Richard Brookhiser, a longtime senior editor of National Review, has contributed more than most to satisfying the revivified demand for books about the lives and works of the American Founders. He has published books about Washington, Hamilton, the Adamses, Gouverneur Morris, and now James Madison. His biography is both serious and readable.
Madison scholars, however, will not be wholly happy with Brookhiser. He does not engage their concerns directly. For example, he does not mention the "James Madison problem," which might be summarized as the difference between Madison's early nationalism and later doubts about centralized power. Brookhiser does offer sotto voce his view of the matter: Madison was an engaged politician who changed his mind about some things as circumstances changed, and he stayed true to other commitments for example, religious liberty and Francophilia. Scholars might also note that several leading works on Madison are not found in Brookhiser's bibliography, notably the works of Lance Banning and Gary Rosen. Nevertheless, Brookhiser does cite significant parts of the scholarship on his subject and has 250 footnotes that provide adequate support without excessive detail.
Brookhiser is an excellent writer; his book is engaging and a pleasure to read. What we find is a Madison who was intensely intellectual, skilled at the small arts of domestic politics, but not a great commander-in-chief or president. Brookhiser does well to remove himself largely from his story. He rarely offers lessons from Madison's life for his readers. He does indicate that both Jefferson and Madison should have worried more about defending the nation prior to 1812. Yet he draws no conclusions about what we should do, if anything, about Iran or China. The book is better for his reticence.
Brookhiser is a conservative, and conservatives often treat the Founding Fathers as demigods whose words should guide us without question. Brookhiser's Madison and the other Founders in this book are decidedly human. He reports on their scheming, faults, pettiness, achievements, and failures. He largely allows the record to speak for itself, thereby encouraging the reader to judge Madison and his fellow Founders. One might say that Brookhiser has taken a Madisonian approach to his subject by offering a reasoned, realistic, and temperate account of the founding era.
The Founders should be remembered and celebrated not as infinitely wise immortals but as humans struggling with their circumstances, their interests, and their ideals. Their profound failing regarding slavery still burdens the nation to this day.
Brookhiser is both temperate and just in his evaluation of Madison's sony record on slavery. He offers no sympathy for the left's view that slavery undercuts the authority of the Founders and with it, the legitimacy of the Constitution. But Brookhiser does not overlook Madison's flaw regarding the ownership of others. He concludes Madison simply avoided the issue in any serious way, hoping for hopeless (and costless) answers to questions that needed attention from statesmen. …