Review: James Madison – A Life Reconsidered

James Madison, more than a Founding Father, is the father of the Constitution – the author of that document, less dazzling but more solid, more worthwhile than the Declaration of Independence. In her new biography of our fourth president, Lynne Cheney asks us to consider again James Madison, his achievements and their meaning.

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered is a beautifully written book. Lynne Cheney acquits history of the old charge (made credible by many textbooks) of being dry. With an eye toward evocative details, with flowing prose, she artfully tells Madison’s story and captures, in him, the humanity that is the heart of history.

Cheney puts forth the theory that Madison suffered from complex partial seizures and builds a strong case for it – a substantial contribution to the study of James Madison. Future writers will do well to consider it, even though Cheney seems, at times, to make too much of Madison’s epilepsy. She gives it, without support, as the reason why Madison became an advocate for religious liberty. Also without support, she speculates that it was why Madison’s first love broke off their engagement and why Madison once rejected the idea of becoming president. Cheney even speculates that a rather involved criticism of Madison, comparing him to a peddler selling ineffectual medicines, was in fact a veiled attack on his epilepsy.

This is, indeed, one of the faults of the book: a little too much theorizing, a few too many unproven assertions. Doubtless Madison read this book, probably he thought this, and no doubt this is what happened. These phrases, put to good employment by Mrs. Cheney, show at least that she is sensitive that these are not proven facts. Yet they are so recurrent that one wishes she had more often left the silence of history undisturbed.

But the primary fault of James Madison is that it is a little too uncritical, a little too biased in favor of its subject. Mrs. Cheney never does justice to Madison’s opponents. She takes an irritated tone toward Patrick Henry, stabs at Alexander Hamilton, and criticizes James Monroe for entering a presidential race that Madison was already in. Even Thomas Jefferson, generally well-treated, is pointedly put down for Madison’s benefit.

And this hurts her book. Her account of the vital political struggle between Madison and Hamilton never cuts to the core because it can never see Hamilton’s point. One cannot fully capture the stakes and meaning of such a great debate when one will not credit the other side. Cheney’s treatment of the War of 1812 is likewise hobbled by her unwillingness to critically question Madison’s assumptions – that America had to choose between France and England, that it ought to choose France.

So James Madison: A Life Reconsidered does not go as deep as it could. But as far as it does go, it is first-class. A telling of Madison’s life, with heart and a certain artistic skill, it is recommended for anyone interested in the Founding Fathers or the beginning of America.

The Northmen

I am bringing down hobgoblins from the mountains, Men from the Coldlands. The Valley of Decision

The Men of the Coldlands were barbarians. That is the first thing to understand. They wore animal skins, sang of their war gods, and knew nothing of letters or runes. They forged bronze rather than iron into weapons, and decorated their chiefs’ tents with colored cloth and animal skulls.

And they were light-haired and light-eyed and fair-skinned, true children of the cold North.

The Men of the Coldlands are loosely based on the pre-Christian Scandinavians. The Roman Empire had conquered the British Isles, bringing civilization by the edge of the sword; many centuries later, long after the Roman Empire had turned to ashes, Winston Churchill declared, “We owe London to Rome.” In time, Christianity followed Rome, and it, too, taught and civilized.

But not in Scandinavia – at least not for centuries yet. The Viking Age began when the Vikings attacked the Holy Island, off the coast of England, from which missionaries had gone into Europe. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that “the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.” At Charlemagne’s court, the scholar Alcuin lamented, “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

Heathen and wretched are minor insults compared to the judgment given by the Muslim scholar Masudi in the tenth century. After describing “the people of the northern quadrant”, with their “excessively white” coloring, he wrote: “The farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are.” Those in the “sixth climate .. are reckoned among the beasts.” (source: Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe)

In L.P. Hartley’s immortally wise words: “The past is a foreign country.”

When I wrote The Valley of Decision, this notion of the pale barbarians from the north guided my characterization of the Men from the Coldlands. I called them the Northmen, an old name for the Vikings, and gave the three chiefs Norse names: Volund (in legend, the name of a great smith), Brandr (meaning sword), and Hrolfr (meaning wolf).

Volund was the leader, and he called Brandr and Hrolfr his earls – a detail inspired, I admit, by the Viking earls of Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. These names were also a kind of inside joke: Hrolfr was the earl who draped himself in the pelt and fangs of a wolf, and when Volund passes the iron sword to Brandr … yes, that was a deliberate pun.

The Northmen had little presence in The Valley of Decision, being the coming stormclouds of the story: growing nearer, darkening the landscape, but not yet here. When I finally made their acquaintance at the end of the book, I wished they had arrived sooner. There was no space left in the story to do justice to the pale barbarians and their collision with the more sophisticated – but still so fallibly human – southern people.

But such unexplored side-paths are what sequels are for.

Review: Outpost

Christopher Hill spent a lot of time in the world’s hotspots – Kosovo, Bosnia, North Korea, post-surge Iraq. If you have never heard of him, I’m not surprised. Diplomats are rarely household names.

Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy is Christopher Hill’s memoir. He had many consequential jobs: working on the negotiations that ended the Balkan wars, leading diplomat in the Bush administration’s talks with North Korea, ambassador to Iraq. And yet he remained outside the nexus of power that fascinates the media and public alike: the president, the vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, even national security advisor.

This is a different sort of memoir, America’s foreign policy from a viewpoint I had never fully seen before. I found it very informative. I learned a great deal about the North Korean negotiations and America’s involvement in the Balkans, though I wish Ambassador Hill had dealt with Kosovo and Bosnia in even greater depth. He never explained why, exactly, America was invested in those conflicts to the point of bombing campaigns. If it was a matter of violence, or human rights violations – well, there’s a lot of that in the world, and the Serbs were hardly the leading villains. Saddam Hussein, to take one not-so-random example, certainly had them beat. And if it was a matter of American interests – I can’t think of any American interests, nor does the book provide any, except that our involvement was good for our “transatlantic relationships”.

In fact, reading Hill’s account, one is left with the impression that our military-level involvement just sort of happened. America was trying to negotiate an end to the war, and the Europeans had peacekeepers in blue helmets and white tanks there, and it was all very difficult, and since America would have to intervene militarily to help extract the Europeans, it might as well intervene militarily to enforce peace, and so we bombed the Serbs. And maybe it really was no more deliberate than that.

The Iraq section was informative, too, providing a closer and somewhat dreary look at Iraq. Hill portrays attitudes in Washington toward Iraq that ultimately contributed to the present debacle: disinterest, neglect, a hurry to get out with little attention paid to the consequences.

I learned lighter things from this book, things from the world of diplomacy. I learned, for example, that ambassadors may judge you on how many lunch options you need for a visit to their country. I learned that calling Macedonia “Macedonia” can be a minor act of rebellion. I learned that diplomats will not only lie in the course of duty, they will openly admit it in their memoirs.

Unfortunately, Ambassador Hill cheaply caricatures the “neocons” as warlike, aggressive, and imperialistic. The book’s only justifications for these insults are that neoconservatives opposed Hill’s negotiations with North Korea (oh, the aggression!) and urged the Iraq war. Hill also mentions “liberal war hawks”, though how he distinguishes them from the warlike neocons is entirely unexplained.

Along with its accounts of vital negotiations and ambassadorships in nations such as Poland and Macedonia, Outpost paints some very human portraits and some poignant moments. Recommended to anyone who is interested in diplomacy, history, or the controversies and conflicts of the past twenty years.

Blog Tour: A Different Kind of Courage

Who Was Dr. Joseph Warren?
A Guest Post by Sarah Holman

The early years of the American Revolution have been almost completely forgotten. Actually, the entire history of that war is often condensed down to these events: The Boston Tea Party, The Midnight Ride/Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, 1776, Americans win the War. Some of us know a few more details, but what do you know about the people who lived during those times? Don’t be too embarrassed. I am also describing myself a little over a year ago before I started working on A Different Kind of Courage.

It all started many years ago, when one of my favorite movies was Johnny Tremain. Being the child I was, my favorite character was the calm and kind Dr. Joseph Warren. I wanted to know more about him, but quickly found few people knew about him and there were virtually no resources on him. Years later, when reading a reference to a speech that Warren made, my interest was sparked again. This time, I had the World Wide Web at my disposal.

For the first time in years, I found myself spending hours researching. I found letters to Warren and by Warren. I found interesting facts, old books that told his story, and much more. I knew I just had to write a fictional account where Dr. Joseph Warren had a huge role.

So who was Joseph Warren? Here are a few facts:

  • He was a devoted father of four.
  • He was a writer. He drafted many documents that fueled the Revolution (just take a peek at the Suffolk Resolves or his Massacre Day speech).
  • He was a confidant of many.
  • He was a leader of the Sons of Liberty.
  • He was a man of faith (he makes many references to God and honoring Him in his letters).

To learn more about Dr. Joseph Warren, go to – or you can read my historical fiction book, A Different Kind of Courage.

Sarah Holman is a not so typical mid-twenties girl: A homeschool graduate, sister to six awesome siblings, and author of five published books and counting. If there is anything adventuresome about her life, it is because she serves a God with a destiny bigger than anything she could have imagined.

Sarah’s Blog

Sarah on …


A Different Kind of Courage
by Sarah Holman

July 4, 2014
202 pages

“Why did my life have to be full of secrets?”

After three years in England, William Landor returns to Boston in 1774, little knowing the events that are about to unfold.

England has issued an ultimatum: Pay for the tea that was destroyed in the Boston Tea Party, or the Port of Boston will be closed. William knows that this will have a devastating effect on his hometown, which is so dependent on the sea. However, he finds himself in the middle of the political struggle he wanted to avoid.

William’s father is a merchant and loyal to the king and is furious at what the rebels of Boston have cost him. He would like nothing more than to rid the city of their poisonous influence. Meanwhile, William’s best friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, is one of the leaders of rebels, or Whigs as they call themselves.

As if his life was not complicated enough, he meets a fiery indentured servant who tugs at his heart as well as his loyalty. When he is confronted by the consequences of his many secrets, he has to make a choice whether or not to tell the truth. Does he have the kind of courage it will take?

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CSFF Blog Tour: Like a Crusader

“Crusader perched like a gargoyle on a second floor ledge …”

So begins Numb – with Crusaders and gargoyles, icons of the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church.

Although there are obvious and significant differences between the True Church of Numb and the medieval Catholic Church, there are also definite similarities. The power exercised in the state is one such commonality, and so is the persecution of heretics. In the True Church’s schemes to subjugate the heathen Praesidium there is some parallel to the Crusades. Yet the parallels are limited. The Crusaders had two motivations absent entirely from the True Church: the Turkish persecution of Christian pilgrims in the Middle East and the apprehension of that land as the Holy Land.

There is a story from the Crusades to which Numb bears a remarkable resemblance. The First Crusade succeeded in taking Jerusalem in 1099, but as the years went by, the power of the Crusaders in the Middle East declined. They lost territory and Jerusalem became threatened.

So it was time for the Second Crusade. Pope Eugenius III urged King Louis VII of France to take part in the new Crusade and commissioned Bernard of Clairvaux to preach it. As Urban did for the First Crusade, Eugenius III made participating in the Second Crusade a cleansing penance for sins. He wrote to King Louis: “[B]y the authority granted us by God we concede and confirm to those who decide out of devotion to take up and complete so holy and so necessary a task and labor … remission of sins.”

And Bernard declared to the crowd at Vezelay, with King Louis at his side, “The din of arms, the danger, the labors, the fatigues of war, are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels.”

Now the king’s sin, which he wanted to expiate, was this: While waging war in Champagne, Louis VII sacked the city of Vitry and caused its church to be set on fire. More than a thousand people who had taken refuge in the church died in the flames.

These cruel deaths plagued the young king with guilt and remorse. The Pope and Bernard showed him the way to expiate his guilt: a Crusade to the Holy Land.

That is the similarity to Numb. As the Ministrix directed Crusader, so did the Catholic Church direct King Louis: service to God for the remission of sins, absolving guilt for death by inflicting death.

CSFF Blog Tour: Romans and Druids

In Sigmund Brouwer’s speculative series Merlin’s Immortals, Druids are the villains – lying, thieving, manipulative, murdering villains. This, of course, is only fiction. The real Druids were much worse.

The Druids regarded it as unlawful to commit their teachings to writing. The oldest accounts of them come to us through a third party – a culture with a written language, with historians and learned men, with absolutely no compunction about writing down Druid doctrines, a culture that came into contact with the Gauls and their Druids.

In other words, the Romans.

Julius Caesar waged the Gallic Wars for eight years, finally subduing Gaul and its Celtic tribes. He wrote what is the oldest description of the Druids on record, about fifty years before the birth of Christ. To quote his Gallic Wars:

[The Druids] are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion. … [T]hey determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private; and if any crime has been perpetrated, if murder has been committed, if there be any dispute about an inheritance, if any about boundaries, these same persons decide it; they decree rewards and punishments; if any one, either in a private or public capacity, has not submitted to their decision, they interdict him from the sacrifices. This among them is the most heavy punishment. Those who have been thus interdicted are esteemed in the number of the impious and the criminal: all shun them, and avoid their society and conversation, lest they receive some evil from their contact; nor is justice administered to them when seeking it, nor is any dignity bestowed on them. …

The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. … They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another … They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods.

Later Caesar got into their “superstitious rites”, writing that the Gauls would employ the Druids to “sacrifice men” to the gods – usually criminals, but when necessary, the innocent, too.

Other Romans rendered similar accounts of human sacrifice. Tacitus called the Druids’ sacrifices “inhuman rites” that involved spilling the blood of captives; Lucan, describing a sacred site of the Druids encountered by Julius Caesar, wrote: “Interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight from above. … Gods were worshipped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings … On these boughs [of the trees in the sacred grove] birds feared to perch; in those coverts wild beasts would not lie down.”

The Romans – who, for all their evils, were clean at least of the evil of human sacrifice – were probably truly appalled by the rites of the Druids. But it was also, no doubt, their own self-interest that led them to attack Anglesey, an island off the coast of Wales long known as the center of the Druidic religion. After winning the battle of Anglesey, the Romans – showing the thoroughness that built the Roman Empire – destroyed the sacred groves on the island.

It was the Gospel, preached in Europe, that finally ended the influence and unceasing cruelty of the Druids. But it was the Romans who struck the first blow. And so, in such mysterious ways, does God work His will, judging righteously.

Great Innovations

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.” Which is pretty much what happened with the Constitution.

The Articles of Confederation had created a remarkably weak Continental Congress, lacking the power to carry through even what few decisions it had the authority to make. It could create an army but not fund it, borrow money but not repay it, make treaties but not fulfill them.

So the Founders – frustrated by the paralyzing weakness and afraid of its consequences – finally brought about the Constitution.

It began with a trade convention in Annapolis, where twelve delegates from five states met for three days. They found that “the power of regulating trade is of such comprehensive extent, and will enter so far into the general System of the federal government, that to give it efficacy, and to obviate questions and doubts concerning its precise nature and limits, may require a correspondent adjustment of other parts of the Federal System.”

This is a long way around to the point that, in order to amend the defects in commerce, they first needed to amend the defects in the scheme of government. They recommended a convention in Philadelphia the following May, to “render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

The Congress took the suggestion and issued a call for the Philadelphia convention. Fifty-five delegates from twelve states* attended. Not only did they create a new Constitution for the country, they even created the terms by which it was to be accepted or rejected.

If you care to remember such details, the Continental Congress was the governing body of the American union. But the convention essentially cut them out. They put the Constitution before the states for ratification, with the regulation that when nine states had ratified, the new government would take effect.

To appreciate the boldness of this, you have to understand that the Articles of Confederation could be revised only by the approval of the Congress and the unanimous consent of all the state legislatures. You also have to remember that the Philadelphia convention met by the authority of the Continental Congress, and then arranged to supplant the Congress without ever getting their leave.

In a final stroke of audacity, the convention stated that – at such time as nine states ratified the Constitution – the Congress should fix the date for the elections of the new Congress and the takeover** of the new government. The Continental Congress was requested to manage its dissolution.***

The battle for ratification was closely and even bitterly fought. Massachusetts ratified by 187-168****, New York by 30-27. New Hampshire by 57-47, Virginia by 89-79, Rhode Island by 34-32 – all slender majorities, especially for so great an innovation.

* Rhode Island sent no delegation. The convention didn’t act like it mattered.

** They called it “commencing Proceedings”. To be an eighteenth-century legislator!

*** But not agree to it.

**** Of all the votes listed here, this was the Federalists’ widest margin of victory – and even here, ten votes would have changed it to defeat. The rest of the tallies may be found here.

CSFF Blog Tour: A Halo Around His Head

Yesterday I classed Shannon Dittemore’s depiction of angelic halos as “speculative”. It does not contradict the Bible, though it can hardly be possible.

The notion that angels have halos comes from medieval art, where they are so portrayed. I had thought that medieval art was the beginning of the halo, but a little digging swiftly proved me wrong.

Before the coming of Christ, Greek and Roman art gave halos to gods and emperors and heroes. In the Iliad, “Achilles dear to Jove arose” and Minerva “crowned his head with a halo of golden cloud from which she kindled a glow of gleaming fire.”* There are Roman mosaics – dated in the second century and still preserved – that show Apollos and Poseidon haloed.

And so the Christian church – first established and finally accepted in the Roman Empire – began, in the fourth century, to use halos in its icons. At first only Christ was portrayed with a halo, and then only when on a throne or “in an exalted and princely character”**. But by the end of the sixth century, the halo was given to Mary, saints and martyrs – and angels.

In the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore*** is a series of mosaics depicting the annunciation of Mary, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and Herod’s command to slaughter the children. In these mosaics, the angels are haloed, the Christ-child is haloed, and Mary and Joseph are not. Herod, on the other hand, is wearing a halo – even in the mosaic where he is bidding his soldiers to kill the children. In this the artists followed the pagan practice of giving halos as symbols of royalty, and not necessarily goodness.

As time went on, the tradition of the halo grew more elaborate, more nuanced. Christ’s halo often had a cross within, or extending from, it; the Orthodox tradition sometimes added to this the Greek letters Ο Ω Ν, which – taken together and translated – read “The Existing One”. A triangle, or two triangles intersecting, became the given halo for God the Father, in symbolism of the Trinity.

In 600 Gregory the Great – not being dead – was painted with a square halo, “the sign for a living person”. From then on it was the standard, in all portraits of the living, that the halo be square. In 1625 Pope Urban VII actually issued a bull that forbade representing anyone with a halo who had not been beatified or canonized by the Catholic Church.

A revolution in art brought about the decline of the halo, with artists finding it hard to combine realism and perspective with halos. The Nazarene movement came alive in the early nineteenth century, drawing artists to look back to the Middle Ages. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld was one of those artists, and in 1835 he painted “The Three Marys at the Tomb”. But even he gave a halo only to the angel.

In the popular imagination, angels are still associated with halos. But once you know the origin and the history of the halo, you can’t believe that angels really wear them. After all, Achilles wore one first.

* Ever read the Iliad? Me, neither. Anyway, you can find the passage here.

** Quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

*** The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a church in Rome, Italy built during the fifth century. It just looks better in Italian.

The Story of the Leaning Tower

I decided to do this week’s post on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and not only because I was late getting to work on it. I’ve long been fascinated at how failing became such a tremendous success.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa leans. This, a tower is not supposed to do. For one thing, it’s terribly inconvenient when you’re trying to eat and the plate keeps sliding off the table. More urgently, there is a danger that the tower will tilt more and more until, finally, it falls over. That a tower is most definitely not supposed to do.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the campanile – the freestanding bell tower – of the Cathedral of Pisa. In the twelfth century, when construction began, Pisa was a city-state, one of Italy’s maritime republics. For a time it dominated trade on the Mediterranean. The city elders decided to build a cathedral square – erecting first the cathedral and the baptistry, and then the bell tower.

Now, the town of Pisa was named from a Greek word meaning “marshy land”. And they were only being accurate. The city “lies on a thin layer of soft alluvial silt, above a thick layer of even softer marine clay. It’s practically a bog.” (The Telegraph) So the earth was weak, and the foundation they laid was also weak. In 1173, building began; in 1178, after they had progressed to the second floor, the tower began to sink. It’s been tilting ever since.

War caused a halt to the building of the tower – and, many believe, prevented its collapse. During the long interim, the land stabilized as the tower’s weight slowly compacted the dirt beneath it. In 1272 work began again, under the architect Giovanni di Simone. He tried to correct the tower’s tilt (see, it wasn’t supposed to do that!), but he failed.

In the early fifteenth century, Pisa lost its independence. Eventually the Leaning Tower of Pisa became one of the monuments of Italy, enjoying international fame. The inhabitants of Pisa liked to say that only God was holding their tower up – in His love.

But there was a dissenting opinion; there always is. Mussolini didn’t like to have a lopsided tower as a national symbol. He took a course of action that was, for the class he belonged to*, very temperate: He had 80 tons of concrete poured into the foundations. The Tower of Pisa, in admirable defiance, continued to lean.

During World War II, as the Allies battled the Nazis for Italy, the German army used the tower as an observation post. When the U.S. military discovered this, the fate of the Leaning Tower was placed in the hands of an American sergeant. He decided not to call in an artillery strike, and the tower survived yet another war.

Of course, the existential danger of the Tower of Pisa is that it leans, and does so at an ever-increasing angle. As the twentieth century wore on, it became alarmingly clear that even a thunderstorm had the potential to knock down the tower. So, in 1990, the Tower of Pisa was shut down. After eleven years of structural strengthening, it was declared ready to go on standing – and leaning – for two or three centuries more.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “God only knows, man failing in his choice, how far apparent failure may succeed.” And that, in essence, is the story of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

* The Crazy Dictator class. He could have just blown it up, you know.

Insolent Ignorance

Last Saturday I rented a Denise Austen DVD from the library, and today I finally did its second workout: Yoga Sculpt. Basically you spend thirty minutes doing yoga exercises, only with a five-pound weight in each hand. This is why I need to post today. Tomorrow I might not be able to move my arms.

Independence Day is coming up, and my current reading is appropriate to it. Normally, when I read nonfiction it centers around modern events and people. Sometimes, however, I delve farther back. Right now I’m reading The Life of James Otis of Massachusetts, by William Tudor. James Otis is one of the most influential, least regarded leaders of the American Revolution. For example, when I mentioned his name you probably did not know who he was.

I’m just starting to learn. The biography I got from the library was published in 1823. It’s fascinating to read something written that long ago, to know how a man of that time thought and wrote. I’m only on Chapter Three, but already the author has paused twice to explain puritan customs to his readers. (He did not capitalize “puritan”.) Tudor and his audience were so much closer to the puritans than we are – yet even to them it was history.

In the Preface I found this comment: “When a well known foreign journal in all the triumph of insolent ignorance, asked, ‘Who Patrick Henry was?’ we only smiled at its impertinence.”

This is beautiful, and I’ll be remembering it for a long time – the triumph of insolent ignorance: Who is Patrick Henry?