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.