Garry Wills’s Madison

Garry Wills’s short book on Madison (James Madison) is not the complete story on our puzzling fourth President, but it captures well the many contradictory positions which Madison embraced during his long life. Wills’s book was a commissioned study in The American Presidents Series, so he concentrates on Madison’s tenure as President, which most historians (except perhaps Lynn Cheney) see as not anywhere near to the quality of the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, or FDR.

The most notable event in Madison’s presidency, of course, was the War of 1812, of which as Wills says, “After all, he deliberately went to war with incompetent war secretaries and generals, with inadequate economic and military resources, with reliance on an unfit militia. He accomplished not a single one of the five goals he set for the war to achieve.” But, unlike George W. Bush, who led the US into two even more disastrous wars, at the end of his term Madison was enormously popular, which led to the election of his hand-picked successor, Monroe.

Wills highlights the contradictions in Madison’s thinking over his career, from being the “Father of the American Constitution” and the principal author with Hamilton of The Federalist Papers to the dogged adversary of Hamilton and the “Imperial Presidency.” He went from being the principal adviser to Washington on the details of his precedent-setting term in office to being totally scorned by the ”Father of his Country” over the Jay Treaty.

In this conflict with Washington, and as was typical of many of the problems with which he wrestled during his presidency, Madison did a total about-face on some of his most forcefully argued constitutional positions. He claimed a power for the House of Representatives to nullify the Jay Treaty even though he had been the principal architect of the constitutional arrangement which made the Executive and the Senate the national authorities over foreign affairs. He “was so angry at the Senate for its ratification that he praised ‘the firm example’ given by the Virginia Assembly’s proposal to shorten the Senate’s terms to three years and strip it of powers including the trial of impeachment – though Madison had previously supported six-year terms and wanted to strengthen the impeachment power (p 42.)”

In the end, Washington “would never rely on him again, never consult him, never invite him to a private setting in the executive mansion where Madison had been the trusted confidant, never receive him at Mount Vernon, where he had spent so many days and nights, regularly stopping off on trips to and from his home in Orange County. . . . .He had concluded, after a long sad experience, that Madison was duplicitous and dishonorable.”

Wills relies often on Henry Adams’s brilliant nineteenth century History of the United States during the Administrations of James Madison, on Madison’s complete writings, and on several more recent biographical studies. For those who aren’t satisfied with Wills’s short volume and want more of the details of Madison’s presidency, I would highly recommend Adams’s nearly 1,500 page study in the beautiful Library of America series.

I won’t be reading Lynn Cheney’s alternative view of Madison. Wills is a trustworthy enough contemporary guide for me (highly trustworthy.) And I don’t want to spend time with the wife of someone as “duplicitous and dishonorable” as her husband. Character counts.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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