Thursday, July 19, 2012

James Madison and the Making of America

Kevin R. C. Gutzman
reviewed by Scott Douglas Gerber

Law & Politics Book Review

July 2012

Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, has written a fine single volume political biography of James Madison. There are a lot of books about Madison – too many, perhaps – but Gutzman provides a splendid account of Madison’s long and distinguished public life. The principal lessons I took from Gutzman’s tome are how much Madison contributed to the history of the United States and how modest Madison was about his contributions. I already knew the first lesson. The second was interesting to learn. Gutzman concludes his book by comparing Madison’s grave to that of his mentor Thomas Jefferson:
One finds at Madison’s grave that here, as in so much else, he differed markedly from his great friend who now lies buried twenty miles away. There is no stone inscribed with Madison’s preferred titles from among the long list he had earned, including Co-Author of the Constitution, Author of the Bill of Rights, Co-Author of The Federalist, Co-Author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Founder of the Republican Party, Author of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and Report of 1800, Rector of the University of Virginia, President of the American Colonization Society, and Sponsor of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom – not to mention all the political offices he held, mostly to great effect (p.362).
It is an impressive feat that Gutzman manages to cover so much ground in 363 pages of text. His book is divided into eight chapters. Several of the chapters describe events that are very familiar to students of the American Founding: Madison’s leading role in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 that produced the U.S. Constitution (chapter 3), his magnificent contributions to The Federalist during the ratification debates of 1787-1788 (chapter 4), and his shepherding of the Bill of Rights through the First Congress in 1789 (a substantial portion of chapter 6). To borrow a lawyer’s term of art, some of the other chapters served to “refresh my recollection” about events that I had not thought seriously about since college, such as Madison’s supervision of the Louisiana Purchase as Jefferson’s secretary of state, the quagmire during his own presidency that was the War of 1812, and the groundbreaking ceremonial role that his wife Dolley played as First Lady of the United States, both during the presidency of the widower Jefferson and, of course, of Madison himself. The fact that so much of Gutzman’s story is a familiar one is not meant as a criticism: Gutzman’s goal was to write an effective trade book about Madison and he has succeeded nicely.