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James Madison (2002)

af Garry Wills

Andre forfattere: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (Redaktør)

Serier: The American Presidents Series (4)

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455755,056 (3.34)23
In this examination of the life of a founding father, renowned historian Wills takes a fresh look at the life of James Madison, from his rise to prominence in the colonies through his role in the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the first Constitutional Congress.
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Viser 1-5 af 7 (næste | vis alle)
The author began well, offering three potential explanations for Madison's mediocre administration, ranking them in order of his opinion of their credibility. Alas and alack, he didn't return to this organizational pattern too often. The book is well-written, and I agree with his assessment of the presidency, but I felt that it had some flaws in emphasis. Wills relies too often on period narrators to carry the heavy lifting of explication. For instance, he believes that the main theme of Madison's views on foreign affairs was the 'embargo', but he doesn't really define it himself, but inserts Madison's own definition, which is difficult to comprehend, given the involuted syntax and meandering prose of the period. There are many other examples of this. Also, while I appreciated learning about the War of 1812, a hole in my education, I don't believe that it deserved to take up half of the book; domestic politics are really given only a few pages here and there, and domestic politics, if possible, even less. To learn about diplomatic and military failure, the book serves quite well, but it falls a tad short as a holistic portrait. ( )
  Big_Bang_Gorilla | Oct 6, 2022 |
Perfunctory review of a great consituinalist but mediocre president ( )
  Doondeck | Jan 7, 2021 |
This short book in a series on the Presidents does not purport to be a full biography of James Madison, our fourth president. Rather, Garry Wills focuses the narrative and analysis around the problem that, in the consensus of historians, “Madison, though one of the nation’s greatest founders, is not one of its greatest presidents.” Why was it that the man who was the father of the Constitution and planned the government brilliantly was so lackluster in conducting it as President?

This does not mean that Wills ignores Madison’s earlier career. But, as a result of the main focus on the Presidency, Wills may not give as full an account of Madison’s role in the Constitution, and perhaps even in the administrations prior to his own, that the reader would need to make a full assessment of Madison the man, not just Madison the president. Wills of course has a grasp of the full story, which he can fall back upon in making his more general conclusions at the end of the study, but the reader may finish this book with a more confused impression of Madison.

It may be that this series of books on the presidents imposed page space constraints on Wills so attempting a fuller biography, albeit still with the presidency as his principal focus, may not have been practical. Moreover, by raising questions in the reader’s mind about Madison, and about the apparent conflict between many of his specific actions and the consensus judgment that Madison was one of the three most important founders of the United States, Wills certainly forces the reader to think more about Madison and may encourage further study.

At the outset, Wills refers to three possible explanations for Madison’s relative lack of success as President. First, was it just a question of circumstances, i.e., that it was a difficult time to be President? Wills rejects this on the grounds that the unsuccessful War of 1812, which was the predominant event of Madison’s Presidency, was not a war he inherited but rather a war he welcomed and encouraged. Ironically, “Madison’s war was unlike any other in that it seemed to gain nothing, yet it added to his popularity.”

Second, Madison’s temperament was more suited to his being a good legislator than a good executive, and Wills cites his lack of charisma, his weak voice and nerves and his tendency to act as a semi-silent collaborator of men like Washington and Jefferson. While Wills sees this explanation as more plausible than the first, he also thinks it falls short.

The third explanation is that Madison made specific errors throughout his career with respect to the strength and threat of the British Empire and that this caused him to make bad judgments with respect to foreign policy. While Wills does not reject this explanation, presumably he is looking for a more basic explanation which could explain the errors, as well as perhaps contributing to explaining the issues of temperament.

And indeed, following his discussion of these three explanations, Wills emphasizes two traits that Madison exhibited throughout his career, both as a successful framer of the Constitution and as a lackluster President: a provincialism with regard to the rest of the world (he never travelled outside the United States) and naïveté with regard to the rest of his fellow human beings. These traits had less impact in the constitutional phase of Madison’s career because others, such as his colleagues in the conventions (in particular George Washington), could check Madison’s tendency to want to pursue propositions that clearly were not practical and could not obtain the approval of others. But these checks were less effective when Madison took on the presidency, and they also spurred positions he took in the administrations prior to his own.

Wills’s discussion of Madison’s constitutional phase focuses mostly on his ability to act behind the scenes, e.g., to ensure that George Washington attended the constitutional convention (a crucial requirement for its success), and on certain proposals he pursued at the convention which demonstrated his traits of provinciality and naïveté. Madison sought provisions which would give the national government power to veto state laws and to force states to provide financial support to the national government as required under the existing articles of Confederation. Wills notes that these provisions would have been subject to approval by the very states to which they would apply, and yet Madison continued to insist on them despite their evident impracticality. Other wiser minds blocked these proposals and, because of the secrecy of the convention, the states never became aware of them.

The importance of Madison’s role as a framer is reinforced in the discussion of the Federalist Papers. Wills points out that Hamilton initially wanted other New Yorkers to join him as the pseudonymous author (Publius) of those papers. Other than John Jay, the other New Yorkers he approached did not work out, and as John Jay became ill he ultimately only provided five papers. It was a stroke of luck for Hamilton that at the time Madison, who was still a member of Congress, was in New York attending one of its sessions. Hamilton asked Madison to help out on the Federalist Papers, which he readily agreed to do and wrote twenty-nine, many of which are counted among the most influential of the papers. His assistance on this project also delayed his return to Virginia, where he was also desperately needed to secure ratification of the Constitution in that state. Despite his weaknesses as a public speaker, his knowledge of the Constitution and his careful preparation (which characterized him throughout his life) enabled him to defeat his opponent, the eloquent Patrick Henry.

One apparently surprising aspect of Madison’s development is his shift from favoring a strong national government as portrayed in the Federalist Papers to a more anti-Federalist position after the Constitution was ratified. (Indeed, in addition to supporting stronger powers for the federal government in the Constitution, in drafting the Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives, Madison wanted them to apply not just to the federal government but also to the states.) For example, one of the most paradoxical parts of the story is that during the Washington and Adams’ presidencies Madison (along with Jefferson) pursued some actions against federalist policies that were contrary to the text of the Constitution and its underlying philosophy that he did so much to create as a legislator.

The reader might speculate that, in aligning himself with Jefferson against Hamilton, Madison betrayed some (not all) of the principles he had done so much to develop (on freedom of religion he was always a leader and this was one area where he and Jefferson shared similar views from the beginning). Another possible explanation might be found in the fact that while both Hamilton and Madison set forth a common position in the Federalist Papers, in fact Hamilton supported a much stronger executive than was ultimately reflected in the Constitution or in the Federalist Papers. Perhaps Hamilton’s measures as Secretary of the Treasury went beyond what Madison had contemplated for the president. Wills does not help us understand this shift, although he does note that at least one historian believes Madison became irrationally jealous of Hamilton when Hamilton had more influence on the policies of George Washington's administration than did Madison. In later years, Madison became very sensitive to the inconsistency of positions he had adopted (some of which would be used later to justify secession by the South), and indeed sought to doctor his papers (unsuccessfully) to remove evidence of these. Despite his anti-Federalist intentions, the War of 1812 had the effect of achieving Federalist goals, albeit in the context of the emergence of nationalism rather than the success of Federalism.

Initially, George Washington as President relied carefully on Madison to guide him as he sought to act in the spirit of the Constitution, and Wills gives Madison a lot of credit for Washington’s success as a revolutionary president who did not exceed his authority. At the same time, Washington relied closely on Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of the Treasury. Over time, Washington often supported Hamilton’s recommendations over the contrary views of Jefferson and Madison, and indeed Hamilton had success in pushing his projects through the Congress, despite the opposition of Madison in the House of Representatives. Wills describes an almost comic failed “insurgency” that Jefferson and Madison instigated anonymously through the press against Hamilton, an insurgency which involved asserting that Hamilton was an agent of the British Empire, taking steps contrary to the Constitution to defeat Hamilton and losing control of their agent who turned the attack against Washington himself. One of the sad results of these efforts was that Washington cut all relations with Madison. In addition, it appears it was Jefferson and Madison’s factionalism that created the divisions leading to the creation of the Republican and Federalist parties during Washington’s first term. (Indeed, like some later occupants of the White House, Jefferson was intent on reversing all of the initiatives of his predecessor, in his case John Adams, although this partisanship was driven largely by ideology, not personal vindictiveness.)

Rather than recognize that certain initiatives could not succeed, Madison had a tendency to double down on his ideas and to conclude they were being blocked by individuals acting with evil intent. His biggest policy fiasco, reflecting his misunderstanding of England in particular, was supporting an embargo of all trade with both England and France to punish those countries for interfering with American neutrality in seizing its ships or, in the case of England, impressing English sailors that had deserted the British Navy (known for its frequent flogging and low pay) for the more attractive American merchant fleet. He thought the embargo would force the English in particular to stop these practices. This was totally unrealistic given that England was in a death struggle with France and the maintenance of the Royal Navy was its highest priority. Moreover, both England and France realized that the embargo weakened America much more than themselves. Jefferson took Madison’s advice and implemented the embargo during his presidency, resulting in a collapse of exports and a depression. Finally, just before Madison’s inauguration, Congress canceled the embargo. This and various other episodes illustrate Wills’ theme that the combination of Madison’s provincialism and naïveté led him to pursue actions that were counterproductive.

In another irony, although Jefferson and Madison both generally opposed war because they knew it would lead to a stronger national government and the need for a standing army and navy, by naïvely encouraging war against England, Madison ultimately did foster these Federalist objectives. Madison thought Canada could be easily conquered and then either retained as part of the United States or used as a bargaining chip to improve England’s behavior on the seas. The invasion of Canada was totally unsuccessful, and was compounded by the British capture and burning of the White House and other government buildings in Washington DC. Indeed, the British intended to punish the United States by giving the Northwest Territory to the Indians and ceding parts of New York and New England to Canada. Fortunately for the United States and for Madison, the British leader Castlereagh realized that continuing a costly American war to achieve such aims would be very unpopular in England given that the long struggle with Napoleon was finally ending. And despite early reversals, at the end of the war the Americans began to have some success as demonstrated by Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. Wills gives particular praise to the American Navy that, despite Jefferson’s neglect, was able to score victories because of the excellence of her frigates (the Constitution, the President, etc.) and the daring of her relatively youthful naval officers, as well as to the engineers that were beginning to be turned out at West Point. The fortifications, trenches, etc., built by these engineers contributed to victories in New Orleans, on the Great Lakes and at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. (And in Henry Adams’ view would have saved Washington as well except that Madison’s appointees had declared such fortifications unnecessary -- one of Wills’ themes is Madison’s record of poor appointments and inability to avoid strife among his cabinet members. Albert Gallatin is the main exception to this sorry record and it was he who enabled the American delegation to take advantage of Castlereagh’s willingness to stop the war.) While none of the war aims was achieved, the American public was happy with the successes of the American Navy and the eventual victories in battle of the army. This all contributed to Madison’s popularity as president and to the United States becoming a "modern" nation.

Despite Madison’s erratic record, Wills praises his performance as President for showing a concern for preserving the Constitution. Unlike other Presidents (including Lincoln and Roosevelt), Madison did not use the excuse of war to restrict civil liberties. By the end of his Administration, Madison had overcome many of its faults, in particular by achieving a well-run cabinet and bequeathing a professional cadre of government officials to his successor, James Monroe. In summing up Madison’s achievements, Wills states that “as a framer and defender of the Constitution, he had no peer” and “among this nation’s founders, only two were more important--Washington and Franklin.” Thanks to Madison’s views on religious freedom as incorporated in the Constitution, religion has flourished in the United States more than in any other modern industrialized society. ( )
  drsabs | Sep 20, 2020 |
Garry Wills is always worth reading. He argues Madison's success as a legislator actually hindered him while he was President - which Wills views as less than successful.
( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
I found Gary Wills's writing to be highly distracting in this biography. He was sometimes writing as a "pal"--'Remember when..." and sometimes as a critic and, more rarely, as a political historian. He made an important president (our first war was fought under him) distinctly boring. Wills relies heavily on annotated materials from other sources, which, while well-written in themselves, only point to missing language in Wills's book. The good news is the book is short and concise, and has a lot of history between its covers. ( )
  Prop2gether | Mar 30, 2009 |
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In this examination of the life of a founding father, renowned historian Wills takes a fresh look at the life of James Madison, from his rise to prominence in the colonies through his role in the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the first Constitutional Congress.

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