Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unwrapping Madison’s Gift

By Jeff Burns

Quick, name a founding father. (Yes, I know that’s not a PC term, but anyone who knows me would agree that PC is one of the last descriptors that anyone would use for me.)  You probably immediately thought of Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson for example. And because you are intelligent and interested enough to follow the Histocrats, you probably thought of James Madison too.  However, I’d be willing to bet that he wasn’t the first name that crossed your mind.  What do you know about “Little Jemmy” as he was nicknamed?  Many people know that he was the smallest president to date (hence his nickname), standing at 5 ½ feet or less and barely crossing the 100 pounds threshold.  They know he was the fourth president, and that he led the United States into the War of 1812, becoming the only sitting President to actively command troops in war during the disastrous British invasion and occupation of Washington D.C.  They probably also know that his young and vivacious wife, Dolly, was a social butterfly and society trendsetter who heroically oversaw the rescue of important objects in the White House. 

Some people, though, may not remember as much about his pre-presidential career, his leading role at the Constitutional Convention, not only in the writing of the Constitution, but also in its ratification as advocate and co-writer of The Federalist essays.  In Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, historian David O. Stewart seeks to restore Madison to his proper place in the framer/founder pantheon, as one of the most important, if not the most important. 

As Stewart points out, Madison’s contemporaries recognized his importance in the founding of the United States; more cities and counties in the country have been named after Madison than after any other presidents. However, over the years, the soft-spoken, seemingly introverted, bookworm has been overshadowed by other figures.

Stewart accomplishes his goal by exploring Madison’s relationships with 5 important figures, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Dolly Madison, and James Monroe, writing about each relationship separately.  He uses letters and documents (plenty of notes and citations) by and about Madison and each of the other figures to create an elaborate picture of the relationship and how that relationship was crucial in shaping the direction of the young country.  According to Stewart,

“Madison’s Gift” was the ability to work with each person, in spite of occasional differences and rivalries, and to make compromises and adjustments on order to reach his ultimate goal of a self-sustaining constitutional republic.

Madison’s relationships were very fluid.  For example, he worked extremely closely with Alexander Hamilton in the development of the Constitution and the ratification struggle, but them found himself a leader of the political party formed specifically in opposition to Hamiltonian ideas.  Through the first years of the Washington administration, Madison was the chief presidential advisor, but he found himself pushed aside as Hamilton became closer.  Madison and Monroe were close friends but also intense political rivals at times.  And of course, Dolly brought a tremendous personal change in the older, stoic Madison, drawing him out of his shell.

Madison’s Gift is a very interesting book that accomplishes the goal of restoring Madison to his rightful place, and the reader gains insights into the personalities of all the characters.  Learning about them through the deep personal and political relationships they shared brings them to life in a way that other histories and biographies might not.

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