Basic Books, 2011
304 pp., $26.99
Thomas S. Kidd
James Madison has always labored, as it were, in Thomas Jefferson's shadow. In our mental image of the Founding Fathers, Madison seems slightly obscured by the first rank of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and (because of David McCullough and HBO) John Adams. They have a kind of charm and celebrity that the short, sickly, and bookish Madison can't match.
Richard Brookhiser's James Madison, then, is a welcome addition to the literature on Madison. His lively biography helps us understand Madison's political brilliance and its lessons for today. Brookhiser, a senior editor of National Review and the author of a variety of books on the Founders, crafts a usable Madison, showing not only that he was the brains behind the Constitution and a generally successful president but also that he was also a "Father of Politics," matching political savvy with principled ideals in a manner that has always marked America's best leaders.
Brookhiser's biography brings characters to life in roles we can readily understand in our time. Jefferson here is the "philosopher and strategist, Madison the reality check and right-hand man." I did find some of Brookhiser's historical judgments a little brusque, especially when dealing with Madison's opponents and their motives. And I usually get nervous when a history book keeps explaining the past with reference to today.
Yet, in general, Brookhiser succeeds. He is the rare author who grasps the complexities both of history and of contemporary politics. He especially convinces me that Madison's learned approach to the Constitution, and his dogged persistence in crafting, defending, and amending it (with the Bill of Rights), represented a triumph of principled pragmatism. This achievement stands in stark contrast to American politics today, which is often both inane and ineffective.
Thomas S. Kidd is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution and the forthcoming Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.
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