James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, by Lynne Cheney. New York: Viking, 2014. 564 pp. $36 (hardcover).
With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 now past, historians and the general public are only scratching the surface of a flood of new books on the war and the president who supervised it, James Madison. Dr. Lynne Cheney, the wife of former vice president Dick Cheney and holder of a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has contributed a new full-length biography of the republic’s fourth president.1
Aside from the recent anniversaries associated with important events in Madison’s long public career and the war, Cheney argues that Madison warrants yet another comprehensive examination to counter widespread misconceptions about the diminutive father of the Constitution as a meek and mild leader. Cheney argues that Madison was “the political equivalent of Mozart” during the traditionally defined “great” period of his career (the 1780s and very early 1790s); and that, as president (1809–1817), and without “precedent to guide him,” he demonstrated “that a republic could defend its honor and independence—and remain a republic still” (pp. 7–8). In the age of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the like, considerations and reconsiderations of Madison—a man intimately associated with limited government, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the first declared war under that institutional framework—appear in order.
Cheney’s book aims to make a scholarly contribution to the field of Madison and early Republic studies and to do so in a way that can be appreciated by the wider reading public as well as academics. Despite the name of the author, it is clear that Cheney is not trying to write a Republican Party version of Madison’s life. Her arguments and conclusions about Madison’s virtues, ideas, and achievements have no direct application to the present except by inference. She does not use the example of Madison to condemn the political culture she is so intimately familiar with. Rather, Cheney reconsiders Madison’s life by visiting all of the well-known episodes and trials of the life and career of the fourth American president. Consequently, in addition to being a biography of Madison, the book may serve as a readable introduction to the major events, issues, and personalities involved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of American history and the ideas that motivated the revolutionaries.
Regarding Madison himself, Cheney does her most impressive scholarly work on his earliest years, focusing on the young Madison’s health issues and the development of his ideas during the American Enlightenment. Much scholarship on Madison focuses on his career before he became secretary of state in 1801; Cheney looks further back, to Madison’s life before 1776. This is unsurprising given Cheney’s long career in writing about and studying education. And her effort fits in with the current vogue of trying to find new insights into famous American political figures by exploring the murky waters of their less well-documented youth (an entire field of literature has emerged around Abraham Lincoln’s childhood and early manhood, for instance).
Unlike a number of conservative-leaning historians, Cheney makes no apologies for Madison’s commitment to enlightened reason, experiential observation, and devotion to the Newtonian scientific revolution. In fact, she writes that the maturing Madison actively and consciously rejected an older, traditional worldview that he held as a young man coming out of John Witherspoon’s Presbyterian College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Before having been influenced by American Enlightenment giants such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, writes Cheney, “Madison’s thinking underwent a sea change” (p. 39). Pondering a life in the clergy and worried that his probable epilepsy might be a sign of divine displeasure, the youthful Madison was a man very much in crisis. But the readings for the course of study taught by the fiery and dyspeptic Scottish master of the College of New Jersey included many volumes assigned essentially for the purpose of “know[ing] one’s enemies.” Confident in his faith and his students’ commitment to it, Witherspoon exposed them to John Locke, Montesquieu, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, and David Hume. But Witherspoon’s confidence was to some extent misplaced. Many students at this former bailiwick of the Puritan Jonathan Edwards found these new books and ideas provocative, attractive, and liberating—including the sickly and bookish young Madison.
For Madison, the break from revealed mysticism to enlightenment came with the period’s characteristic uncertainty about fundamental metaphysical questions. Witherspoon railed against Hume’s subversive skepticism, but Cheney points out (as have other Madison scholars) that Hume’s influence had a profound impact on Madison’s approach not only to his own health, but also his ideas concerning the state’s illegitimate role in dictating matters of conscience (almost every colony had an established, tax-supported church) (pp. 41–44).
In microcosm, the story of Madison’s intellectual development indicates how and why the American Enlightenment eventually ended. At its best, the movement led to the most invigorating revolution in human liberty the world had ever known. Sadly, however, enlightenment thinkers were unable to carry the day against skeptical and religious assaults. As a result, although the best of the movement remains codified in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, its presence in modern American life is largely vestigial. Madison himself lived long enough to know that the Enlightenment was waning. By the time Madison died, in June 1836, the nation was entering a period of increasing mysticism, with many people embracing evangelical Christianity whereas secular intellectuals were increasingly drinking the intellectual poison emanating from German thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Georg Friedrich Hegel.
Unfortunately, Cheney does not follow this deeply explanatory thread in the biography, and ultimately, that is the book’s downfall. A pleasant and quick read, this biography provides a reasonably good, surface-level introduction for nonacademics interested in Madison or the founding. But the curious reader is going to finish James Madison: A Life Reconsidered wanting to reconsider much more about the man.
Despite Cheney’s concise summary of Lance Banning’s commanding case for Madison’s consistency as a Federalist in the 1780s and a Jeffersonian in the 1790s in The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, anyone curious about or skeptical of Madison’s positions during this penultimate period of his career will still need to visit that book.2 Similarly, those interested in Madison’s long retirement years and his positions on how his legacy and ideas (and those of his friend Jefferson) were used and viewed by later generations when a massive civil war over slavery became depressingly easy to contemplate will still have to go to Drew R. McCoy’s The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy.3 And, although Cheney acknowledges that watching her husband’s political career inspired her to write a book that would convey to readers “what a master of the political arts James Madison was,” he emerges as a far more interesting and complete operator and thinker in J. C. A. Stagg’s Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830.4 For the truly curious, journalist Irving Brant’s six-volume biography of Madison still stands as the most thorough look at Madison’s life and career.5
Given that Cheney spent years reconsidering Madison’s life in a full one-volume biography, one would expect the book to surpass in fullness and insight the current version of that on the market—in this case, Ralph Ketcham’s treatment.6 Sadly, despite loads of enthusiasm and readable accounts of the major themes and incidents of Madison’s long political and intellectual life, including the correct interpretation of Madison’s behavior during the War of 1812 (in my opinion, one of the book’s more interesting and important scholarly arguments that also has obvious practical implications for us today), Lynne Cheney’s James Madison: A Life Reconsidered does not surpass Ketcham’s exploration of the father of America’s embattled Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Now, more than ever, a revelatory new biography of Madison might provide an inspirational basis for shining a critical light on his descendants of all political stripes and pointing the way forward through what Madison once called “[e]xperience . . . the oracle of truth.”7