“Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America” by David O. Stewart Review

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Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America

Author: David O. Stewart

Release Date: 2015

James Madison was included among the founding fathers when I was taught about American history, but I seem to recall him as more of a distant fourth in terms of stature. Reading his biography, I came away with two impressions. First, he seemed to be America’s first politician that became President. Madison would frequently flip flop on his views, depending on who he was allied with or what he was trying to accomplish at the moment. He was also ambitious to raise in political offices (although campaigning in that era was still nothing like it is today). More surprisingly, Madison’s accomplishments and impact on America seemed to dwarf that of Adams and Jefferson (at least in terms of post American revolution). Certainly his role in drafting, ratifying, and amending the United States Constitution was more time consuming and far reaching than Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (consider the ever changing breadth of the Constitution in jurisprudence). As the President during the War of 1812, Madison immediately preceded the boom in American population and economics. Because I enjoy rating things, I’ll return to my categories of Presidents and see how he did overall.

Born into – More than any of the other founding fathers, Madison had an easy path to politics. the eldest son of one of the richest families in the most powerful state, Madison was able to reach political office and keep it while not having much to really offer besides his scholarship. However, he was much more in the Adams/Jefferson mold in that his physical attributes and presence did not inspire on their own as they did with Washington. 2 out of 5.

Pre-president – All of Madison’s notable accomplishments occurred in the political arena, but as mentioned above, he had an enormous impact on the country. Along with Alexander Hamilton, Madison was the most prolific of writers for the Federalist Papers, and his efforts on drafting the Constitution, followed by the Bill of Rights were a primary factor in its ratification in all of the states. Madison continued to wield enormous power through the first three Presidents by being the voice of the Republican party (this included being a major thorn in the side of Washington and Adams). 4.5 out of 5.

Presidential career – Madison made the same mistakes that Washington, Adams and (probably) so many other presidents did in picking people for his cabinet that would routinely mess up or not follow his directions. This extender to ambassadors signing treaties which specifically ignored his instructions (though this is more forgivable as the country had so little bargaining power at the time). The War of 1812 is certainly the most notable event of his presidency, with the declaration of it (with no real immediate cause) and it’s outcome (return to the status quo before the war) obscuring the effect it had on history. With Jefferson as president, the country had returned to a weak national government that could never stand up or survive a war with a foreign power. Madison’s actions directly led to the establishment of a more powerful navy and resting army (which definitely contradicted so many of his writings and politics). Additional funding through tariffs and taxes and the second Bank of America further contradicted those politics, but it also shepherded in a prosperous era for the country and continued the dominance of the Republican party of the era. 4.5 out of 5.

Vice President – George Clinton was noted on two occasions in my book, those being the instance when he broke a tie in the senate by voting against Madison’s policy, and again when he died in office. Elbridge Gerry was likewise mentioned twice; once for replacing Clinton, and again for also dying in office. 1 out of 5

First Lady – Finally a first lady that contributed in noticeable ways. Besides the iconic event of fleeing from the White House and saving a portrait of Washington (which amazingly, is probably the most memorable event of the War of 1812), Dolly was a real asset in the White House. For many, she was much more popular than the President, and served as a medium for messages both openly and confidentially as needed. Even after James’s death she returned to Washington and knew twelve of the presidents personally. 4.5 out of 5.

Post presidency – Madison followed Jefferson’s lead in retirement by serving as Rector of the same university and by writing letters and occasional opinions on political topics. Interestingly, he was the last surviving attendee of the Constitutional Convention and outlived several presidents that came after him. Once again, George Washington was the only founding father to actually free his slaves after he died (except for some of Martha’s) even though the rest of the presidents talked about it. 2 out of 5.

Book overall – This was my second favorite so far after Zernow’s Washington book. The format was a bit restrictive, feeling like a thesis statement that had to be forced in or proven several times over, but it also added to the understanding of Madison as a politician. Of his partnerships, Hamilton became one of his greatest rivals, Madison became Washington’s toughest critic, and Monroe was often present just for the popularity he brought to his position, despite having ran against Madison for office before. The book could have used some more detail in a few sections (Madison’s selection of Generals in particular) but overall I came away with a good understanding of the fourth president. Most importantly, the book spent appropriate length of time pointing out the praiseworthy accomplishments as well as the hypocrisy or poor decisions that deserved it. Interestingly, this book took the opposite stance of Jefferson’s scandal of illegitimate children with Sally Hemmings than the Jefferson biography did (talking about it as though it was 100% accepted fact and was even known at the time), but this being a Madison biography I’ll give it the appropriate weight.

4-star

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