There are few one-volume works which stand in the pantheon of James Madison biographies. These include Ralph Ketcham's James Madison (1971), Drew McCoy's The Last of the Fathers (1991), Lance Banning's The Sacred Fire of Liberty (1995), and Jack Rakove's James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (2002). Jeff Broadwater's James Madison: A Son of Virginia & a Founder of the Nation is a welcome new addition to that list.
Broadwater begins his tome by claiming that he will focus "on those aspects of Madison's life that are apt to be of the most enduring interest to the most readers" (p. xv). Although the political scientist in me initially questioned how one could measure what was interesting in Madison's life, Broadwater fulfills his mission by writing a largely political biography emphasizing the highlights of Madison's career: protecting religious freedom, shaping the Constitution and Bill of Rights, helping to create America's first party system, and serving as president.
Broadwater acknowledges that the "idea of Madison as a disembodied [End Page 83] brain has been nurtured by modern historians and political scientists, who have often tried to make an unusually erudite politician into a more systematic thinker that he was not" (p. xii). This leads to a larger point—that modern scholars have spilled a great deal of ink over whether or not Madison had a fundamental shift in his thinking from being a supporter of national power in the 1780s to advocating more for states' rights in the 1790s.
Broadwater tries to bridge the gap between these two camps by contending that each side is a bit right. According to Broadwater, Madison was a practical politician who also learned from the events around him and refined his views accordingly: "In a public career spanning some fifty tumultuous years, only the most intransigent ideologue could have been completely consistent" (p. xiv). Broadwater also rightfully notes that "Madison maintained a fundamental consistency" in his change of position to support the Bill of Rights, because it ultimately protected the same freedoms that he thought could be secured in other ways by failed proposals at the Constitutional Convention (p. 84). In addition, Broadwater states that the change in Madison's thinking from the 1780s to the 1790s was a result of his observation of Federalist power run amuck during that period, thus adjusting Madison's focus in Federalist No. 10 on preventing "a faction represent[ing] a majority of citizens" to one where he was concerned about "the problem of minority tyranny within a republican state" (pp. 61, 85).
Broadwater also aptly resurrects the standing of James Madison's presidency. After initially noting the common view that Madison was "a supposedly mediocre president," Broadwater goes on to argue that some of his often-cited major disappointments, the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington, were partially due to congressional failings and "[p]oorly trained and recalcitrant state militia" (p. xi, 165). In convincingly making the case that Madison did well as commander in chief, Broadwater notes that his supporters "constantly urged Madison to suppress dissent" during the war, but that Madison kept his commitment to his principles, including a "limited government and a less than imperial presidency" (p. 173). Ultimately, Broadwater [End Page 84] points out that Madison "left office in March 1817 popular, relieved, [and] satisfied with his own performance" (p. 179). Broadwater's work goes a long way in vindicating Madison's presidency.
Broadwater also makes an important contribution to the literature by tracing how Madison grappled with the issue of slavery. Although Madison indicated that he wanted to see the institution ended, Broadwater explains how Madison "did little to make that wish a reality" either personally for himself or politically for the nation (p. 188). Overall, Broadwater offers us a concise biography of James Madison. Tracing over Madison's works, Broadwater correctly concludes that "[d]ealing in nuance and compromise, he left a remarkable but complex...