James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation (review)
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James Madison, Dolley Madison, U.S. Constitution, Virginia, Presidency, Slavery

James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation. By Jeff Broadwater. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 266 + xviii. Cloth, $30.00.)

Jeff Broadwater, author of a George Mason biography, here turns his attention to Mason’s even more august Virginia contemporary. Recognizing that James Madison has been the object of numerous scholars’ attention these past several decades, he begins by denying any intention to improve upon their work. Rather, he says he has “focused on those aspects of Madison’s life that are apt to be of the most enduring interest to the most readers” (xv).

Madison deserves attention, according to Broadwater, because he was second among the Founders only to George Washington in indispensability. Broadwater seemingly contradicts this evaluation in lamenting [End Page 703] that many historians have found Madison’s role in writing the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist far more significant than the rest of his life, “including his two terms as a supposedly mediocre president” (xi).

Broadwater will not focus, then, on Madison as constitution-writer. What he delivers instead is a brief, introductory biographical survey with particular attention to church–state relations, slavery, the Virginia Dynasty, and Dolley Madison’s political role. Nearly one-third of the book’s 210 pages are given over to an account of Madison’s sixteen-year tenure first as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state and subsequently as president in his own right.

An appraisal of Broadwater’s work may thus fairly ask both whether focusing on Madison’s role as constitution-writer would be inappropriate and whether Broadwater proves Madison to have been something other than a mediocre president. In regard to the first, it seems that if we are to accept Broadwater’s assertion that Madison ranks second to Washington, the reason must be Madison’s leading role in convening the Philadelphia Convention, drafting the Constitution, and winning its ratification. One might therefore have wished for greater attention to this portion of Madison’s career than Broadwater provides. So little interested is Broadwater in Madison’s record as a constitutional draftsman that he says essentially nothing about the writing of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world, other than to note Madison’s presence on the committee that drafted it.

An even greater difficulty comes in squaring Broadwater’s account of Madison’s presidency with his implication that his subject somehow excelled the run of chief executives. Broadwater follows Ralph Ketcham in asserting that Madison’s lack of Hamiltonian energy as a wartime president, his tendency to defer to Congress to a fault, amounted to republican (certainly Republican) virtue. True or false, this argument does not strike your reviewer as a case for Madison’s excellence. A Jeffersonian appraisal must be that in implementing Congress’s rather half-baked war policies without insinuating himself into a policymaking process the Constitution assigned to Congress, Madison acted precisely as a president ought. Far from elevating Madison above the “mediocre” category, this amounts to indicting our contemporary tendency to expect the president to lead despite the Congress. There is much to be said for this Jeffersonian position, but let us recognize that if the Jeffersonians had their way, mediocrity—lack of self-assertion—is what we would learn to [End Page 704] hope for. Broadwater might have said that President Madison’s mediocrity was itself a virtue.

Broadwater saves his attention to the matter of slavery for the end of the book, where he is critical of Madison on that score. In the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–30, Broadwater faults his subject for having worked for a compromise between Tidewater conservatives and western reformers by which the growing west gained far more power in the General Assembly than it had had before, but not one man, one vote. What Madison should have done, Broadwater implies, is make a principled stand in behalf of the whole loaf—which would have risked gaining nothing at all. It would be surprising...