Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships that Formed America by David O. Stewart - Book Review

Biographers often fall in love with their subject, allowing major flaws to be papered over, diminished, or even ignored. The genius of David O. Stewart's biography of the United States' fourth president is that Stewart shows us the flaws and contradictions in James A. Madison only to allow his often ignored presence and importance to become all the greater. In Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America (Simon & Shuster, 2015, 432 pages, $28.00/14.99), Stewart takes a fascinating and revealing look at one of the most important and least well-known of the Founding Fathers, with a particular emphasis on Madison's capacity for friendship, serious scholarship, thoughtful advice, and vigorous argumentation in an environment where he could stay in the background as a trusted and gifted adviser while growing a reputation for probity and political acumen that would lead to his becoming the fourth President of the United States. Stewart's writing is clear and uncluttered. His explanations of complex issues are to the point. He provided the best explanation of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the development of political parties I've ever read.

Montpelier - Madison's Virginia Home

I've always though of Madison as the quiet and efficient secretary to the Constitutional Convention and have known him as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. Otherwise, he has been pretty much a cipher, which may merely be a confession of my own inadequacy as a casual student of American history. In this book, he emerges as one of the principal brains in the development of the theoretical underpinnings of our unique form of constitutional government and then, along with Alexander Hamilton, the constitution's signal defender and advocate as he argued for its adoption in the various state legislative bodies. As a proponent, an enabler, an adviser, and an administrator he excelled. The book is structured through examinations of five critical relationships of his and his ability to maintain those relationships, even in disagreement. Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Dolly Madison and his relationship with each of them form the core of this wonderful account, breaking Stewart out of the mold of chronological history, since there is, to a great extent, a degree of overlap, although the relationships also fall into a sequential pattern corresponding to the flow of history. Only with regard to Madison's difficult relationship with slavery does Stewart break this pattern, but necessarily so as Madison was troubled by his own attitude toward the institution of slavery and the possible future place of black people in America throughout his life, during which he was always a Virginian and a slave owner.

Dolley Madison

Madison himself emerges as a man who prefers to exert influence in quiet and unassuming ways. Small in stature and voice, he was never a dominant physical personality who commanded recognition for his power of rhetoric, or beauty of imagery. Instead, Madison was possessed of a powerful, analytical mind, a mild temperament, usually a sure sense of timing, and a capacity for intense and long-lasting friendships. Each of his important political friends was also a personal friend. Although not either handsome or extremely rich, he met and married Dolley Payne Todd when he was forty-three and she twenty-six. Dolly was not only vivacious and astute, she was, in her own right, a first-rate political adviser and social support to James' aspirations. Dolley Madison, herself, has been the subject of many books and can rightly be called the first First Lady, although the name wasn't created until many years after her death. All his friendships with the four men so crucial to him had their high points and cooling off periods as conditions within the Republic changed. Withal, he was able to maintain personal friendships when political fires might have interfered in the case of lesser men.

One of the highlights of Madison's Gift for me was Stewart's explanation and discussion of the rise of political parties at the end of 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Washington, in his farewell address, had warned the nation against partisanship. However, the structure seems to have dictated that people taking different sides on issues would join together in political parties based on regional and economic, as well as their attitudes towards the abuses of slavery. Madison, along with Monroe, was a central person in developing what became the Republican party.

David O. Stewart

After practicing law for many years, David O. Stewart began to erite history, too. His first book,The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, was a Washington Post best seller and won the Washington Writing Award as Best Book of 2007. Two years later, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, was called “by all means the best account of this troubled episode” by Professor David Donald of Harvard. The Society of the Cincinnati awarded David its 2013 History Prize for American Emperor, Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, an examination of Burr’s Western expedition, which shook the nation’s early foundations. The Lincoln Deception, an historical mystery about the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy, was released in late August 2013. Bloomberg View called it the best historical novel of the year, while Publishers Weekly said it wasan “impressive debut novel.” Stewart lives with his wife in Maryland. A more extensive profile can be found on his website. (adapted from Stewart's website)

Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America (Simon & Shuster, 2015, 432 pages, $28.00/14.99) by David O. Stewart illuminates the importance of James Madison throughout the formative years and development of America as a nation and as an idea whose spirit spread across the world. Madison's greatest strengths were his capacity for careful analytical study combined with persuasive, quiet eloquence. His influence among the founders was critical to the formation and development of America at a time when it's success was precarious and uncertain. Stewart's writing is incisive, lucid, and thought provoking, as he follows Madison's career through a series of crucial friendships that helped shape a nation. This biography provides an excellent profile of the emerging United States through the constitutional period and the first quarter of the nineteenth century. I read Madison's Gift as an electronic galley provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle app.