Madison’s Gift, David O. Stewart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Summary: A biography of our fourth president, through the lens of five key partnerships he formed that helped establish a new nation.
Of the Founders of the United States, James Madison seems always to be somewhat in the shadows of the more brilliant lights of Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even Alexander Hamilton. He played pivotal roles in the Continental Congress, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, the establishment of a government under that Constitution, the formation of the first real political party, and helping the country survive a war with a Great Britain that was vastly more powerful. Yet he was soft-spoken, lacking in the skills to be a battle field leader, or the charisma that naturally commanded followings.
David O. Stewart helps us to see that Madison’s gift was his ability to collaborate substantively with personalities often stronger and different than his, bringing his own gifts of political astuteness to those partnerships. Stewart renders the story of Madison’s life through five of these partnerships:
- Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was far more flamboyant but the collaboration of these two in the Continental Congress, staving off soldier uprisings by coming up with financing means, and later, working together to draft the Constitution. They teamed up to write the Federalist Papers, providing a formidable intellectual defense and explication of the Constitution, that resulted in ratification of the Constitution. These Papers continue to be a primary resource for Constitutional scholars. His understanding of human failings and the systems of checks and balances between branches of government, houses of Congress, and federal and state government was perhaps his most profound contribution.
- George Washington. As a fellow Virginian, he worked with Washington on everything from Potomac navigation to serving as his adviser while giving leadership in Congress in how to turn the Constitution into a functioning government. He played a pivotal role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution may not have survived.
- Thomas Jefferson. Both men were lovers of books, land- and slave-owners troubled with slavery and making ends meet, and Virginians. As they observed the centralizing tendencies inherent in the policies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, they came together to form the Democrat Republican party as a check against these tendancies, and effectively collaborated to elect Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe to presidencies spanning 24 years.
- James Monroe. This was perhaps one of the most interesting of partnerships because at the start, the two were political rivals. Later, when Madison failed to support a treaty with Great Britain that Monroe negotiated, the two fell out for a couple of years. But when tension with Great Britain were leading up to war, Madison, not nearly as accomplished in diplomatic or military matters, asked Monroe to join as his Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Despite the sacking of Washington, they were able to work together to lead resistance that basically led to a stalemate, and a settlement that unleashed American prosperity.
- Dolly Madison. She was a beautiful complement to the reserved Madison and presided over a social scene far more congenial than the stiff and formal receptions of previous presidents. She was fun, she dressed colorfully, and marked by her self-command. When the British were coming to sack the White House, she rescued the silver, and Peale’s painting of Washington, barely escaping herself. In retirement, Stewart describes them as the “Adam and Eve of Montpelier.” They ran footraces on the front porch of Montpelier, hosted numerous guests, and regaled them with stories. They set the pace for presidential retirements. Madison contributed significant defenses of the Constitution against the growing threat of nullification. He succeeded Jefferson as rector of the University of Virginia and participated in the 1829 Virginia constitutional convention. Dolly accompanied him on most of this, and nursed him when his health turned increasingly frail.
Stewart, like many other scholars of this period, writes about the struggle with the question of slavery. For Madison, the issue was personal as well as Constitutional. He recognized that the contradiction between enunciated rights and aspirations, and the compromises of slavery carried the risk of tearing the country apart. Yet he incarnated the difficulty of what he wanted to do on principle, and the economic realities of his situation. He never emancipated his slaves.
Stewart helps us to see that leadership, and presidential, greatness may take different forms. In Madison’s case, a combination of intellectual gifts and capacity for collaboration was crucial for the work of crafting a government from scratch. To collaborate with markedly different personalities suggests a great sense of personal security and sense of self. His willingness to contribute his own astute wisdom while letting others claim the limelight resulted in enduring good for the nation. Stewart’s focus on Madison’s collaborations brings to light his distinctive form of greatness.