Review: James Madison

Garry Wills (2002)

It’s almost unfair to call this brief book a biography, since it spends little time on either the personal details of James Madison’s life or the historical background leading up to his presidency. Wills’ book focuses on the politics; specifically on the dichotomy of Madison as great legislator and ineffective president.

To be fair, I knew this when I chose to read this installment of The American Presidents series as the next book in my personal Presidential Biography reading project. (It was slim pickings at my library. I wasn’t about to read an 800-page academic tome and besides, I’d wanted to read something by Garry Wills.)

Now I have and it felt a little like reading dry supplemental material for a college history course. Keep that Wikipedia website handy; if you’re not up on your American foreign policy and treaties of the turn-of-the-19th-century, you’ll need it. A simple one or two sentence synopsis for important references (say, the Jay Treaty for instance) would have gone a long way to enhancing the lay-reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

So, while I’d recommend James Madison strictly to those with a serious interest in Madison and this period in U.S. politics, it did provide interesting information, especially as jumping-off points for further reading.

  • Madison was one of four early U.S. Secretaries of State who unbelievably had never been outside the country.
  • Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasure and a political nemesis of Jefferson and Madison, is a figure worth learning more about. (Note to self: Find a good book about Hamilton.)
  • I’m continually amazed at how early politicians, including Jefferson, wrote anonymous essays printed in rival newspapers to attack political foes and advance their positions.
  • Jefferson/Madison vs. Washington/Hamilton: the beginning of partisan politics.
  • Whatever I learned about the War of 1812 in high school has completely leaked out of my brain. The U.S. intent was to invade and conquer Canada while England was distracted by Napoleon. The summer and fall of 1812 saw a completely inept invasion that actually lost the U.S. the Michigan territory. (Note to self: Find a good book on the War of 1812.)
  • I realize I don’t know very much about Napoleon. (Note to self: Find a good book on Napoleon. See why I’m having so much fun with this little self-perpetuating history project?)
  • During the War of 1812, northern states continually threatened to secede from the union.
  • Andrew Jackson’s hero-making victory at the Battle of New Orleans–I’ve been there!
  • Five presidents were veterans of the War of 1812: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Zachary Taylor.
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