James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

By Lynne Cheney


564 pages, $36

By Edward Cuddihy


The next time some Sunday morning talking head pompously proclaims this or that government action is in direct conflict with the intentions of the framers of the Constitution, first chuckle, and then reach for the remote channel changer.

The closer one reads the papers, letters and recollections of the founding fathers, the clearer it becomes they waffled over the meaning of their words, were ambivalent about the future of the document, and weren’t at all sure they were authorized to write a new constitution.

For some like Alexander Hamilton, the Constitution we revere today as the roadmap to our democratic republic was seen as the pathway to a great nation built upon a constitutional monarchy fashioned loosely on the British model.

For others, especially Southern planters like James Madison, the Constitution would serve as a stabilizing contract among sovereign states, a contract which would forge a powerful nation while protecting the people from the tyranny of a strong federation (thus, the federal government).

For Thomas Jefferson, the new constitution, which has guided our nation as a beacon of strength for more than 220 years, was a fugacious document. He suggested trying again the next year. Fortunately for the new nation, Jefferson wrote his criticisms from the comforts of his Paris apartment so his views always were at least six weeks out of date.

It seems the only constant among the delegates to the Philadelphia convention was that our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was not working, had never worked properly and would not lead to the grand new nation many of the founding fathers so prophetically envisioned.

This heady stuff, the magnificent flowering in the New World of the European Age of Enlightenment, is the heart of Lynne Cheney’s biography of James Madison, the man considered the father of the Constitution and the man who would become the nation’s fourth president.

Cheney, who is author or co-author of 12 other books, many aimed at a younger audience, has been studying Madison for 30 years. To date, this is her major work.

Of course, as the wife of a two-term vice president, the ambiguities surrounding the balance of power between competing branches of government are very real, and she isn’t always successful in concealing her own ideas on the subject.

And almost as an inside family joke, she sneaks in Madison’s observation to Jefferson that the delegates made the vice president the presiding officer of the Senate, “otherwise he would have no job at all.” Dick Cheney must have loved that line.

Cheney is a somewhat pedestrian writer with no special literary flair, but her scholarly research is ever present. She maximizes her use of primary sources, quoting extensively from the often-difficult Federalist Papers and the lesser-known writings of Madison, Jefferson and other principles, whose archaic language is not always easy to understand.

The work is in traditional biographical form, fully annotated and containing an extensive bibliography of 18th and 19th century volumes.

One of Cheney’s stated goals is to dispel the long-held notion that Madison was a “weak and shy man,” sickly throughout his life, and overshadowed in his presidency by his charming and extroverted wife Dolly. Cheney quotes modern physicians to make her case.

She may not have succeeded fully on that count, but it doesn’t matter.

The book is about the Constitution, the master document that will forever enshrine Madison’s name in the annals of early American history. It is about the exciting and politically explosive times in which Madison lived. It is about the fortuitous mix of wise theoreticians and savvy pragmatists who would build a road to the future, and then upon its ratification, would quarrel endlessly in typical lawyerly fashion about what they meant.

For example, once a state signed on, for all practical purposes it was for good. Yet almost immediately, the always querulous and cantankerous South Carolina jockeyed for secession. And then in the buildup to the War of 1812, the first war declared under the Constitution, New England made serious threats to secede and join Canada. Bostonians objected to going to war with their best customer while the Southern gentry fawned over the French.

Another example: An eloquent Bill of Rights was appended to the document – first Madison opposed; then he championed it – despite many of the signatories being slaveholders. Those today who insist slavery was not a consideration in the 18th century turn a blind eye to the writings of the founding fathers, most of whom claimed to abhor the institution, but differed on how to eradicate it.

As an aside, the First Congress’ first priority was not the First Amendment we know today. Congress intended the First Amendment to deal with the number and apportionment of congressmen and, most important, their method of payment. But they were so divided on that thorny issue they turned to the simpler task of protecting the rights of citizens.

In Cheney’s hands, it was Madison as Jefferson’s secretary of state who took the lead on the Louisiana Purchase.

Virginia, the home of four of the first five presidents, and the largest and most prosperous of the states, saw the need to control the Mississippi as key to the valuable farmlands west of the Appalachians. Many New Englanders saw it as another attack on the British, and Napoleon saw Louisiana as a liability he would be unable to protect from a British-Spanish alliance.

To the Federalists, there was nothing in the Constitution allowing a president or a Congress to nearly double the size of the nation. It could only lead to Indian wars and the lessening of New England influence.

Those were wonderful times to be in politics.

To oppose the Federalist arguments, Madison and his new Republicans would fall back on the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution which the nation’s greatest legal minds have battled over ever since. Madison is considered the founder of the first opposition party, the Republicans, which later would become the Democratic-Republicans under Andrew Jackson, and eventually today’s Democratic Party.

To be sure, Madison and his fellow framers were not enamored with the concept of democracy.

In the 1780s, Madison had insisted the Constitutional Convention be held in secrecy. “No constitution would ever have been adopted if the debate had been in public,” he wrote.

A Connecticut Yankee named Roger Sherman insisted the people “should have as little to do as may be about the government. They … are constantly liable to be misled.”

Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts argued “the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”

And Hamilton, never one to mince his words, said: “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”

So finally, back to the talking heads: Do they truly want a return to the rock-solid and immutable ideals of our founding fathers? Or do they prefer to cherry pick the ideals they agree with?

We can only imagine a mischievous Madison, his blue eyes sparkling in the semi-darkness of the Pennsylvania statehouse, joining his cohorts in knowing precisely what they were doing when they so carefully worded the Constitution that we still are fighting over what they meant two centuries later.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.