Review of Lynne Cheney’s Book About James Madison

Lynne Cheney has written what may be the most authoritative and comprehensive book ever on the life of Founding Father and president James Madison. It offers a fascinating perspective into how brilliant Madison truly was – possibly even more so than any of the other Founding Fathers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Adams and James Monroe are also covered extensively, with some rather unsavory things revealed about Hamilton and Henry in particular.

For those who don’t know much about the Founding Fathers, or need a refresher, Cheney’s 564-page book is an excellent resource. Cheney includes everything, including social history, philosophical analysis and coverage of the nation’s early land and sea battles. It is an enjoyable way to learn about the Federalist Papers, instead of simply reading the original texts without any background. Cheney explains why the Founding Fathers found the need to use pen names, in order to protect their jobs in government. Sometimes they would even anonymously attack each other while working for each other. Although Madison was a good friend of Washington’s, he occasionally took slight jabs at Washington’s policies using pseudonyms.

Cheney reveals the infighting that went on between the Founding Fathers. They disagreed over many of the principles we take for granted today, and it was a long and arduous process getting the states to agree to ratify the Constitution.  For the most part, Madison got along well with Washington, and was close friends with Jefferson, but he frequently got into disputes with Hamilton as time went on. Of course, these disputes were usually not the outrageous feuds of today over massive government spending and radical programs, but addressed the need for a standing army, excise taxes or immediate adoption of a Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, there were still some parallels to today’s debates. Alexander Hamilton famously said during one such session, “What even is the Virginia Plan but pork still, with a little change of the sauce?”

Cheney provides a detailed account of the process of drafting the Constitution, revealing which position each Founder took on various issues. Madison was the ultimate pragmatist, who often reeled in the more radical Jefferson. Jefferson would run his writings past Madison first, knowing Madison would tone them down to sound more reasonable. For example, at one point, Jefferson said 19 years is the length of time that any generation should be at the height of power, and should not be able to require future generations to pay debt. As a result of Madison’s sage advice, Jefferson referred to Madison as “the greatest man in the world.” John Quincy Adams talked about “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other.” Cheney relays several fascinating stories of how Madison strategically operated in moves akin to chess, getting his agenda implemented despite so many divisive players.

Read the rest of the review at the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research

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