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Book Review: James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, by Lynn Cheney (Viking, 2014)

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

After some truly painful reading experiences, I’ve  become skeptical of history books written by celebrities.

Lynn Cheney is the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney and thus our former Second Lady. She certainly counts as a celebrity. I was, therefore, skeptical of her new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.

But she won me over. She has done a fine job.

I’ve learned in life that people of talent are rarely one-dimensional. This is true of Mrs. Cheney. She was not only Second Lady. She is also is a serious scholar (a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute) and a fine writer: She is a former editor of Washingtonian Magazine, and this is at least her 9th book.

This Madison biography was, moreover, no slapdash job. It took nearly seven years to research and write.

Do I have some quibbles? Yes, a few. But the theme and strengths first.

The traditional rap against James Madison is that although he was a good theoretician and committee worker, he was a weak and shy man and at best a mediocre President.  In the latter capacity, it is said, Madison was wobbly (for example, signing a national bank bill after opposing it earlier), and he was an unassertive and incompetent leader during the War of 1812. Mrs. Cheney set out to see if, despite his genius, Madison really was such a bad President and concluded that he was not—that actually he was a rather good one. Her book is thus partly a book of rehabilitation.

Mrs. Cheney was right to doubt the received wisdom. It seems highly unlikely

Lynne Cheney

Lynne Cheney

that anyone who was physically weak and personally diffident could rise to become President of the United States. Mrs. Cheney well demonstrates that Madison was neither. (To be fair, she is not the first to question the popular wisdom.)

Mrs. Cheney avoids slipping into canards so common among people writing on Madison. For example, she recognizes that the Constitutional Convention was called by states in response to the Annapolis Convention rather than by Congress. She implies (although she might have said explicitly) and that nearly all the convention commissioners had authority to propose a new constitution. She also recognizes that Madison did not, as some claim, approve of state nullification as a constitutional remedy; in fact, he thoroughly opposed it.

As for the quality of the writing: It is smooth and well executed and sometimes fun. I found it a very easy read.

Now a few quibbles.

First: Occasionally, although rarely, Mrs. Chaney slips into exaggeration. It would be hard to justify her statement that Jefferson and Madison were “the two greatest minds of the 18th century,” when that century encompassed all or part of the productive lives of men like Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Moses Mendelssohn, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Burke. At the least, her claim cries out for support.

Second: I found her treatment of Madison’s presidency to be disappointingly brief. Additional treatment would have enabled her to better sustain her thesis. Consider, for example, the claim that Madison vacillated by opposing the first national bank on constitutional grounds (in 1791), and then signing the bill creating the second national bank 25 years later. It would have taken only a few additional sentences to explain that the constitutionality of the bank always had been a very close question and that Madison always had recognized that “liquidation” (clarification) by practice was a perfectly legitimate way of resolving close constitutional questions.

Another example: The book contains considerable evidence that Madison’s Secretary of War, John Armstrong, was indolent, and perhaps incompetent and politically disloyal. It demonstrates that certain military reverses were attributable to Armstrong. But a President is responsible for the repeated failure of his chief subordinates. Assuming Madison’s initial appointment of Armstrong was justified, why did Madison retain Armstrong as long as he did?

But these are, as indicated, but quibbles. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the Constitution and the early Republic. Mrs. Cheney deserves to sell a ton of copies. I hope she does.

Rob Natelson