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James Madison: A Biography Paperback – March 29, 1990

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Editorial Reviews


"Madison's personality comes alive in these pages, his strengths and weaknesses of mind and character clearly outlined. His great services in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 are graphically portrayed. The analysis of his political theory, and of the way in which he sought to apply it to the establishment of of government under the Constitution, is excellent. The depiction of Jeffersonian and Madisonian foreign policy up to the outbreak of the War of 1812 is clear and succinct. This is an excellent biography.

(American Historical Review)

Utilizing the vast amount of source material made available in the last 30 years, Ketcham has captured the essential man in his times and in doing so has made him understandable for us in our own day.

(Los Angeles Times)

This single volume has provided a penetrating and highly readable biography which merits distinction as the best one-volume life of Madison yet written.

(Virginia Magazine of History and Biography)

Ketcham's long-standing familiarity with Madison's life and times is evident in this accessible work...Ketcham has written an enjoyable and scholarly narrative that will no doubt be considered of great value to Montpelier's more serious visitors, as well as students, scholars, and general readers with an interest in the founding couple.

(Kellie Strickland, North Carolina State University North Carolina Historical Review)

About the Author

Ralph Ketcham is Professor of American Studies, Political Science, and Public Affairs, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. His most recent publications are Presidents above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789-1829 and Individualism and Public Life: An American Dilemma.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 760 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press; Reprint edition (March 29, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813912652
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813912653
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #117,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ralph Ketcham is Professor of History Emeritus at Syracuse University. His National Book Award-nominated James Madison (Virginia) is the standard single-volume biography of the fourth president. He is a former editor of The Papers of James Madison and the author, most recently, of The Idea of Democracy in the Modern Era.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 79 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
This was a well written biography. It explores the public and private life of the fourth president. The book is a deep one volume work about James Madison. I particularly enjoyed the author's fascinating coverage of the events surrounding Madison's career: For example, there is a great deal to learn here about the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention not only about the role Madison played in them. Not only does the author write about historical events but he also presents interesting accounts of Madison's friendships and antagonistic political relationships. I also finished this book with a good sense about the political climate surrounding Madison's public career. Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it invites further study. The only fault I found worth mentioning was the speculativeness of the first two chapters. Instead of simply writing that we know little about Madison's early life, the author tried to fill in the missing years with his surmises.
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50 of 53 people found the following review helpful By L. G. Lewis on February 1, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this, the 250th anniversary year of James Madison's birth (16 March 1751), I hope people will want to read more, and know more, about "The Father of the Constitution" and one of the most important Founding Fathers. And for a serious, academic treatment (no, it is not 'pop' biography or 'easy' reading) of Mr. Madison's life, thoughts, beliefs, and accomplishments - this is the one book to read.
Yes, I happen to work at Montpelier, Mr. Madison's life-long home and the home that he and his wife Dolley shared during their marriage - and I can promise you that Dr. Ketcham's well-worn, tabbed (it looks like a porcupine) book is our 'bible' when it comes to James Madison.
There are other, quite good, books about Madison but this is the one for a thorough overview, from birth to death.
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96 of 108 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Gunia VINE VOICE on April 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
I didn't enjoy this book as much as I have enjoyed other biographies and I had a hard time determining why. I think part of the reason is that I just finished "Truman" by David McCullough before reading this one. If I wrote a biography, I wouldn't want it to follow Truman. Second, I think I was turned off by the fact that Ketchum tried to fill in parts of Madison's early life by saying thing such as "we might imagine Madison looking out his window at those mountains." etc. I understand that very little information about Madison's early life is available and historians often piece together what they can, but the underlying "this isn't fact" attitude it a turn off. I feel it necessary to stress that I don't fault the author as this seems to be a matter of personal preference. In this book, Ralph Ketcham does a good job examining Madison's political beliefs, theories and writings and how they all came together as Madison helped write the Constitution. He also helps us to understand the political and personal relationships between Virginia's "aristocracy" including Madison, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, George Washington, etc. Finally, we see how Madison was an unsuccessful president as he was neither able to mantain control of his cabinet nor wage a successful war in the War of 1812 (yes, we did win the war...kind of...but it should have been a much easier victory, and some of the blame must be put on Madison). Interesting insights and Madison should be studied, but this book really lacked something I still can't put my finger on. So, I recommend it for fellow history buffs, especially those interested in Early American History. I don't recommend it for those looking for a fun leisurely read.
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105 of 120 people found the following review helpful By Candace Scott on April 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
If you are searching for a light or relaxing biography of Madison, this will not be the measured choice. This is a difficult and sometimes plodding read, so be forewarned. The excuse that Ketcham is an "academic historian" and therefore is allowed to be boring is indeed a stretch, Stephen Ambrose writes beautifully and is an academic historian as well.
This is a trustworthy, sober and lengthy treatment of Madison, written by a man who knows his subject intimately. The reader can trust the facts between the covers, but there is an integral element missing: Madison himself. There are innumerable anecdotes and descriptions of Madison, but it's buried within the minutiae and sheer length of this very heavy tome. I never got a sense of Madison as a human being, only as a political or revolutionary shadow.
Recommended only for those either obsessed with Madison or tolerant of a chilly and plodding read.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 20, 1999
Format: Paperback
This is a brilliant biography - it is wonderfully detailed (maybe too much so) and leaves little uncovered. Ketcham's early chapters on the buildup to, framing and ratification of the Constitution are especially good. I also like the way Ketcham shows how Madison's thought and political philosophy was informed by the times and events Madison lived through.
I have a couple of minor gripes, though. the first is Ketcham's glaring omission of the rest of Dolley Madison's life. What happened to her after James Madison died? Apparently she edited many of the great man's papers, had to sell many of his letters at less than market price (suggesting financial woes?) - but that's all Ketcham gives us. That's a little frustrating.
Being a law student, I would have liked to see more comment on what Madison thought of the "Marshall Court's" rulings. There is a brief note on McCulloch v Maryland, but nothing on Marbury v Madison! What did Madison think of the idea of judicial review?
These are but minor gripes. But one substantial complaint I do have with Ketcham's biography is the way he always emphasises the consistency of Madison's republican principles. He makes good points on this throughout the biography, but sometimes what Ketcham sees as a principled stand on republican principles, I would see as indecision. And it makes Madison seem a bit single-minded.
All in all, a wonderful bio, though.
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