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James Madison (Childhoods of the Presidents) Library Binding – September, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's tough to write a compelling biography of Madison: though a great politician, he was also a provincial, cerebral and slightly dull man; any account of his life must contain the kinds of dry legislation the Non-Intercourse Act, Macon's Bill Number 2, for example that have driven generations of history students to distraction. But Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wills does as good a job as possible in this brief volume, the latest addition to a series on the nation's presidents edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. With prior studies of Washington, Jefferson and other Framers (including Madison) under his belt, Wills is well acquainted with his subject and balanced in his assessments. Madison, "this unimpressive little man with libraries in his brain," was the "Father of the Constitution" and the nation's fourth president. But during an extraordinary four-decade public career, Madison also guided Washington and Jefferson in their presidencies; steered the pioneering Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom through that state's legislature in 1786 and the Bill of Rights through Congress; and helped Jefferson found the Democratic Party. But for all Madison's greatness, Wills nevertheless (and justifiably) judges him na‹ve, inconsistent, occasionally dishonest, prone to sniff conspiracy in any opposition, and, like so many Southerners of the time, deaf to and finally paralyzed by slavery. Moreover, although he was a first-class committeeman, he lacked executive talent. His presidency was a near disaster and he narrowly averted defeat in the War of 1812. To Madison's credit, unlike other wartime presidents, he didn't stretch the Constitution or invade civil liberties. Madison had "the strength of his weaknesses," concludes Wills in this fine, short biography of one of the nation's greatest public servants.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

In this work one of the first in a new series being published under the general editorship of Schlesinger Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wills (e.g., Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1992) does not attempt to offer a complete biography of Madison. Rather, he sets out to solve a mystery: how could Madison have been such a spectacularly important Founding Father and later just a slightly above average President? Wills provides a thoroughly satisfying answer. He maintains that Madison possessed qualities that served him well early in his career but proved to be a handicap during his Presidency. For example, his superior skills as a legislator were not what he needed to face the crises of his presidential years, when personal charisma, social charms, and a wider vision would have been more useful. Moreover, Madison's parochialism (reflected in his aversion to traveling outside his beloved Virginia) made him greatly misjudge Britain in the War of 1812. Written with flair, this clear and balanced account is based on a sure handling of the material. It should appeal to general readers as well as specialists. Highly recommended for all libraries. T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Age Range: 9 and up
  • Grade Level: 4 and up
  • Series: Childhoods of the Presidents
  • Library Binding: 47 pages
  • Publisher: Mason Crest (September 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590842693
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590842690
  • Product Dimensions: 0.2 x 6.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,198,734 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 43 people found the following review helpful By mrliteral VINE VOICE on August 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Although it is nominally a biography of James Madison, this brief book is actually an examination of Madison's presidency. Wills explores the seeming contradictions between the brilliant Madison responsible for the Constitution and Bill of Rights and the less-than-impressive president.
Wills shows that there is less of a contradiction than there seems to be. The flaws that hurt Madison as a president were actually around much earlier, especially his inability to function well as an executive. Madison was much more a behind-the-scenes person, quite adept in committees or legislative situations, but not as able outside them.
As a biography, this book is rather short and sparse, but by focusing on one portion of Madison's life - the portion which he does not receive great acclaim for - Wills is still able to provide a lot of detail as he analyzes and explains the fourth presidency.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By E. E Pofahl on May 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The author, Garry Wills, writes, "Madison's very presidency is semi-forgotten.", and addresses the question "How could James Madison be so outstanding in certain aspects of his life and be overshadowed in others." The text states that an explanation "...could take one of three approaches based on circumstances, on temperament or on specific errors." However, none of these fully explain the dichotomy Madison presents.
Wills notes that Madison had weak points which he carried over to the presidency: "...a certain provincialism with regard to the rest of the world and a certain naiveté with regard to the rest of his human beings." The book's first three chapters cover the "Pre-Presidential Years" noting "Madison is called the father of the Constitution. It is a title deeply deserved on many accounts." He had an intimate connection with all three administrations preceding his presidency being responsible for the framing and passage of the Bill of Rights.
The balance of the book, ten chapters, covers his presidency. He became president under very difficult circumstances. Jefferson literally had given up governing the nation for four crucial months passing on a stalled executive to Madison who had no real executive experience before becoming president. Lacking leadership experience the author relates the many cabinet and personnel problems he experienced while his provincialism often allowed him to get suckered punched in foreign affairs. Contrary to common belief, the Congressional "War Hawks" of the West did not thrust the War of 1812 on him. Madison wanted the war.
The author gives a succinct account of Madison and the conduct of the war from the aborted attempt to conquer Canada to the bright performance of the American Navy.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By MarkK VINE VOICE on January 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
To me, the "American Presidents" series is one of the more unusual ongoing publication projects. Endeavoring to provide accounts of the people who have occupied the presidency and their terms in office, they have selected a first-class group of writers and historians (such as Sean Wilentz, William Leuchtenburg, and Douglas Brinkley) but often paired them up with subjects a little outside their normal focus - having Robert Remini, the foremost biographer of Andrew Jackson, write on John Quincy Adams instead, for example.

This volume is no different. Garry Wills is one of my favorite writers, the author of many thought-provoking books on subjects as diverse as Saint Augustine, the Gettysburg Address, and John Wayne. While he has written on the era before - his book on the Declaration of Independence is one of the best studies of it available - he has not previously focused on Madison in his publications. Nevertheless, this book is a good introduction to the man. While ostensibly focused on the presidency, Wills does incorporate much about Madison's pre-presidential career, especially in terms of how it shaped a presidency that by common consensus most historians regard as disappointing compared to his pervious accomplishments.

What makes this volume interesting to read, though, is Wills' own analysis. He never shies away from outlining his opinion, and he backs it up with persuasive (though not always convincing) arguments. His examination of Madison's foreign policy in the context of the Jeffersonian tradition is particularly good and alone worth the effort of reading the book. Though there are better books to turn to for a more comprehensive overview of Madison's career (such as Ralph Ketcham's James Madison: A Biography), this is an excellent starting point in seeking to understand one of the most important of our Founding Fathers.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By JMack VINE VOICE on September 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In halls of American history, few people are as overlooked as James Madison. While his presidency was largely forgettable, his influence on the country through his work on the constitution can not be forgotten.

In this concise work by Gary Wills, Madison is portrayed as a slight and fragile man. Yet even in early adulthood, he showed the markings of a leader. Overcoming his quiet nature and small size, he played a key role in writing the Constitution. He championed the cause of separation of church and state. Madison felt that faith must be genuine and can not be forced. A forced faith is dangerous to the future of the religion, potentially causing it to loose its meaning.

Madison's presidency was marred by the War of 1812. This often misunderstood chapter in American history is given an excellent explanation on page 97. Through the course of this war, Madison protected the Constitution as well as ending the reigns of political patronage than caused earlier battles in the war to be failures.

Much like Thomas Jefferson paved the path to the presidency for Madison, Madison also left a legacy of rising stars in the party then known as Republican including James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. Were it not for Jackson's military success, the country stood to loose ground in the War of 1812. Instead, the country ended the war with the same amount of territory as when it began the war.

While this biography is short, I must admit that I learned a great deal from it. I believe this book can hold its ground against any biography of Madison. While not caught up in frivolous details, it tells a great story.
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