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on November 25, 2011
Over the past year, I've added something to my bucket list. Before I die, I plan to read at least one book on every US president, in order of the dates of their presidencies. I have read a number out of order, having read several books on Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton over the past few years. But, this book on James Madison follows Chernow's Washington, McCullough's John Adams, and Ellis's Jefferson, American Sphinx.

While Brookhiser's biography of Madison provides a great historical timeline of his life, it really does not capture who Madison was. He goes to great lengths to paint a human portrait of his wife Dolley, but fails to capture anything about the personality of the "father of the US Constitution. Following the detail shown for this type of writing by Chernow and McCullough, I found this unsatisfying as if something was missing from the book.

Overall, the history is fine and the prose well written. The book itself was easy to follow and understand. But if you are a student of the psychology of leaders, this book leaves something to be desired.

For a historical perspective, this book does near 5 stars. For a complete profile of James Madison he man, it was a little disappointing.
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on October 18, 2011
It's hard to understate James Madison's influence over the US Constitution. The Philadelphia Convention ran for several months and most of the framers came and went for periods of time. Not James Madison. He attended every session and pushed for his ideas of how a government of the people should work. Checks and balances, judicial review, bicameral legislature - we owe the lion's share of praise for these institutions to him.

What is so admirable about Madison is how he knew his history and used it to argue his points. A reader, writer, and statesman, he drew on everything from ancient civilizations to philosophy to promote his ideas. We have few leaders today who are as authoritative about their government.

Yet for Madison, as with so many of the Founding Fathers, it's tragic to read about his failure to address slavery. He owned slaves. And many times he passed on opportunities to begin the work of abolishing the institution. It's hard to imagine slave owners voluntarily giving up their "property," but I can't help but wonder what effect a dramatic Madisonian speech against slavery might have had on the country. During his twilight years, he had tremendous sway over the people. He could have done a tremendous service to the country by speaking out against slavery.

Richard Brookheiser is a very good writer. The prose flows smoothly. My only area of concern is that this work is quite short. It's only 300 pages long. In just 20 pages we move through Madison's entire youth to the events of 1776! If you are accustomed to the more detailed biographies like those from David McCullough, Steven Ambrose, or Jean Edward Smith, you will find yourself very surprised by the brevity of this book. I sense there is a lot more of James Madison that I did not get to know.
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on October 21, 2011
Given the regular release of new books on Washington, Jefferson, Adams and others, it is helpful and important to read this latest and excellent biography of James Madison. Madison's accomplishments are often lost in the long and large shadows of Washington and Jefferson. He was the consummate behind the scenes advisor, ghost writer, partisan, and strategist. In that role his brilliance and contributions are too often overlooked. Just as Madison himself was willing to let his brilliance, dedication, and hard work shine obscurely through the public reputations of Washington and Jefferson, historians have seldom pulled back the curtain to show Madison in his true and central role. Richard Brookhiser has done Madison and his readers a service in writing this excellent biography and does pull the curtain back to show Madison's paternity in the birth of the Constitution and the Union it formed and sustained. The book is concise and immediately captures the reader's attention through its flowing narration. I have deducted one star because I sensed that the author presented a Jeffersonian negativity towards Adams, Hamilton and the cadre of federalists among the founding fathers. This approach, to me, clouds the book's interpretation of their shared roles and accomplishments. Since Brookhiser has written excellent books on Hamilton and the generations of the Adams family, his approach is surprising. Perhaps it is an excessive effort to balance his perspective, given that earlier work. For a reader familiar with the period this element of demerit is merely a distraction and source of frustration. The book is truly enjoyable and well worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon November 27, 2011
This is a relatively short overview of James Madison's life, and in many ways it is unsatisfying. It is a whirlwind tour, with almost as much time spent on Dolley Madison's charms as the creation of the Bill of Rights or the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans. The author's firm belief in Madison's intellectual loftiness is very hard to verify based upon what you read here.

Having said that, Brookhiser does encapsulate the first few decades of the Republic and present at least cursory portraits of several of the Founding Fathers as well as short summaries of the most notable events. I imagine someone trying to acquaint himself with the times would find this a useful introduction, though so many specifics are left out that anyone with even a vague interest will find himself looking for better books which begs the question- why not just start with the more comprehensive tomes?

What did interest me is the modern feel of politics even 200 years ago- the backbiting, logrolling, compromising and willingness to flip flop if it suited you at the moment. Hence Madison could write of implied powers in the Federalists papers, sanction state nullification of laws in the Virginia decrees and worry about Federalists who voiced the same opinion at the Hartford Conventions. All this proves either the "flexibility" or dis ingenuousness of even the greatest political thinkers, depending upon your viewpoint.

Another point of enlightenment for me was Madison's belief in "The People" as the ultimate arbiter of all political decisions. Of course here too he held conflicting opinions as he feared the geographical interests that threatened the union, and one has to wonder how he would feel about a country where almost 50% pay no Federal taxes- would the pall of class warfare have dampened his belief in populism?

So for me the most rewarding aspects of this book could have been presented in a long magazine article. The rest is history lite which lends itself to those who are looking for a quick summary of the birth of the US as presented through the accomplishments of its fourth President. Almost all the important stuff is presented and you will be able to discuss the XYZ affair at a cocktail party with the best of them. But if you really want to understand the times, this is not the book for you. It may whet your appetite, but it will not satisfy your hunger.
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on March 14, 2012
Biography is kind of bare bones. In particular, I was hoping for some insight into a couple areas, which I didn't get: first, the thinking that went into the writing of the constitution -- I know the Federalist papers explain the thinking after it was written, but, for example, was 'judicial review' clearly in his mind during the writing, or was 'necessary and proper' intended to have the broad impact it later had? In fact, the writing of the constitution itself was rather vague and just referred to being done in committee. Secondly, Madison's transition from Federalist to Republican was not well explained. In all fairness, perhaps those things are simply not available. Just started "The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison" by Larson and Winship. Perhaps some of my questions will be somewhat clarified there.
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on March 3, 2014
I was very excited to get this book and dig in. I have always been fascinated by the founders, Madison in particular.

Unfortunately, I only got a third of the way through the book before I had to put it down and find another Madison bio. I found this book utterly annoying.

Rather than describe the history of events and Madison's interaction with them, Brookhiser instead describes the history of events and then inserts his own (often snarky) interpretation of Madison's reaction to them, before finally providing some evidence which is only occasionally the most important thing that Madison may have said or thought at the time. It seems that Brookhiser often subverts the really important stuff to provide evidence that Brookhiser is smarter or more refined than Madison.

I did not buy this book to get Brookhiser's analysis of Madison. I bought it to get a history of Madison, which I would then use to make my own analysis of Madison. I'm pretty smart. I don't need Brookhiser to make my opinions for me.

If you want to be lectured to by a supposedly great historian, perhaps this book will satisfy you, but I found it arrogant and had to put it down.
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on September 21, 2012
I still don't feel like I know
Madison. The author seems to put
forward the notion that he was a mildly principled practical politician.
Maybe that's what made Madison tick,
and maybe the thesis is what the
author intended to convey. If so the
author did a good job. I finished the book with a sense that I still really don't know Madison and I'm unsure if
If there was more to the man, or as one writer posited (in The Presidents we Deserved...) Madison was a near Zero. I'm going to try to read another biography of Madison to further try to
understand if anything made him tick besides politics.
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on January 12, 2013
Madison is not as thought of as he should be. The things this man went through in his life could fill many books for sure. His is one to be read. He got things done. I admire his courage and brain power. I like the authors way of telling this Presidents story. Great book. Thanks. Rick L.
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on November 22, 2011
This is good biography, but rather short and not that detailed. Of course, it can't be at 250 pages.

Madison was certainly very important in the making of the Constitution, but his elevation above all others is a stretch for me. Yes, he attended the meetings at a time when delegates came and went, he was there faithfully. The author contends that the four great writers of the founding were Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and Gouvernor Morris. I disagree with that statement. John Dickinson was left out, as he usually is because he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, but prior to the revolution, Dickinson with his Letters from a Farmer was widely read and he earned the title of penman of the period. Then he claims that Hamilton was not a great writer....well, almost anyone familiar with Hamilton knows of his tremendous capability in putting his thoughts on paper on a variety of subjects.

The best of the book is that it points out that the Republicans were able to dominate the White House for a generation. With Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe serving two terms each in succession, the Republican party controlled the national government for 24 years, and effectively presided over the death of the Federalist party. As Brookhiser points out, Madison was important to Jefferson in developing party politics and was very good at it.

As for his presidency, the declaration of war against England was not popular and it even caused some in New England to consider leaving the Union and aligning with Great Britain, which would have been disastrous for America. Madison also went to war without a national bank to help with the financing, and while there were some naval victories on the Great Lakes (and even more dramatic victories on the high seas, which are largely absent from the book), the war was not a resounding success. Washington was burned by the British and Madison's selection of people in the war effort and his cabinet was disastrous. His rare exception was Albert Gallatin.

Brookhiser is a good historian, but this biography of Madison is lacking.
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on October 27, 2015
Madison seemed hard for me to get to know. This biography does a fine job in outlining his accomplishments and comparing him to his contemporaries, yet I never felt I got to know the man. It may be less a fault of the biographer and more an aspect of Madison himself. I am reading the Presidents in order and while this book was lighter in number of pages then some books on earlier Presidents I still found it comprehensive and interesting. On to Monroe.
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