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James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights (Pivotal Moments in American History) Paperback – June 20, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
It will come as little surprise to learn that Poe is a veteran Broadway performer: in reading Labunski's chronicle of James Madison's efforts to ratify the Constitution and pass the Bill of Rights, his voice echoes with effortless assurance, carrying into the virtual back row of any room. Thankfully, Poe mostly avoids the vocal equivalent of theatrical preening and posing. His reading is careful, unassuming and avoids wholly unnecessary showboating. Labunski's narrative revolves around Madison's struggle with fellow Virginian Patrick Henry over ratification, and Poe does a fine job of conveying the steadily ratcheting tension of their battle. Poe colors Labunski's tale with an appropriate array of significant pauses, emphases and hushed mock-whispers, bringing his book to life without resorting to overworked theatrical tricks. He may be a stage veteran, but Poe's reading is anything but stagy.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
Had the Constitution of 1787 not been ratified, the U.S. could conceivably have fallen apart. How the state of Virginia gave the ultimate thumbs-up may not, on the surface, make for a barn-burning history, but journalist Labunksi manages affairs so well as to warrant attention from buffs of the early republic. The book quotes substantially from Federalists and anti-Federalists at the rostrum, but as nascent democracy required the cerebral James Madison to campaign for votes, much of Labunski's narrative takes place outside, too. Ensconced in Philadelphia and New York during the years 1787-89, Madison had to travel frequently to Virginia, and the author underscores how bone shaking that journey could be. At home, and against the machinations of patriot Patrick Henry, Madison won election to the ratifying convention, and again to the First Congress under the Constitution. There he legislatively engineered amendments that tradition has venerated as the Bill of Rights. A work interesting within its ambit, and capably carried off by Labunski. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The proposed constitution ran a political gauntlet from its conception in Philadelphia to the Confederation Congress, state legislatures, and state ratifying conventions. Furthermore, once it became clear that only constitutional changes would silence critics, amendments faced the Confederation Congress and the state legislatures. Virginia proved critical to the fate of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Anti-federalists, exemplified by Patrick Henry, feared the centralized power of the new "consolidated government," its power of taxation, its threat to state authority, its aristocratic Senate, and its perceived ability to undermine individual rights. They consequently worked hard to prevent or delay ratification or, once adoption seemed inevitable, ensure its alteration through a second convention. Madison, by contrast, believed the future of the nation depended upon adoption of a stronger national government and knew his home state must ratify the new Constitution. With almost twice the population of any other state, Virginia's failure to ratify would have undermined the new government and rendered George Washington ineligible for the presidency. Labunski describes how Madison, despite an acute shyness, gave pivotal speeches that pushed the constitutional proposal through the Confederation Congress, got him elected to the Virginia ratifying convention, secured congressional approval of the plan, won him a seat in the First Congress, gained congressional approval of his proposed amendments, and managed to convince legislators in his home state to approve those changes, all while staving off attempts to call a troublesome and dangerous second constitutional convention.
The book is quite rich in primary sources, especially letters. Labunski's background information on different political figures helps bring to them a three-dimensional character sometimes lacking in intellectual history. His descriptions of extreme weather conditions, the hazards encountered by government officials while traveling, chaotic elections with drunken voters, and the determination of Henry to keep Madison out of power also bring the stories to life and provide historical context. One strength of the book is also its weakness: while Labunski s descriptions of various circumstances and persons are fascinating, they come sometimes at the expense of what the reader expects to be the focus of the book—namely Madison's arguments and activities. In Ch. 4, for example, in discussion of the Virginia ratifying convention, Madison is discussed very little in the first 17 pages. Even in the last 12 pages of the chapter, Madison gets no more press than other delegates or topics combined. In Ch. 5, Madison is also lost for a while in a lengthy discussion of other figures such as John Marshall.
One interesting question Labunski considers is the extent to which Madison really believed in the amendments he proposed to the first Congress. Clearly Madison had been opposed to a bill of rights before constitutional ratification, seeing the guarantees as unnecessary and useless in stopping abuses of rights. After significant insistence on a bill of rights from many people, including his friend Thomas Jefferson and some of his Baptist constituents, Madison changed his tune, if not his mind. Labunski weighs in on this issue on p. 194 with the implication that political necessity is not a sufficient explanation behind Madison's uphill battle to get these amendments ratified, that he likely was sincere in changing his mind.
Labunski's theorizing about what would have become of the United States without Madison is one of the best parts of the book. Some frown on alternative historical scenarios: one could argue we have enough trouble trying to figure out what did happen, never mind what did not. But, on reflection, Labunski is probably right about Madison's significance. Those who tire of the "clash of the titans" approach to the founding may want to avoid this book, but it remains an interesting account of Madison's role in securing the Bill of Rights.
Madison, with insights of others, wrote the Constitution and felt it was perfect, with no need to have amendments added. Two sides in favor of no change: first, keep it and have a strong government. Second, many others felt that time was needed to see how the new government would work to see if changes were needed. On the other side, many felt that there was no need for any change. The Confederation was just fine and there was no need for a strong central government, one that would infringe on personal rights. Virginia and New York were very against the Constitution. In Virginia, Patrick Henry, George Mason and others were very against.
2 years in the making, over 40 amendments were offered designed to both protect the rights of citizens and to limit the scope of the government. After committee work, the House, the Senate and the States, 12 amendments were discussed. The first two were removed, leaving the ten as we know them.
Well written, well researched.
Labunski details the period from the writing of the Constitution to its ultimate acceptance from a group of states that had yet to feel any real national cohesiveness. As such, when it was sent to the various states for ratification, there was a great deal of concern that too much power would be vested at the national level, leaving the states and all individuals open to potential despotic governance. Specifically a Bill of Rights was envisioned and discussed but ultimately tabled at the Constitutional Convention.
The author methodically walks through the process needed for ratification in Virginia, a key state - from a population, political and economic standpoint. In essence, regardless of the three quarters rule, Virginia's acceptance was needed. James Madison, a Federalist, was up against a formidable opposition with both the Anti-Federalists along with those who favored ratification with a Bill of Rights, as a sine que non. Madison squared off against his long time friend, James Monroe and in what was to be a key election to the First Congress (after losing a Senate election). Two future Presidents going toe to toe on the issue of the day, the need, or lack therof, for a Bill of Rights which could muddy the waters of other states accepting and ratifying this unifying document that could alter history. It is hard to comprehend in today's world that two men of their standing would run against one another for a "simple" House seat. But it was critical and they both accepted the burden.
Madison wrote (in a spirit that today's politicians should have to read) "It was my misfortune to be thrown into a contest with our friend, Col Monroe . . . Between ourselves, I have no reason to doubt that the distinction was duly kept in the mind between political and personal views, and that it has saved our friendship from the smallest diminution". Madison was in favor of ratification and, over time, became convinced that a Bill of Rights should be incorporated into the document. Monroe, on the other hand, had strong reservations about a Constitution (even though the Articles of Confederation were largely failing) but certainly only would vote for its acceptance with the rights written in from its inception.
Labunski writes and wonders how different things would have been had Madison not been able to hold together the First Congress in debate of the Bill of Rights. He puts them well into an historical context and writes quite well on the various opinions and politics driving the debate. There is very little to not enjoy about this book. It is a fascinating read about a truly remarkable time in our history. One can only imagine what our nation would be like if the Framers hadn't intimately written the first ten amendments that are, too often, taken for granted today.
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