Importance of modest James Madison

MADISON’S GIFT: Five Partnerships That Built America. By David O. Stewart. Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $28.

James Madison was a small, soft-spoken man whose unprepossessing exterior masked not only a powerful mind and a prodigious capacity for hard work, but also a razor-sharp political instinct that served him and his country well through the four decades of his public life and beyond.

As author David O. Stewart points out, within a group of founding fathers he may command less attention than Washington, Jefferson, Adams and others, but it is Madison who keeps “showing up” at key moments in our early history.

To read about James Madison’s life is to be reminded of both how much things have changed over the last two centuries and, for good or ill, how much they remain the same. For instance, it is hard to imagine a present day major public figure simply dropping from sight for months on end to immerse himself in the study of history, law and philosophy as Madison did to prepare himself to alter the Articles of Confederation. How would a cynical modern electorate view such a time-consuming and unabashedly intellectual endeavor?

On the other hand, it is both reassuring and dismaying to discover that the same questions that bedeviled the early republic, particularly those surround the rights of the individual vs. the needs of the group, and states’ rights vs. a strong federal government, are still firmly in place.

Stewart’s decision to re-examine Madison through the lens of his relationship with five individuals — Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe and Madison’s wife Dolley — was a shrewd one. It allows him to highlight what he believes was one of Madison’s singular qualities, his ability to blend his talents with those of others for the purpose of achieving what he determined was best of the country.

In what may have been a sea of big egos (Hamilton comes to mind), Madison seems to have sought very little of the limelight. His penchant was for rigorous analysis, disciplined endeavor and keeping his eye unflinchingly on the prize, “building the world’s first true constitutional republic.”

Madison was a scholar and a patriot. But he was also an adept politician — as were all the founders to varying degrees, or there would be no United States of America today. He campaigned hard for his own elected offices and those of his friends and was not above using his quiet charm and that of his wife to lobby for what he wanted. He altered his positions as conditions changed, most notably in his gradual evolution from Federalist to Republican when he began to fear that Washington and Hamilton were placing too much power in the hands of the national government.

As sectional differences heated up, Madison shifted again, composing a detailed refutation of the nullification movement in 1830. Stewart contends, he “always stopped short of any claim that the states could repudiate federal action.” Clearly, Madison was most often drawn to the path of compromise, inspiring the ever irascible John Randolph to accuse him of “cold and insidious moderation.”

Stewart, author of, among other historical studies, “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution” and “The Lincoln Deception,” has deftly pulled together a portrait not only of the political connections Madison had with the five people in question, but also the personal ones, adding depth and color to his story. In the process, he manages to make all the more impressive the truly remarkable series of accomplishments Madison played a role — often the major one — in producing, including the creation of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights and more.

As Stewart’s book remind us, it would be difficult to envision what the United States would look like in 2015 had the brilliant James Madison not been in on its inception.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer based in Charleston.