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A Review of Garry Wills's James Madison


Friday, Apr. 26, 2002

Garry Wills, James Madison (Times Books 2002)

Garry Wills has written a short biography of James Madison that focuses on Madison's years as president of the United States. That's like writing a biography of Michael Jordan that focuses on his career in professional baseball. Madison was a great constitutional theorist and an extraordinarily effective writer, political impresario, and legislator, but he was just a good president.

As a matter of historical proportion, this approach is wrong, as Wills implicitly acknowledges at the outset. Nevertheless, Wills does a creditable job of turning this lemon into lemonade. After pointing out that "Madison's very presidency is semi-forgotten" by modern writers, he follows that observation with 159 pages of crisp, clear biography focusing on that period.

This is a tale that has been told more than once before - most prominently in sections of larger works by Ralph Ketcham and Henry Adams - but never by a wordsmith of Wills's skill.

Faux Nouveau: Creating Novelty for Its Own Sake

Wills the talented narrator is, however, also Wills the university professor. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this review and beyond the understanding of this reviewer, modern American academics seem compelled to present every piece of written work as a ground-breaking new insight, even when it isn't - and even when a superior retelling of a heretofore underappreciated story would be contribution enough.

And so Wills pitches his study of Madison as an innovative look at the Madisonian psyche and presidential mediocrity: "The normal approach has been to pay attention to the bright spots and just ignore the dimmer moments," he explains. "Few have attempted to see any common traits in the man who planned the government brilliantly but was lackluster in conducting it."

Wills attributes Madison's "dimmer moments" - meaning his two terms as president - to "two neglected qualities in Madison's makeup." The first, according to Wills, is "a certain naivete with regard to the rest of his fellow human beings." The second is "a certain provincialism with regard to the rest of the world."

Madison the Naive? History Shows Otherwise.

According to Wills, "Madison's bookish remove from others" made him naive about, among other things, affairs of the heart, the chances for success of his "favored schemes," and the staffing of his cabinet. But Wills must strain, and strain credulity, to make his points.

Wills argues that Madison was naive about affairs of the heart because he was hurt by the rejection of his first love. The pain manifested itself in a long pause before Madison risked rejection again, and in Madison's efforts to obliterate the record of his earlier infatuation. By that standard, though, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom suffered similar romantic reversals and trepidations, also would have been naive and thus ill-suited for the presidency.

Yet at the time Madison was campaigning for these ideas, many if not most of the worldly-wise then living under the Articles of Confederation believed that that the Constitution itself would not be accepted at the federal level. And if it weren't for Madison's sophisticated and persistent role in the orchestration of the Miracle at Philadelphia, The Federalist Papers, and ratification in general, those worldly-wise might have been right.

In fact, Madison was extraordinarily non-naive about the re-design of our fundamental law, and about what it would take to put that law into practice. The fact that he only succeeded with about 99% of his "favored schemes" merely makes him the most successful developer and implementer of favored schemes in American history.

With respect to the staffing of his cabinet, Wills appears to believe that Madison's naivete left him unaware of or inattentive to the limited abilities and personal defects of several of his initial cabinet appointments. And yet Wills also does a good job of putting those appointments in political context: Madison had inherited from Jefferson a divided and remarkably recalcitrant Republican party in which various factions had the power to insist on the appointment of hacks to fill key cabinet posts.

Madison resisted as best he could, but to little effect at first. As his presidency wore on, however, he gradually upgraded his cabinet. Wills does not reconcile his theory of Madisonian naivete with his own reportage, which strongly suggests that far from being naive in his staffing, Madison addressed, and ultimately overcame, some of the most challenging political realities he inherited.

Madison the Provincial? Perhaps, But If So He Was Not Alone.

Wills, as noted above, also presents a theory of Madison's provincialism - arguing that Madison's bookish tendencies and America-centered views resulted in an inability to appreciate the interests and see through the strategies of the European powers for whom conflict with the United States was a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars.

He cites plenty of evidence to support the idea that the War of 1812 - the central event of Madison's presidency and thus of Wills's book - was at least partly the product of American provincialism. However, his "provincialism" thesis could be applied just as well to many of Madison's compatriots, including the majority in Congress that voted to declare war on Great Britain. As a result, the theory has little explanatory force with respect to any relative deficiencies in Madison's performance, as compared to those of most of his contemporaries in national politics.

Wills describes how Napoleon "suckered" Madison into the War of 1812 with England. He also contends that Madison's overestimation of English power in the New World, and underestimation of English power in Europe and on the high seas, caused him to mismanage the war and the embargo that preceded it.

But Wills's own reporting on Madison's work as secretary of state under Thomas Jefferson (his predecessor in the White House) reveals much continuity between the two administrations on trade and foreign policy.

Thus, unless the famously cosmopolitan Jefferson is also to be tagged as a hick, it is difficult to see how Madison's pursuit of policies rooted in Jefferson's presidency can serve as strong evidence that Madison was especially provincial.

Wills's Solution To the Provincialism Problem Is Unconvincing

Madison's bookish provincialism, Wills claims, would have been "disturbed if he had been exposed to England in any direct way." Madison had never visited any European country, and he certainly spent a lot of time reading. But Wills is wrong about the necessity of "direct" experience, however desirable it may be.

George Washington had no more direct experience of England than Madison did. (Washington's only trip outside of North America was a brief trip to Barbados with his brother.) Yet Washington managed to lead the rebellious American colonies to victory in one war with England. And later, as President, he managed to keep the United States out of war with both England and France, at a time when the newborn country might have been devastated by a second conflict.

In other words, Wills may be right to define Madison as naive and provincial, but by his own standards, so were Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Any theory that explains Madison's somewhat disappointing presidency by identifying characteristics that he shared with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson is hard to swallow.

Fortunately, Wills's efforts to inject his unconvincing theories are only rarely visible. They certainly are not enough to spoil this engaging summary of a presidency that Wills rightly suggests has been unjustly neglected.

Ross Davies practices law at Shea & Gardner in Washington, DC, and edits The Green Bag, An Entertaining Journal of Law

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