Review of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” by Lynne Cheney

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Lynne Cheney’s “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” was published in 2014, about a year after I read four biographies of the fourth president in my quest to uncover the best biography of Madison. Cheney is the author of more than a dozen books, including several written for children such as “We the People: The Story of our Constitution” and “America: A Patriotic Primer.” Lynne Cheney is the wife of the 46th vice president of the United States.

This 458-page biography of Madison is comprehensive, chronologically-organized and frequently full of insight relating to the early years of the “great American experiment”. It begins with an excellent 10-page prologue which promises a gripping, colorful, and penetrating narrative of one of our most important Founding Fathers. Unfortunately, the ensuing eighteen chapters – judged as a biography – are largely disappointing.

To its credit, this biography tackles Madison’s life from perspectives not found in most other biographies – his curious and recurrent health issues, for instance, are quite closely examined and considered. Cheney also occasionally demonstrates an eye for detail that other biographers miss or under-emphasize. Finally, much of her narrative relating to the War of 1812 (during Madison’s presidency) is excellent.

For the most part, however, this biography is inferior to other books covering Madison’s life. Rarely does she provide a roadmap – or guidance of nearly any sort – relating to where the narrative (or Madison himself) is heading. Important characters who are likely to be unfamiliar to readers (such as Philip Freneau) are rarely given more than a one sentence introduction. And surprisingly little is revealed of his most important relationships – including those with his wife, his derelict step-son and even distinguished figures such as Thomas Jefferson.

Any great chronicle of James Madison’s life will inevitably include a compelling review of his role drafting the U.S. Constitution. But Cheney’s summary falls short of the accounts offered by many other biographers, and her story of the Constitutional Convention – while occasionally interesting – reads more like a historian’s precis of events than a biographical sketch told from her subject’s unique point of view.

More fundamentally, Cheney fails to capture much of Madison’s intellectual curiosity and astonishing political genius. But numerous other shortcoming are also evident such as the fact that his childhood elapses far too quickly (and with too little depth), the fact his precarious financial situation only becomes evident in the final chapters, and the fact that the reader never feels part of Madison’s “world” or sees events from his perspective. Finally, the entire book exudes a strange sense of anti-climax, with no sense of suspense or drama. Instead it is a mostly “matter of fact” re-telling of events from a historian’s remote and too-often lifeless perspective.

Overall, Lynne Cheney’s biography of James Madison is far less a biography of Madison than a chronicle of the early American Republic he helped shape. Readers familiar with the era will find that her research fills in some blanks…but may tend to confound, confuse or frustrate others. “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” is a far better “history” than “biography”…and far from ideal for readers seeking an introduction to the inimitable James Madison.

Overall rating: 3¼ stars

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