American history, biographies, book reviews, James Madison, presidential biographies, Presidents, Ralph Ketcham
“James Madison: A Biography” by Ralph Ketcham was published in 1971 and has long been considered by many the pre-eminent single volume biography of our fourth president. As an early editor of The Papers of James Madison, Ketcham was fortunate to have access to materials not available to earlier biographers. He is Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University (where he earned a PhD in 1956) and his most recent book “The Madisons at Montpelier” was published in 2009.
Although James Madison is not as well-known as other “Founding Fathers” he played a critical role in our nation’s earliest years – directly and behind-the-scenes. He is considered the “Father of the US Constitution” for his role in its drafting and passage, was a primary champion and author of the Bill of Rights, was a key advisor to Presidents Washington and Jefferson, served as Jefferson’s two-term Secretary of State and was the fourth President of the United States.
Ketcham’s “James Madison” is a sober, detailed, well-researched and lengthy treatment of Madison covering most aspects of his life – from his birth in 1751 at Belle Grove Plantation (more on this interesting site in a later post) until his death at Montpelier in 1836. While reading this 671 page tome, one imagines there must be little about Madison’s life which Ketcham did not include. And on the whole, Ketcham’s biography seems quite well-balanced and objective. Though bias in Madison’s favor shows slightly at times, the author is generally critical of Madison’s leadership style, his handling of the War of 1812, and his actions (and inactions) regarding slavery.
Ketcham provides a particularly detailed and penetrating account of the drafting, passage and ratification of the Constitution, describing Madison’s role as well as the parts played by numerous antagonists. After absorbing this section of the book and reflecting on the multitude of perils faced through ratification, it seems little short of a miracle that this pillar of our government survived the fractious political environment into which it was born. A few books focused on the founding of our country will soon appear on my “must read” list as a result of Ketcham’s description.
As seems typical for a book of this vintage, the author’s writing style can be garrulous and difficult to traverse and the subject matter frequently proves dense. Some have described large portions of the book as “boring” – a complaint difficult to argue, particularly when reflecting on the seemingly endless pages leading up to, and including, the War of 1812. Others lament occasionally tedious diversions into discussions of political philosophy. But given Madison’s particular skill set, it seems difficult to imagine a complete treatment of this deep political thinker not examining in detail his core political beliefs.
More regrettable in my view is that the one thing missing from this otherwise complete biography…is Madison himself. Despite its length and tendency for detail, the biography seems utterly devoid of vitality or warmth – or passion of any type – relating to its primary subject. Some of the blame may rest on Madison, who has been described as erudite but austere, mechanical and emotionally distant.
However, by the end of the book I felt exceedingly well-acquainted with Madison’s political activities…yet knew virtually nothing of him or his family on a personal level. And given her reputation as the nation’s most-loved “First Lady” I would have enjoyed getting to know better his famously gregarious wife, Dolley. I also felt the author missed an opportunity to better describe the extraordinarily unique and powerfully symbiotic relationship between Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
But what it may lack in personality or frivolity, Ralph Ketcham’s “James Madison: A Biography” makes up for in depth. It is a fabulously insightful, extremely detailed and objective examination of Madison’s political life, and his enormous contributions to this country. Certainly, this biography is missing is a personal touch which would serve to humanize Madison and animate the sometimes tedious aspects of his life. But while readers expecting a David McCullough style journey will be sorely (and quickly) disappointed, as an academic matter, this biography was excellent.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Chantelle Robertson (@ChantelleR2013) said:
Just finished this biography and I agree with your review. I think the author would’ve benefited by telling the story in a fashion more fitting with events rather than in a mismatched awkward chronological order. I felt it got a bit exciting with the war of 1812 because the author started to tell a story, and characters seemed to start and come out. However again it got lost in minor details about cabinet positions and treaty propositions rather than telling a story I felt we were told details.
It was not an easy biography to follow and the author would’ve benefited with breaking it into more chapters that had focus rather than lengthy chapters that covered several years and aspects of his life.
I do think the author did a decent job with Dolley Madison, and we got more of a character with her than we did of James Madison.
Overall, there was a lot of information to consume and I feel to really appreciate the biography I would have had to take notes while reading it. Do you take notes while reading your biographies to remember details or events you find interesting?
Your blog helped me select my next couple of biographies, so I am off to start Mr. Monroe.
Thanks for your thoughts on Ketcham’s bio – and please let me know what you think of your biography of James Monroe when you get through it! And, yes, I do take notes on a laptop as I work through each presidential biography. I started doing that as a way of capturing the most memorable and clever one-liners, but now also use notes to remember important items I would otherwise forget.
I am wrapping up Ketcham’s Madison currently, and appreciate your review. I have mostly been put off by the abundance of names I will never remember or even encounter again — his ancient historical influences, his college acquaintances, various politicians of little significance — as well as his constant school-textbook-style references (“see chapter XVI”), like I’m going to go back and thumb through something I’ve already read. Why not just trust that I remember the subject cited? Also, he has too much faith in my understanding of Latin phrases. But having said all that, I am enjoying this bio very much, and finding just enough info on Dolley to increase my fondness of her. I look forward to stopping by her home on Lafayette Square the next time I’m in DC.
Christopher Saunders said:
I agree with you – lots of information in this one, but a bit of a slog. Madison’s such a remarkable character, he really deserves something in the Chernow/McCullough vein to bring him to life.
Mark Singer said:
“the author’s writing style can be garrulous and difficult to traverse and the subject matter frequently proves dense”
I was happy to hear you say this.