“Madison and Jefferson” is the 2010 dual biography of our third and fourth presidents: their personalities, philosophies, presidencies and their nearly lifelong relationship with each other. Authors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are both professors of history at Louisiana State University. Burstein is the author of previous books on Jefferson, Washington Irving and Andrew Jackson. Isenberg is perhaps best known for her 2008 biography of Aaron Burr.
“Madison and Jefferson” purports to be more than just a dual biography of two extraordinary founding fathers and friends. It claims itself an intense narrative, a stunning new look at two hardcore politicians who launched a young nation into the nineteenth century on a path of ruthless and gritty politics. In its six-hundred-plus pages of text it offers up several provocative theses (including that Madison’s work at the Constitutional Convention leaves him undeserving of the title “Father of the Constitution”) and a few less audacious revelations (although Jefferson was the senior of the two partners, Madison was more often the mastermind behind the duo).
After my recent five-thousand page journey through Jefferson’s life and a week spent reading Ketcham’s time-tested and thorough treatment of James Madison, I approached “Madison and Jefferson” with no small amount of enthusiasm and eagerness, assuming it might weave together the stories of these two neighbors and their great political alliance. Surprisingly, however, I liked this book for reasons I had not anticipated, and found it underwhelming in areas in which I had expected it to excel.
Self-evident by its very title – and its persistence in mentioning Madison first everywhere the two are named concurrently – is that an important goal of the authors is to rescue Madison from relative obscurity (much like McCullough has done with John Adams) and elevate him to his rightful place as a co-equal in this powerful partnership. In this respect, the authors are fairly successful. Madison is well-described as the more cautious, deliberative and unswerving political force, and quite clearly the catalyst behind Jefferson’s candidacies for the presidency. Even more compelling is the observation, crystallized by the end, that Jefferson was ultimately more dependent on Madison than Madison was on Jefferson.
Less convincing is the argument that history has bestowed greater glory on Madison for his work at the Constitutional Convention than is deserved (that he should not be considered the “Father of the Constitution”). Here the authors try too hard to be provocative, and evidence in strong support for their stance seems elusive, as long as one understands that the drafting, negotiation and ratification of the Constitution ultimately involved the efforts of many.
Among the pleasant surprises “Madison and Jefferson” provided were occasions where I found myself reading about the same events I’ve re-lived time and again, but where the authors managed to re-tell the episode from a unique perspective or with a slightly new twist. On these occasions they provided an interesting eyewitness observation to an event I had not read before, or left behind a conclusory remark that seemed particularly revealing or to shed new light on an old episode.
Disappointing to me was that the book seemed more a two-for-the-price-of-one biography than a gripping account of this historically unique and incredibly powerful political alliance. The book’s concept, self-described as a dual biography, is both unique and potentially compelling. But in the end its potential feels somewhat less than fully harnessed and the relationship between these friends seemed less robustly and dramatically described than I had expected. Even individually, the personalities of its subjects never seem to fly off the pages like they do in Ketcham’s description of Madison or Ellis’s analysis of Jefferson.
Though fairly lengthy, the book is not as dense as many presidential biographies, which makes for better reading. But it is barely of a length sufficient to thoroughly cover Jefferson – or Madison – alone, much less both of these complex men at once. Having such enormous ground to cover, the authors do a nice job reviewing most of the meaningful events in the lives of these two men. However, at times they rush past certain important moments while curiously choosing to linger around others much longer. But few readers are likely to argue the book should be longer.
As a result, “Madison and Jefferson” is not quite sufficient as an introduction to either Madison or Jefferson, and the motivated reader is better served first reading one or more dedicated biographies. The strength of the book is not in compacting two complex lives into one text, but in serving as a supplementary and complementary review for someone with some background on these two men. It is at times wonderfully revealing and uniquely insightful, occasionally provocative, and usually engaging.
Overall rating: 4 stars