American history, biographies, book reviews, Dolley Madison, James Madison, presidential biographies, Presidents, Richard Brookhiser
“James Madison” is Richard Brookhiser’s 2011 biography of our fourth president, and is the most recent of his dozen or so books. Brookhiser’s first biography, on George Washington, was published in 1996. Since then has written about Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and William F. Buckley Jr., among others. Brookhiser is currently a senior editor at National Review.
At only 250 pages of text, “James Madison” has been described by some as merely a “whirlwind” tour of Madison’s life, a barebones biography barely capable of describing this member of the Virginia Dynasty of presidents. Based on such reflections, I was braced for disappointment as I began reading Brookhiser’s biography. But instead, I was delightfully surprised by what I found.
Without a doubt, “James Madison” is far from a comprehensive, penetrating treatise; it will not soon overtake Ketcham’s book as the “go to” biography on Madison. But not everyone is willing or able to devote nearly a week of sleepless evenings to reading almost seven-hundred pages of dry but potent American presidential history. In contrast, Brookhiser’s work reads like a modern day Cliff’s Notes on James Madison. It is the distilled essence of a larger work, boiled down for a time-starved audience.
By virtue of its diminutive size, Brookhiser’s biography is unable to treat any particular topic with great depth, but the author does a nice job appropriately covering nearly each of Madison’s eight-and-a-half decades. Madison’s youth, notoriously difficult to describe in detail given the lack of eyewitness accounts of those years, is as well treated as in any biography I’ve read on Madison thus far. Also, his description of the effervescent Dolley Madison is as enjoyable and fulsome as any I’ve yet encountered.
In addition, not only does Brookhiser’s book requires little patience on the part of the reader but it also seems not to require inordinate concentration. The narrative is crisp, plainly written, and very easy to read. If it is not nearly the most “sophisticated” of the almost thirty presidential biographies I’ve read so far, it still wins top honors for being one of the most “readable.”
At times, in fact, the book’s tone and style almost seem pedestrian (or perhaps just contemporary…this is the first biography where I’ve seen Skype, Youtube and Twitter referenced in the text). But as a result it is a book that can be read by, and appeal to, almost anyone. That may be its greatest strength; even the best-written and most beautifully delivered sermon is only useful if there is a parishioner left awake (and unconfused) in the pews by the end. Readers of Brookhiser’s work on Madison will be fully alert throughout this journey.
But the devoted fan of presidential history will undoubtedly find the book lacking: in detail, in context and in personality. Madison’s character seems stiff and monochromatic. Little time or space is available to animate this poorly understood founding father or really describe what made him “tick.” Brookhiser does not provide a character analysis in the spirit of Joseph Ellis, and he is unable to truly put the reader in Madison’s shoes during critical moments – as other biographers have sometimes managed for their subjects. And readers unfamiliar with early American history may find the description of historical events a fast-paced though well-articulated blur.
In the end, Brookhiser’s portrait of Madison is accurate and insightful, though incomplete and rushed. If his biography “James Madison” loses points for its lack of depth and relative dearth of new insights, it makes up ground by its coherence and comprehensibility. And it will easily fit in the seat-back pocket in front of your cramped economy class seat. Though it will not satisfy the most ardent historian, it seems to be a book written for almost “everyone else.” And in that respect it was refreshing, effective and enjoyable.
Overall rating: 4 stars
Malcolm Greenhill said:
I’m curious whether you read around these biographies or just the biographies themselves?
If I understand the question, I try to read one or two good reviews in advance in order to get a sense of what I’m getting myself into. Then, after I’ve finished reading a biography, I tend to go back and read all the reviews I can find in order to see how my experience compares. I tend to avoid “professional” book reviews and those by other authors as they either tiptoe around flaws or tend to rehash the storyline rather than focusing on the reader’s experience.
Malcolm Greenhill said:
Steve, so you don’t read other books about the period, just the biographies and reviews?
The catalyst for this was collecting & reading many of the books in the Oxford History of the US series after which I read “Mayflower,” “Washington’s Crossing” and some of Gordon Woods’ books (I first learned of him as a Brown undergraduate where he taught). That led to collecting presidential biographies and, finally, actually reading them. I do plan to circle back and re-read some history of the period as well as bios on compelling figures such as Hamilton, Albert Gallatin, etc. And I’m always taking suggestions(!) But so much to read, so little time…
Liz Parrott said:
Given that Brookhiser is an editor at the National Review, did you notice a conservative bias his biography of Madison?
I did not realize Brookhiser had a role at the NR until after I finished the book, and while I was reading this biography I don’t recall ever suspecting any bias (conservative or otherwise). Looking back over my notes, it seems his conclusions about Madison’s presidency and time as Secretary of State were fairly balanced.
Liz Parrott said:
Thanks, I’m glad to hear this since I’d like to know more about Madison and Brookhiser’s book sounds like the most accessible of the books you’ve reviewed.
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A.J. Caldwell said:
After reading somewhat lengthier biographies of the first three Presidents (plus a few non-presidential biographies just before), I was actually looking forward to a shorter read. After finishing, I now realize why biographies are typically lengthier. I never felt James Madison ‘come to life’ in this book. Everything is rushed, and if I did not have some background knowledge of many of the events (from reading other biographies), I would have been lost throughout much of the read. The writing style was different, and I am not a fan of using modern examples in early 19th century reading (for example, stating ‘they lacked the blessings of Twitter and Skype’), as it “takes me away” from that time period.
All in all, it did give a nice glimpse into the life of James Madison and satisfies my requirement–for now–but I will likely read another volume on this President sometime in the future.
You took the words right out of my mouth and I couldn’t have said it any better. This was the shortest of the “true” biographies I’ve read yet (up through Andrew Jackson) and it probably needed another hundred pages or so to really flesh out his character and create appropriate historical context.
Kerby Thompson said:
For whatever it’s worth… I’m currently reading Brookhiser’s bio and Noah Feldman’s “The Three Lives of James Madison” at the same time. Feldman’s is much thicker in detail, some of which I admittedly get lost in, and then I go to Brookhiser’s to get the “Cliff’s Notes” on what I’ve just read. I’m actually finding reading the two at the same pace gratifying. Feldman will spend pages in detail on what Brookhiser will sum up in one sentence. I’m not saying one is better than the other – for me, they compliment each other pretty well.
Ryan Sem said:
Glad to have read the comment above by Kerby. I just picked up Brookhiser’s biography of Madison as I’m struggling to get through Feldman’s. It’s not a bad book by any means, it’s just a lot more of the minutiae behind Madison’s political thought that I was expecting. I would rather get a general overview of Madison’s life before delving into what made his mind work.