“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