“James Madison and the Making of America,” published in 2012, is author Kevin Gutzman’s fourth and most recent book. He has previously written about the U.S. Constitution and Virginia’s transition from dominion to republic. He is Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University and is currently writing a book about the rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
After only two chapters and fewer than fifty pages, I knew that Gutzman’s “James Madison” and I were having a difficult time together. The challenge began when Madison’s birth and childhood were described in a single page. Almost immediately, I followed Madison to college, and fairly quickly thereafter, to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Rumor has it there was an American Revolution in there somewhere.
Though obvious in hindsight, it took me some time to put my finger on the issue. For the first half of the book, I was displeased, unsettled and unhappy. And then, in the midst of the most detailed (and impressively comprehensive) discussion of Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers I have ever seen, I realized what was bothering me. This is not really a biography about James Madison at all – it’s a biography of the U.S. Constitution.
In all, nearly two-thirds of the book is dedicated to the Constitutional Convention, The Federalist Papers and the intricacies of Virginia’s ratification convention. Nowhere else have I witnessed such an in-depth look at this fascinating birth, but it almost seems a fortunate accident that Madison’s role in each of these events was so substantial. Otherwise, my guess is that the author would have pursued the Constitution and not Madison – which is fine, but then the book would not have ended up on my list of presidential biographies.
To be clear, Madison’s participation at the heart of this book is both substantial and critical. Leaving aside the debate of whether Madison should be considered the “Father of the Constitution” (which the author chews on, deciding in the negative), after reading this book it is hard to imagine our nation resembling anything of its past two-and-a-quarter centuries had he not lived. Or had he taken up the priesthood.
But although it is not fair to suggest this is not a book about Madison, neither is this quite a biography of his life either. Missing is almost any of the personal flavor one expects from a true biography. Madison himself seems nearly lifeless and devoid of personality – though some may argue that is historically accurate. Even the deep personal and political friendship between Madison and Thomas Jefferson, though mentioned, is never fleshed out.
The book provides little context for notable historical events, yet every moment surrounding the drafting and ratification of the Constitution is described in such intricate detail that you might believe you are reading the notes of an Associated Press pool reporter. The reader witnesses every debate (great and small), every vote, every nuance of the process. Unclear is whether all this detail is important, but in the end you do feel like a unique witness to important history.
Fewer than one-hundred pages describe Madison’s final four decades, including his service to Washington, his time as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, his presidency and retirement. Although this whirlwind was far too fast for my taste, the summary of the War of 1812 was simply outstanding. Because of its importance to the Madison presidency, I’ve been disappointed in the past to find it a boring and incomprehensible slog, but Gutzman distilled it almost perfectly. I also found the vivid, suspense-filled description of the Virginia ratification process fascinating. I emerged from that part of the book unscathed, though the U.S. Constitution itself very nearly did not.
There was much to like about this book, but in the end the question remains: is this a book about Madison, or about the Constitution? It tries to be both, but it seems somewhat awkwardly to be more the latter. And I’m still puzzled by the apparent error in Madison’s date-of-birth, in the very first sentence of the book (which is claimed to be April 16, but appears to be off by a full month). I attempted to trace this back to the author’s attributed source, but was unable. [Note that this issue was apparently resolved in the subsequent paperback edition and electronic versions of the book.]
A connoisseur of Virginia history is likely to find this book an excellent read. For a budding constitutional scholar, it may be even better. But as a biography of our fourth president, “James Madison and the Making of America” feels incomplete and slightly mis-directed.
Overall rating: 3½ stars