American history, best biographies, book reviews, James Madison, Kevin Gutzman, Lynne Cheney, presidential biographies, Presidents, Ralph Ketcham
James Madison may have provided the fewest biographies for me to read among the first four presidents but he certainly offered no less mystery. After four books and almost 2,000 pages, I still find Madison as enigmatic as any of the presidents before him. But while he is the least well-known among this group, he was in no way the least accomplished.
Madison was the author, co-author and/or primary “champion” of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, The Federalist Papers, the Virginia Declaration of Rights (the section on religious freedom) and the Virginia Resolution of 1798. He was the Sponsor of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the second Rector (President) of the University of Virginia, the founder of one of the earliest political parties and Secretary of State. Oh, and he was a two-term President.
Madison was also involved in one of the most unique, powerful, extraordinary and remarkably interesting friendships and political alliances in the history of the United States, with Thomas Jefferson.
There is a great deal to be learned about, and from, James Madison. But one thing seems inevitable: we will never “get to know” him as we can George Washington (about whom so much has been written), or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson (many of their personal letters survive, including some which are almost self-diagnostic in nature). Nonetheless, by virtue of his enormous body of political work we are able to learn a great deal about the “public” face of Madison.
* Every early president seems to have a timeless “go to” biography by a truly dedicated author. In the case of James Madison, that biography is Ralph Ketcham’s “James Madison: A Biography” published in 1971. Authoritative biographies (particularly those several decades old) are often less readable and enjoyable than those more recently drafted; Ketcham’s biography is no exception.
But after reading more recent books on Madison, it is clear that Ketcham’s scholarship has endured well. I would have preferred more insight from Ketcham into the “personal” Madison, but no other author was able to provide a significantly more penetrating look into his psyche. Overall, a solid if not exceptional biography. (Full review here)
* “Madison and Jefferson” by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg seemed to promise the best amalgamation of our third and fourth presidents, including unique insights into their near lifelong partnership with each other. While the concept is fantastic, the execution is not as perfect as I would have liked. This dual biography does manage to cover a great deal of ground, but at an uneven pace; certain moments are rushed past while others seem to linger past their prime.
And as good as this book is, it does not provide all the extra insight into the Madison/Jefferson relationship it seems to promise. Other biographies of Jefferson and Madison provide similar depth. In the end, this is an entertaining and often revealing look at two of history’s most important political figures…but readers will still do well to tackle separate comprehensive biographies of each of these former presidents. (Full review here)
* “James Madison” by Richard Brookhiser is the shortest of the Madison biographies I read by a wide margin. As a result, this book lacks depth the others provide and, like the other Madison biographies, also fails to fully animate him as a person. As a book to read by the beach or pool, this is the best of the group. What it lacks in thorough treatment and deep analysis it makes up for by filtering out all but the most essential information. In that respect, this book has the most impact-per-page of almost any presidential biography I have read to-date. (Full review here)
* The last biography I read of our fourth president was “James Madison and the Making of America” by Kevin Gutzman. Although it is an excellent book in many ways, I like it less as a biography of James Madison (which it is probably not intended to be) and more as an eyewitness account of the birth of the Constitution. The hint is in the title; it took me awhile to figure it out. The two-thirds of the text devoted the drafting, passage and ratification of the Constitution are uniquely insightful and interesting. But the one-third of the book focused on all other aspects of Madison’s life (for example, his presidency) proves a rushed blur by comparison. (Full review here)
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[Added July 2019]
* In 2013, as part of my original tour through the presidents, I read four biographies of James Madison. Less than one year later – after I had moved on to subsequent presidents – another biography of James Madison was published. I finally had the opportunity to read and review it this summer.
Lynne Cheney’s “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” was published in the spring of 2014. Given Madison’s influence on the early American democracy and my fascination with both his intellect and his political influence, I have long awaited the chance to read her biography. But while it seemed to promise a “reconsideration” of his life and legacy, I found it far less a biographical narrative (or analysis) of his life and more a review of early America…with Madison never too far from the story line.
Unfortunately, readers hoping to see the world (or early American politics) through Madison’s eyes will be disappointed. While this biography focuses somewhat on Madison’s sphere of influence, it told from a historian’s detached, matter-of-fact perspective and lacks the vibrancy, insight and attention to interpersonal relationships which the best presidential biographies provide. To be sure, readers familiar with Madison’s life will uncover some new revelations in this book and are likely to find it incrementally valuable. But those searching for a thorough, descriptive and revealing introduction to the Madison will do far better to look elsewhere. (Full review here)
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[Added August 2021]
* I just read Noah Feldman’s “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” which was published in 2017. This book explores the evolution of Madison’s political genius and his contributions to early American democracy.
However, this is not a biography in the classic sense. Virtually nothing of his youth and very little of his retirement years appear in these 628 pages of text. And although important characters such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe and Dolley Madison do make frequent appearances, none of his closest personal relationships are fleshed out. What does appear in this narrative is a wonderfully thought-provoking exploration of Madison’s public career and political perspectives.
As a result, this book is likely to be of significant utility to readers familiar with Madison who wish to dive deeply into his public life and intellectual development. Readers seeking a comprehensive introduction to Madison’s public and private lives, however, will be disappointed. (Full review here)
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[Added November 2021]
* Hot off the press is Jay Cost’s “James Madison: America’s First Politician.” With a 399-page narrative and an unusually compelling intellectual bent, this biography provides an excellent review of Madison’s four-decade-long career in politics.
But reader hoping to become fully acquainted with the famously private Madison will not unlock the mystery of his inner-self here. The author focuses almost exclusively on Madison’s public life and his political philosophies. Madison’s seemingly scant personal life is largely inaccessible and the narrative never deeply explores his closest friendships as an alternate way of getting to know him.
Nevertheless, this biography provides a fabulous opportunity for readers who are at least somewhat acquainted with Madison and his times to sharpen their understanding of his perspectives, his philosophies and his actions during the Founding Father’s notably consequential life. If not the ideal introductory biography, this makes an excellent second read on Madison. (Full review here)
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[Added July 2022]
* Fifty-two years after it was published, I read Irving Brant’s single-volume abridgment of his classic six-volume series on James Madison. It is quickly obvious that “The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison” is primarily an intellectual political biography of Madison rather than a biography intent on fully exploring his professional and personal lives.
And given the book’s age, it is hardly surprising that the narrative often feels dated and stiff and exudes a dry academic overtone. Brant performed much of the early investigative exploration of Madison’s life and, as a result, was more focused on separating fact from fiction than on weaving a colorful tapestry for the reader to enjoy.
As a result, readers familiar with early American history may find Brant’s perspectives interesting (if no longer unique or revealing). But anyone seeking a traditional comprehensive (or colorful) biography is likely to find this biography relatively dry, difficult and disappointing. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Madison: “James Madison: A Biography” by Ralph Ketcham
Best “Companion” Bio(s) of Madison: “James Madison” by Richard Brookhiser *OR* “James Madison: America’s First Politician” by Jay Cost
I have always felt that the definitive book on Madison has yet to be written.
Madison seems to have received significantly less focus than his three predecessors despite a resume filled with comparatively impressive accomplishments. I found his work prior to the presidency more compelling than his eight as president (ditto Adams) and wonder if that limits his following. I agree that Ketcham’s bio does not quite compare to the work of Malone, Flexner, Merrill Peterson…
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Just want to say that as a history nerd (and author of historical fiction for kids) I’m thrilled to have found your blog! I’ve recently decided to read one biography (just one, for now) on each president, in order, and was just looking ahead to decide on my Monroe book, since I just finished TJ and am waiting for Madison to arrive. So I googled “best biographies of james monroe” … and this blog came up. I’ve already learned so much and look forward to many more visits. I also enjoy your pics & info on their homes. The only problem will be that because I’m only reading one on each prez, I’ll probably get ahead of you too quickly! Please read fast!
Thanks for stopping by! I’ve probably maxed out at ~80 pgs/day and visitors to my site keep suggesting new bios for my list, so it’s growing slightly faster than I’m reading. Looks like a 2 yr journey remains, but I’ll try to keep up the pace. And do let me know what you liked (and didn’t) as you go through the presidents yourself!
Gene Strange said:
I’ve also started on this “sequential” project. I’ve found that I want to know more about others from the relevant time period. Damn result I read about Washington, then Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette and Hamilton before John Adana (which I just finished). It is very interesting to read about some of the same events, but from a different perspective. I learned much more about the Continental Congress from Adam’sBiography since he was focused there, Franklin being in France so much and Washington on the battlefield. Next up is King George II, then Jefferson, then Napoleon. I have found this blog to be very informative and helpful in selecting biographies. Thank you so much!
You’re doing what I finally got around to after I finished my multi-year trip through the presidents. It definitely adds an interesting perspective to read about the same people & events from a slightly different perspective. But then again…that’s pretty much how I felt about reading multiple biographies of each of the presidents by different authors. I’m curious which biography of King George II you’re reading…!?!
I’m on a similar quest, Pat! One book per president, and I’m blogging my thoughts along the way. I’m on Madison now, and I just started Richard Brookhiser’s biography based on your review, Steve. You may have had me at “shortest.” 🙂
I thought reading about the same events over and over would be tedious, but so far I’m enjoying the revolutionary Rashomon.
I’m also on the one book per President train, and can’t believe how much new/really contextualizing information I’ve learned already. Cool to see others doing it too!
Welcome aboard the presidential bio train! It’s an exciting ride and, notwithstanding a few unexciting presidents / presidencies between Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt (but I’m not naming any names) it’s a fascinating journey. Most people stick to “one per” which is certainly the logical thing to do, but I’m almost sad to see the end in sight after five years. Let us know what you’re reading and what you love (or really dislike)!
Russell Sadler said:
How did you miss Irving Brant’s seven-volume biography of Madison or the one-volume condensation he wrote just before his death? Today’s “Movement Conservatives” have appropriated Madison for their side in the ideological wars. Madison was many things, but his views as we know them from the surviving documents make him an unlikely candidate for Movement Conservatives or the “Madison Project.” These frauds have hijacked a venerable name for their own purposes.
Brant’s multi-volume biography is on my “wanted” list but has never appeared on an affordable basis, so assuming most of my readers would be equally unable to find the entire set I’ve left it as a follow-up item for “later.” If I can’t collect each of the volumes by the end of this project I’ll probably just read the condensed version on my second pass-through the presidents.
Ian Powell said:
Irving Brant’s six-volume biography of James Madison is very expensive to buy complete or piecemeal, even if you settle for ex-library copies without dust jackets. Largely, this is due to the last two volumes, which deal with his two terms as president and post-presidency, having very low print runs. Never been able to determine why this was. Even reading copies of the first four volumes are somewhat pricey – most copies sold to libraries, where they still remain. Best bet is to pick up the one-volume condensed version, which is easily obtainable and which will still give you the gist of Brant’s findings about Madison, without the significant investment of time and money – unless you want to turn into a presidential book collector, as well as a reader, like me. Be warned: collecting can be a very expensive, all-consuming obsession.
Super helpful; thanks. Was just checking this past weekend to see if any change on pricing/availability but of course there was not(!) At your suggestion I have ordered the one-volume condensed version. I always wondered why the multi-volume collection had some inaccessible and expensive components. It’s too bad the series is out of reach for most interested readers.
Ian Powell said:
I think there is a perception among book dealers, particularly the lower-end ones not dealing in fine copies, that the set of Brant’s Madison is rarer than it actually is. Scarce, yes, particularly in nice jackets and especially volumes five and six, but not rare. This perception has led to overpricing of the lesser grade / ex-library / reading copies. There are plenty of complete sets for sale online, as you probably noticed, just no cheap ones. Similarly, one sees the “amateur” dealers selling individual volumes of the leather-bound Easton Press Library of the Presidents for up to $500 – this series is still being produced and sold new by Easton Press for $60 each! By comparison, a truly rare first edition, first printing of Robert Rayback’s Millard Fillmore, published by the Buffalo Historical Society in a print run of only 3,000 (of which at least half went to libraries), can be had for $40-$200 in the dust jacket depending on condition. Of course, there is a lot less demand for Millard Fillmore than there is for James Madison!
The Ketcham work is the biography recommended by the great people of James Madison’s Montpelier. Looks like great minds think alike!
Collin S. said:
Does it seem like less is known about Madison than other presidents, or the research just hasn’t been done?
I may have a skewed perspective on Madison because I live about 30 minutes from Montpelier and I’m happily bombarded with proof of Madison’s existence (and his pursuits). The early presidents, of course, lived in times when history was relatively more difficult to document than in later years (can you imagine debating the Declaration of Independence with a room full of iPhones?) But now that I’m up to Coolidge I can’t help but marvel at the fact that more is not known (or, perhaps, just shared) about the complete lives of some of the early 20th century presidents whose lives ended not all that long ago…
Any thoughts on James Madison: A life reconsidered by Lynne Cheney? It looks perhaps like a happy medium to Ketcham and Brookhiser’s books. (My mother-in-law is reading about the presidents so I’m looks for a solid book on Madison without an over abundance of detail making it hard to enjoy)
I’ve received a number of emails from people who have read the Cheney biography of Madison. The majority seemed to really like it. Because I read biographies of Madison before Cheney’s book was published I haven’t yet read it but have placed it on my follow-up list to be read once I get through Obama.
Irving Brant’s multi-volume is just as expensive and hard to find as the previous commenters warn you. But there was a single volume condensation that Brant wrote himself. That’s how I met him. He was retired in Eugene, Oregon. I was a cub TV reporter at KVAL-TV. I was sent to interview him on the occasion of the publication of the condensed edition. He said he was impressed by the homework I did to prepare for the interview and he sent a copy of the book after be had seen the finished interview. Brant did not know that I had help prepping for that interview from a Eugene lawyer, Les Swanson, who was a Brant admirer from Swanson’s days in law school. Swanson had collected the entire multi-volume series — expensive even in the 1970s — and ta;liked to me at length about Brant and Madison. Do NOT bother with Lynn Cheney’s book. She and Brookheiser who are part of the cabal to claim Madison as a Libertarian/Conservative. Brant would roll over in his grave.
Steve – thank you for the blog! Like many others, I stumbled onto your blog during my own journey through presidential biographies (just one book per president for me, I’m afraid). Your blog has been a wonderful resource.
I’ve just completed Lynn Cheney’s “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.” It was a wonderfully written book, and I quite enjoyed it. For others considering reading – the above commenter clearly hasn’t read the book. Cheney’s book is completely void of present day political assertions, and the notion that she is part of a “cabal to claim Madison as a Libertarian/Conservative” is pure unsubstantiated hokum. I’ll leave the full review to Steve – who I’m sure will do it far greater justice – but Cheney’s book is a well researched, well written, enjoyable narrative of Madison’s life and career.
Thanks for your note, and you seem to be in good company having enjoyed Cheney’s bio of Madison. I’m sorry it wasn’t yet out when I was reading Madison in early 2013 but I’ll be back to him “soon” and that’s my first stop!
No David. Just no. I respectfully disagree. The Cheney bio of Madison is not beautifully written. Not my judgement. Look how fast is was remaindered.
Russell, you’re welcome to contest the quality of the prose, which we can respectfully disagree on. It certainly isn’t the same level as McCullough, but certainly well written in my estimation.
My objection was to your assertion that Cheney harbors political motives by claiming Madison as a member or founder of present day ideology/political parties, which is patently false. You can’t find a single line in the book to support that claim, and I think it’s inappropriate to divert potential readers based on unsubstantiated, partisan assumptions.
Do any of the biographies adequately tackle what seems to me to be the greatest reason Madison is such an enigma all these years later — his seemingly paradoxical move away from the Federalist ideals that caused him to help author (and subsequently advocate for) the Constitution to become one of the foremost Jeffersonian-Republicans? I’ve never come across anything that I felt explained his motivation in any sort of satisfactory manner.
(Also — I just stumbled across your blog and its such a great resource for history nerds like me! Thanks!)
I have to confess that I don’t remember being adequately schooled in that aspect of Madison’s philosophical evolution. But then again I may well have forgotten some of what I was exposed to 30 months ago in order to make room for more recent insights such as the bombastic exploits of TR and the clandestine dating habits of Warren Harding. I’m planning to visit Montpelier again in this spring (it’s only an hour away, after all)…so I might see if they have any insight on the question-
I read Brookhiser’s biography of Madison and didn’t find that Madison’s move to be adequately covered. I just wrote about this on my blog though, and found that The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins did a good job covering Madison’s shift.
Elkins attributes it mostly to Madison’s hatred of Britain and his distrust of Alexander Hamilton’s pro-British banking and trade policies. Madison wanted a strong federal government, as long as it supported Virginia’s agrarian culture and was more pro-French than pro-Britain.
Ketcham’s biography covers this evolution excellently, though you may disagree with his interpretation: Madison was intent on creating and maintaining a republican government, and the threat to this type of government, which could result from too much power (aristocracy or monarchy) or too little power (democracy or mobocracy), caused his changing positions. For example, while republicanism was threatened by institutional weakness during the 1780s, it was threatened by excessive government (i.e. Hamiltonian finance; the Alien and Sedition Acts) during the 1790s.
I am reading through the Presidential biographies and am ready for James Madison. Are you familiar with the bio by Lynne Cheney – James Madison: A Life Reconsidered? Found this one at my library. It has decent reviews on Amazon.
I haven’t read Cheney’s biography (it was published after I got through the 4th POTUS’s biographies) but I’m quite familiar with it – I even had a discussion with the folks at Montpelier about it when I was there a few months ago. They obviously wanted to remain neutral / objective but I’ve gotten feedback from several visitors to this site who liked it a great deal. It’s on my follow-up list to read once I get through all the presidents.
just finished the Cheney book which seems to mention through out the illness that President Madison had. I was wondering if this is a thread in the other bios of him?
After reading multi-volume biographies of the first three presidents, I wanted to read Brant’s, but again the sticker shock caused me to go with his abridged biography. I prefer the academic and policy focused biographies with a touch of personal life, since this does contribute to philosophy, and Brant far succeeded my expectations. Prior to this adventure, I was a big Madison fan and I felt guilty only reading the one biography so I also read Ketchum’s. Ketchum’s style was more academic, but was also a really strong biography, although I didn’t learn much more there were subtle differences. If I ever come into a windfall of cash, I would like to pick up the Brant series.
J.L. Jensen said:
As one who has read both Ketchum and Brant’s biographies on Madison, thank you for these comments. I have a few Madison bios but neither of those, and am debating what to get first. Down the road I may end up with both, but for now I want to whatever one edges out the other, even if only slightly. Am I safe in reading here that while they are both excellent, you slightly preferred Brant’s single volume “The Fourth President” over Ketchum’s work?
John Poulsen said:
looking for a starter introductory book on Madison and Jefferson.For those that have read them how are the ones on Madison by Brookhiser and the Jefferson one by Bernstein far as a beginning place to start?
I’ll be interested to see what others suggest, but I obviously liked the Brookhiser bio of Madison…and haven’t read the Bernstein bio of Jefferson but have it on my follow-up list. One interesting possibility, too, is “Madison and Jefferson” by Andrew Burstein & Nancy Isenberg. It’s not a perfect intro to either individual but is excellent for introducing the reader to both at once and dissecting the nature of their relationship with each other.
Thank you Steve.By any chance have you read the Lynne Cheney biography to know if it is a good one?I don’t know if it is an intro or a full length biography or not
No, I haven’t read it yet. Based on what I’ve been told it’s comprehensive but may treat his childhood somewhat briefly. Several people I know have really enjoyed the book while one or two were unimpressed. If you do read it, let me know what you think!
Connie from CT said:
Steve has done a great job in reviewing Presidential Bios. Our book club chose Chernow for Washington, McCullough for Adams, Cunningham for Jefferson (because it’s only 349pgs.)& we were falling behind our “one President per month” design. Our only STEVE deviation has been Brandt’s 1 vol. edition for Madison for two reasons: scrolling Steve’s wonderful blog lead to good reports on Brandt and because I inherited The Easton Press Presidential Library😬
E Mullally said:
Hi Stephen, first of all, thank you for writing and maintaining such an interesting blog!
I wanted to chime in that I have recently started my own presidential biography “quest.” I began with Chernow’s Washington, McCullough’s Adams and Meacham’s Jefferson. I enjoyed them all.
I recently finished Cheney’s Madison and found it closest to Meacham’s Jefferson biography in terms of writing style and substance. Though their styles lean more towards “reporting” with less personal insights or historical drama vs Chernow or McCullough, both Meacham and Cheney offer solid, similarly written overviews of their subjects.
For the layman such as myself, I thought reading the Meacham / Jefferson and Cheney / Madison biographies back-to-back worked well.
Thank you and continued good reading!
Thanks for your insights and good luck on your quest! Even though four years have passed since I tackled biographies of the earliest presidents I remember those days (and books) fondly! Whatever you do, don’t let the comparatively tough sledding post-Jackson and pre-Lincoln slow you down – some of the lesser-known presidents are actually quite interesting, and Lincoln is absolutely worth the wait! Keep me up-to-date as you move forward; I’m fascinated to see what others think of the biographies as well as the presidents themselves!
Teacher in Tejas said:
Wow you did the exact same start as me: Chernow, McCullough, Meacham and now Cheney. Interesting. Wonder which of the two you are reading for Monroe 😉
Daniel G said:
I have just started reading through the presidents and I have come to Maddison. I can’t decide whether to go with Brookhizer or Cheney. Any suggestions between the two
I haven’t read Cheney’s bio (it was published about a year after I read several biographies of Madison) but I have it on my follow-up list.
I recall Brookhiser’s bio as being fairly short, easy to read, interesting but without a great deal of depth or detail (by virtue of its brevity). Cheney’s biography, on the other hand, is nearly twice as long and – based on what I’ve heard – equally accessible, fluid and descriptive.
So if I was forced to choose I would probably go with Lynne Cheney’s bio and if I ended up disappointed…well, the are always alternatives and Brookhiser’s doesn’t require a great deal of time 🙂
I’ve just read three biographies in a row by Joseph Ellis–on Washington, Adams and Jefferson. I think very highly of Ellis’ work because it is intellectually and academically based, with many primary sources and quotes, with great analysis of political theory and philosophy. I am just now starting Lynne Cheney’s book on Madison, and immediately notice it’s very different style–admittedly, I am in the first chapters–but I am hoping she will delve into deeper political issues and theory. If she doesn’t, I am not inclined to finish reading it. Can anyone speak to this aspect of the Cheney book? Also, how come no one has mentioned any books by Ellis? I think is amazing! I’ve got Unger’s books on Monroe and Jon Quincy next..any thought on that author? Thank you, everyone, for your comments and insights–really appreciate them!
I see you have received many messages about Lynne Cheney’s book. I am only adding to the chorus. I thoroughly enjoyed her book.I found it to be very well researched and readable. I almost didn’t pick up her book because of her husband, but I am very glad I did. I wonder if other readers haven’t given the book a chance for the same reason.
Yes, Cheney’s book has proven to be quite popular and although I was initially skeptical about it (I tend to be skeptical of biographies when written by celebrities, politicians, well-known personalities, etc.) it quickly ended up on my “follow-up” list.
I’m also less excited about reading biographies written about someone which don’t seem to bring anything new to the table on a subject, though I’m prepared to read very well-written biographies of interesting people even when they don’t seem to offer any groundbreaking insights (cue “Grant” by Ron Chernow which I understand is somewhat conventional but quite well written…)
Did you ever get to Lynne Cheney’s biography?
When I read four bios of Madison in 2013 the Cheney bio hadn’t yet been published. It’s high on my “to do” list so I expect I’ll get to it late spring or early summer of 2019. Have you read it?
I think it’s worth a visit, but it isn’t the tightest of writing. I’m approaching the halfway mark (I’m doing a presidential bio journey, just not in any order), and she assumes a lot of familiarity with events and people that a newcomer might not know. But had she inserted more context, it would be twice as long. I would also agree with reviews that the book showcases little of Madison’s personal life, but it may still connect to a lack of resources or documentation.
Bethany Kirk said:
I assume since it came out in 2017, you haven’t read it, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts about “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” by Noah Feldman? I’ve just started reading one bio of each president and have appreciated your recommendations so far. Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have the ones you reviewed.
You are correct that I haven’t read it yet but it is on my follow-up list! I’ve not heard much feedback, but what I have heard has been positive…
Bart Dailey said:
Bethany Kirk. I just finished TTLOJM and it is an excellent book. The book is stylishly written and goes into much depth about the 3 critical stages of Madison’s political journey. For those looking to understand Madison’s transformation from the centralized power of Federalism to Jefferson’s more agrarian style of republican government will find what they are looking for in this book. In a word the answer is Hamilton and the sway of Jefferson at that time. Once a political ally of Madison’s, over time Hamilton earned the enmity of both Madison and Jefferson, a lot of this was due to the fact that Hamilton was able to consistently convince Washington to come to his side of almost every issue — this hurt both Madison and Jefferson who adored him. Later, these friendships with Washington were strained if not outright abandoned by Washington.
Hey Steve, great site – reviews are very helpful for making decisions (my reading method is slightly different, but similar).
On Madison, I didn’t see any mention of Garry Wills’ book. Only reason I ask is his book on Madison seems to be quoted in other bios (I think Chernow and Ellis both quote him on Madison).
Was there a reason you skipped him? I’m curious, because he’s one of the options I’m considering for Madison.
Justin, sorry for the late response. I have only selectively included bios from the American Presidents Series – such as Wills’s biography of Madison – since they tend to be quite short and generally fail to go into the depth I’m looking for. They tend to be pretty good but for the most notable presidents for whom biographical coverage is not lacking I’ve relied on more traditional, and substantial, biographies.
You’ve inspired me to read a biography on each of the presidents, and I’ve been using your site for advice!
Thought Chernow’s Washington was sublime and really enjoyed McCullough’s biography of Adams too. Just about to start Meacham’s Jefferson – Art of Power.
I live in UK, and struggled finding all of your Madison choices. You didn’t sell the Cheney one, and fancied something more modern than the Ketcham. So… I’ve opted for Noah Feldman’s, which you’ve not reviewed yet!! So I’m all on my own in uncharted territory. Reviews elsewhere look good though!
No, I didn’t sell the Cheney one very hard, did I…? 🙂
Two things, however: first, you MUST let me know what you think once you’ve read Feldman’s book (which I know has been stuck on my follow-up list since it was published) and second, unless you really strongly dislike it, I really must find a way to read it in the next few months. Your note prompted me to re-review the book’s table of contents and it seems to hold great promise. I’ve not heard much about the book one way or the other, so you’ll be the first real test if you don’t mind providing some follow-up feedback!
More than happy to feed back! Just finishing the second of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher trilogy, then I’m moving on to The Art of Power, and then the Feldman is next. So hopefully will be able to let you know my thoughts soon. I know very little about Madison compared to the first three presidents, so I’m hoping for something detailed but still entertaining!
Selfishly I’d also be interested to know what you thought of the first two volumes of Moore’s trilogy on Thatcher.
Apologies – I tried to post a response yesterday re your Moore’s trilogy request, but don’t think it loaded properly!
I’ve really enjoyed the first two volumes. Thatcher is a real oddity in UK politics – I can’t think of anyone who is so divisive – loved on the right and absolutely loathed by the left, so I think it gives challenges to any biographer. Moore is clearly in awe of her, it’s definitely not a hagiography, but he does almost treats her tenderly (not a word normally associated with her!)
It’s very much a political biography – once she’s in power, her personal/family life is hardly even referred to. Her post PM years are covered in about 100 pages (according to the contents page of the 3rd part), so it’s clear that it’s her rise, time in power and monumental collapse that interests Moore. I don’t really feel that I know much about her relationship with her family compared to her as a political figure.
Compared to even Chernow’s Washington, this is a huge biography – well over 2000 pages (not including notes, index etc), and therefore there is a lot of detail and a cast of thousands. For a casual reader this might be a little overwhelming, but the footnotes are excellent and do give a lot of additional context (for even more reading!)
It’s hard to imagine a more thorough study into Thatcher as a political figure than this, and it’s already viewed as the ultimate biography of her, and I’d have to guess not without reason. It’s probably more suitable for someone who wants a really detailed look into her career through, rather than someone who’s never read a political biography before. As you obviously(!) fit into the former category I’d definitely recommend and be interested in your thoughts on it!
THANK YOU for putting together this website. Like many others, I started with Chernow’s Hamilton, and it has inspired me to read about its featured subjects (i.e., Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison), which led me to discover this site, and now I am on a quest to read at least one biography on each president. Being spoiled by Chernow and McCullough, which is essentially now my measuring stick for quality, I was extremely disappointed with my Jefferson experience since it lacked the depth to which I have become accustomed.
Given that you expressed some various reservations with Madison’s available biographies, I took a gamble with Noah Feldman’s Three Lives. Feldman is obviously very aware of Chernow’s thorough examination of Madison via Hamilton, and he does not disappoint in his endeavor to provide an insightful profile and adequate response to criticisms and many contradictions of Madison highlighted in other works. This is in contrast to Meacham’s effort with Jefferson, where I left feeling like he glossed over or even omitted entirely some of these important issues. In this day and age, it is simply malpractice in my opinion to ignore serious character flaws that have been highlighted in other works. Feldman thankfully avoids this temptation in the treatment of his subject, yet I would hardly say this was a negative profile overall.
While Feldman attempts to frame the biography in a somewhat thematic manner as evidenced by the title, it has all of the chronological flow I would expect from an entertaining biography. My only criticisms might be that there is little detail on Madison’s childhood, and even the domestic aspects of his presidency (focusing almost exclusively on foreign affairs with England and France, and of course the War of 1812), but I would surmise that this likely because there wasn’t much to say on these subjects. I am really curious as to your thoughts once you have a chance to get to it.
Wow, thank you for the detailed thoughts and your observations on Feldman’s treatment of Madison. I’m hoping (and expecting) to read it late spring /early summer so although I won’t let your views influence my own, I will be quite interested to compare our perspectives!
Hey Steve — Did Feldman on Madison get pushed back? I saw it on your schedule for May or June and was looking forward to seeing your thoughts, but it seems to have disappeared from the list?
I’m kinda mixing presidential bios with other key figures (Hamilton, Franklin, Marshall), larger history (Oxford History of the US) and more precise accounts of key events (right now finishing Ambrose on Lewis and Clark). I also try to read two (sometimes more) if there are enough good accounts to choose from – just usually not in order because rereading the same person’s life in two books in a row didn’t really work for me. So I’m kinda making my way forward slowly.
I was interested in finding a copy of Brant’s 6vol. on Madison, but the price just ended up prohibitive so I grabbed the 1vol. I have Feldman, but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems like his take is almost slightly less of a straight bio and a little more detailed study of Madison’s character. Basically, it looked like he might be a fantastic follow up bio instead of the first one. Still hoping you do end up reading it sometime in the upcoming months so I can see how accurate that assessment is.
Feldman’s “The Three Lives of James Madison” has been in print for some time, but his upcoming book on Lincoln was pushed back slightly (to this November).
I have the abridgment and some – but not all – of the components of Brant’s series on Madison. I would love to read the entire series sooner rather than later, but the list of things I want to read in the near-term is ominously large. I’m also waiting for Meacham to decide to get serious about James and Dolley but I don’t know that’s something I’m going to hold my breath for…
Sorry, I was unclear.
What I was trying to say was that on your “2021 Road Map”, I thought you had Feldman’s bio of Madison listed for May or June 2021, but then sometime in May it disappeared from that list.
Did you change your mind about reading it in 2021?
Ahh, sorry to have mis-interpreted your question. I tweak my road map several times a year, particularly as new biographies are published without much warning that I read to balance the list (oldiest but goodies vs.hot off the press) and as I find my pace faster or slower than expected.
The James Madison book was coming up imminently but my pace slowed this past month and I’ve got Kai Bird’s bio of Carter (coming out *today*) to read, so Madison has been displaced. Having said that, although it doesn’t show up on my schedule, the book is still sitting at the top of my pile on my desk, so I expect I’ll probably read it before I get to the Lincoln or FDR bios currently on my line-up. I’m really looking forward to it and hope it lives up to expectations!
Awesome, thanks for the response. And it was totally my bad on the miscommunication. When I went back and looked at my initial question, I realized my phrasing was really unclear.
There are a LOT of books on Madison, many great detailed studies especially around his constitutional thinking. I’d start with Ralph Ketcham’s bio, still considered by many to be the classic treatment.