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