Noah Feldman’s “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” was published in 2017 and explores the evolving political genius of America’s most introspective Founding Father. Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of six previous books including “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices.”
The book’s publisher promotes this as “an illuminating biography” of James Madison. But Feldman’s 628-page narrative is more an artful exploration of James Madison’s evolving political philosophy than a cradle-to-grave review of his life. Almost nothing of his youth or his retirement years appears, and readers seeking insight into his closest relationships will find even the gregarious Dolley Madison is unusually reclusive.
Feldman’s thesis is straightforward – that Madison led three public lives: as father of the Constitution, as a partisan politician and, finally, as president. Each of these facets of Madison’s life is thoroughly revealed and considered, including the factors which influenced his evolving political perspectives. Readers already acquainted with Madison who are fascinated by politics in early America are likely to find the discussion of his intellectual evolution uncommonly intriguing.
And while Feldman avoids shining a bright light on Madison’s personal life, he does not overlook the private side of his subject entirely. He provides an interesting review of Madison’s failed attempt to marry Kitty Floyd, ongoing references to Dolley Madison which will almost certainly leave readers wishing for a biography of Dolley herself and keen observations concerning Madison’s intellectual strengths and personality challenges.
In addition, Feldman provides a clever comparison of Madison’s and Hamilton’s personas, extensive exposure to the Constitutional Convention, an excellent description of the factors leading to the War of 1812 and a fascinating examination of several Federalist essays. Finally, the book’s final chapter offers a wonderfully thought-provoking review of Madison’s (political) legacy.
But readers expecting comprehensive coverage of Madison’s life will find significant portions of his early life, retirement years and personal relationships missing from the book. And although Feldman could easily have supplemented the narrative to provide readers a deeper sense of Madison’s inner-self, his primary interest was obviously in understanding and conveying Madison’s intellectual development.
In addition, while the narrative’s discussion of serious (and often complicated) history is appropriately sober and scholarly, treatment of some events – such as the Burr/Hamilton duel – come across as surprisingly sterile. This is not unusual for a history text but can prove disappointing in a biography. Finally, the book’s pace is often uneven; the four-month Constitutional Convention, for example, consumes nearly as much space as Madison’s entire first term as president.
On balance, however, Noah Feldman’s “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” provides readers with excellent insight into Madison’s evolving political philosophy and his contributions to early American democracy. This book is of most utility to anyone familiar with Madison who wishes to dive deeply into his public life and intellectual development. Readers seeking a thorough introduction to Madison’s public and private lives will need to look elsewhere.
Overall Rating: 3½ stars