“James Madison: America’s First Politician” by Jay Cost was released November 9. Cost is the Gerald R. Ford Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and has written for The Wall Street Journal, National Review and National Affairs. His most recent book “The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy” was published in 2018.
This hot-off-the-press biography of James Madison is a skillful 399-page examination of Madison’s public life and a compelling exploration of the apparent philosophical inconsistencies exhibited during his lengthy political career.
Readers expecting a thorough introduction to Madison will discover this is less a comprehensive review of his public and private lives than it is a thoughtful exploration of his four decades of public service. Madison is notorious for being “all work and no play” and Cost’s narrative focuses almost exclusively on Madison’s political career. As a result, though, readers hoping for insight into his family life and closest friendships may come away disappointed.
This book’s field-of-view is a bit unusual compared to most presidential biographies. While some excel at placing a biographical subject firmly within the context of “the big picture” and others concentrate on the day-to-day grind of a subject’s life, this biography focuses intensely on neither. Instead, it is superb at capturing everything in between – it shies away from tedious detail, assumes moderate historical fluency by its readers and focuses almost exclusively on events within Madison’s own orbit.
Readers will quickly notice that Cost’s writing style is delightfully straightforward and easy to digest. The book’s fifteen chapters read more like the transcript of an engaging lecture series than a sagacious but irredeemably dry sermon on Madison’s life. And although the narrative never exhibits the eloquent flair of a Ron Chernow biography or the vibrancy of a Candice Millard book, it is extraordinarily comprehensible and revealing.
Among many notable highlights are Cost’s overview of the Constitutional Convention, a chapter describing Madison’s role drafting The Federalist Papers, an excellent comparison of the competing visions of government proposed by Madison and Hamilton and a riveting exploration of Madison’s opposition to Hamilton’s national bank. But the book’s most refreshing strength is the clarity with which it analyzes and explains complicated topics.
The book’s relative brevity and remarkable lucidity come at a price, however, and some readers will desire more insight into Madison’s daily life and personal affairs…and possibly a more explicit connection between his activities and meaningful national and global events (such as the major moments of the Revolutionary War).
Readers hoping to see the world through Madison’s eyes will also be disappointed. This is an interesting intellectual review of Madison’s life as considered from a distance, not a narrative which will leave readers feeling like a fly on the wall in Independence Hall – or in Dolley Madison’s dining room. Finally, Cost’s failure to include more context (and detail) leaves the text feeling over-simplified at times.
Overall, however, Jay Cost’s biography is a valuable addition to the relatively small group of biographies dedicated to James Madison. While providing far more insight into Madison the thinker than the person, it offers uncommonly enlightening analysis of his political philosophy and public career. And if it isn’t quite the perfect comprehensive introduction to James Madison, it undoubtedly makes a compelling companion biography.
Overall Rating: 4 stars