American history, biographies, book reviews, Irving Brant, James Madison, presidential biographies, Presidents
Published in 1970, “The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison” is Irving Brant’s abridgment of his six-volume series published between 1941 and 1961. Brant was a journalist and historian who focused on James Madison as well as the U.S. Constitution. Brant died in 1976 at the age of 91.
Brant’s detailed study of Madison began in 1938 when he started to write what he believed would be a book on Madison’s leadership during the Constitutional Convention. But given the volume of new information he uncovered, Brant dramatically expanded the scale and scope of his work. What resulted was the most detailed exploration of James Madison’s life ever published.
Because the complete six volume series is both difficult to find and costly to procure, anyone interested in Brant’s work will likely to turn to this widely-available abridgment. With 647 pages of text, it is far shorter than the three-thousand page series from which it is derived…but is still the second longest of the eight Madison biographies I’ve read.
Readers will quickly discover this more an intellectual study of Madison’s public career than a traditional biography covering his personal and professional lives. There is never any doubt the author’s primary focus is Madison’s political career; his childhood, family life and friendships receive minimal attention during the book’s sixty-three chapters.
Not surprising for a book of its vintage, the narrative feels dated and stiff and often exudes a dry academic overtone. But it also frequently exhibits an interesting interrogatory flair as Brant seeks to separate fact from fiction (a clear investigative impulse pervades the book). And Brant occasionally punctuates discussions with clever one-liners.
The book provides many moments of insight and wisdom, but among the most valuable are the chapters reviewing Madison’s efforts during (and just after) the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. These ten chapters – beginning with Madison’s survey of constitutional confederacies and ending with the adoption of the Bill of Rights – comprise the essential core of this book.
But for all its merit, Brant’s biography possesses several shortcomings. First, it assumes its audience is already quite familiar with Madison’s era. For some readers this will not be a problem. But for anyone lacking the requisite background in early US history, this book may prove more frustrating than revealing.
Additionally, the author’s writing style cannot be described as captivating or engaging. Rarely does Brant sweep the reader into a scene to witness a heated constitutional debate, to watch as Madison and Hamilton discuss The Federalist Papers or listen as Madison and Jefferson discuss politics over dinner at Montpelier.
Finally, Brant never animates Madison or any of his family, friends or colleagues (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe and a host of others). Instead, they remain largely lifeless and disappointingly two-dimensional characters. Even the inimitable Dolley Madison is strangely silent throughout most of the book.
Overall, Irving Brant’s “The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison” is a detailed account of the (public) life of James Madison. Readers with a strong background in the era may find this biography thoughtful and often cleverly written. But anyone seeking a traditional comprehensive (or colorful) biography is likely to find it dry, dated and somewhat disappointing.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
I’m struggling to get through Ketcham’s biography of Madison. I don’t feel like I know him or Dolley even after 400 pages. This one sounds about the same.
Debbie Bowers said:
Thank you very much for this review. So far I have not read a full biography of Madison, so it is good to know the parameters by which to judge and shortcomings I could encounter. Very helpful, along with your other reviews.