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Sunday, September 16, 2007


James Madison
Garry Wills

In choosing books, I like to jump from fiction to non-fiction, and since reading David McCullough’s John Adams, I’ve gotten into in our early history. Brilliant men came together at the perfect time to fashion a country with high ideals as well as the practical structure to withstand serious challenges to its existence. Were these early leaders statesmen with our country’s best interests at heart, or were they motivated by self-interest and party loyalties as we often accuse today’s politicians?

Garry Wills’ James Madison is an interesting look at our fourth president, a man dwarfed by his predecessors but had much more to do with the founding of our country than most of us learn in school.

Wills, whose politics unfortunately is evident through the comparisons he makes throughout the book, traces Madison as an early legislator, one who helped write our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and many of our early laws. Reading the “behind the scenes” maneuvering, it is evident that he had a clear grasp of how legislative power is levied. He was one of the men, for instance, who worked to develop our Constitution, which, according to Wills was actually not as depicted in Howard Chandler Christy’s famous painting, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Rather, the Constitution that we recognize today was actually created in a back room on a second floor by men taking tremendous risk, a treasonous overthrow of the Articles of Confederation adopted on November 15, 1777. How’s that for an interesting take on our history?

After George Washington left office, there was a tremendous struggle between the states’ rights Republicans and the central government Federalists. The different viewpoints impacted on every aspect of early American life. Should there be a national bank, a standing army (as contrasted to militias) etc.? These questions came to a head in Madison’s two-term administration during which time we fought the War of 1812. The war was a disaster, but Madison, sticking steadfastly to the Constitution, left Americans more freedoms than did his war president successors Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt. He left office more popular than he had been through most of his presidency because at war’s end, America saw the need for a central government (Madison, by the way, was a Republican who initially opposed power by the Federalists)—an army, a navy, a bank, federal jurisdictions over many aspects of life—bankruptcy laws, land laws, etc. The war caused many of these changes to occur of necessity. The end result was a strong government that could withstand traumatic shock.

Another point intrigued me. In reading early American history, I so often come across the seeds of the Civil War, not only in attitudes toward slavery (during Madison’s administration there arose the question of counting the population and how slaves should or should not be counted, for instance) but also in attitudes toward states’ rights. It is not difficult to see the inevitability of the Civil War and the initial differences of opinion even in the early years of our country.

If you enjoy reading history, this intense 168 page book is a good traveling companion. Just read with a jaundiced eye; Mr. Wills has very strong political views. Google him if you would like to know them first.

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