Monday, November 23, 2009

James Madison

James Madison: A Biography
by Ralph Ketcham

When I referenced reading this biography on James Madison earlier as wading, I was off the mark. A better analogy would have been skimming because trying to wade through this would have been harder than walking through a vat of chewing gum. Up until now, I have felt the bigger the biography the better but this one proved that theory wrong. In belatedly reading other reviews on this book by Ketcham, many excuse his laborious writing of even minute details of Madison's life as him just being an academic historian. However, I call others such as McCullough or Ambrose academic historians and yet they never had the problem of boring me to tears. There are few books on Madison and I think Ketcham decided that he was going to be the expert even if it meant chapters upon chapters of Madison's early life where Ketcham spent reams describing books that Madison MIGHT have read or scenes that Madison MIGHT have seen. When it got to the point where I could barely read a page at a time before becoming exhausted, I took matters into my own hand and skipped chapters of the dribble and instead skimmed opening paragraphs until I found something less speculative to read. I don't recommend this book at all. In fact, what I have written below is more of a summary of Madison's life gathered from various websites than knowledge gathered by reading Ketcham’s book.

Our fourth president James Madison is considered to be the Father of the Constitution and indeed, he was the principle author of the document along with many more, including the acceptance speech of Thomas Jefferson, The Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. From what I gathered by skimming, his hands, or more accurately his pen was everywhere.

Madison began his political career in Virginia but soon worked his way into national politics and stayed there in one form or another most of his life. He was the leader of the House of Representatives under George Washington and later Secretary of State under Jefferson. He then became the second Secretary of State to next become President, (Jefferson the first and his successor Monroe would be the third) where he served two terms. James Madison was the son of a Virginia farmer and a long time bachelor. I think his unmarried status is largely due to his dedication to politics. But he eventually married widowed Dolly Payne Todd at the age of 43 who as a Quaker was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying a non-Quaker. Though both come from very fertile stock in both their families, the Madison’s would have no children and thus no direct descendants.

James Madison was our second wartime president having served during the War of 1812 which broke out. Similar to our past occupant, he used the war to get re-elected for a second term and then lost most of his popularity. Instead of Bush's War, as the Iraq war has been called, the War of 1812 was also called Madison's War. He spent lots of time before the war drumming up support for it and carefully preparing public opinion. I was taken aback by how many similarities I found in this war and our current one today. Madison has been ranked by some historians as the 6th worst president for his failure to avoid the War of 1812 so if the past plays into our present, I don't think Bush has much to look forward too.

The war drug on through much of Madison's second term though to me, it seemed to me more due to inept military leaders of the time and not to Madison. Madison had the foresight to realize the true target of the British when they landed on Virginia shores to be Washington D.C. and not Baltimore as everyone else thought. In the end, everyone else was wrong and if it hadn't been for James Madison and his wife Dolly, much of our early history would have been lost due to the British firing of the Whitehouse and many of the new governmental buildings in the area. The war ended more due to weariness of fighting it than anything else and the Treaty of Ghent finally ended it officially in 1815. Fifteen days after the signing the famous Battle of New Orleans was fought in a decisive battle that would have sealed the British defeat for sure. Lesser known than the War of 1812, the Second Barbary War was also fought during the latter parts of Madison's second term in office ending the paying of tributes to pirate nations.

As with his predecessors, he left the office of presidency in 1817 a much poorer man than when he entered it. A lot of this had to do with a gambling stepson whom he bailed out numerous times with vast sums of money in order to prevent his wife Dolly from knowing of her son's failures. All of his lands in Kentucky and parts of his inherited lands of Montpelier were sold in order to cover the debts and though he ended up better off than Washington or Jefferson, he was still poor by today's standards.

Madison has always been described as someone who was frail and frequently ill so he spent much of his retirement years at his home of Montpelier, not far from Jefferson's Monticello. Though at home, he wasn't idle and spent large amounts of time 'editing' his vast amounts of letters and correspondence, even going so far as to fraudulently imitate Jefferson's handwriting in some of Jefferson's letters to him. Madison seemed almost obsessed with telling history in his own way, again a parallel I see happening in recent times.

In the waning years of his life, James Madison did get back in the public light service as the second President of the University of Virginia after Jefferson died and later he also got back into politics as a representative to the constitutional convention in Richmond for revising the state constitution. Though in declining health, his pen still stayed active and he still managed to produce several political memoranda before he died on June 28 in 1836. He was the last Founding Father to die.


sage said...

Interesting parallels you draw and thanks for the heads up, when I go looking for a book on Madison, I'll ask you for a new recommendation.

Ed said...

Sage - ABK (Anyone but Ketcham)

R. Sherman said...

It never ceases to amaze me how certain authors can take the most interesting topic and make a hash out of it. To do that with someone as influential and interesting as Madison is criminal.


Eutychus2 said...

I like the link between Ketchum tediousness and Madison's .............. maybe Ketchum, noticing the voluminous works/sritings of Madison, merely thought he was staying true to the character of Madison??

Ed said...

Eutychus2 - You may have a point there!

Ed said...

R. Sherman - I have come to the conclusion that there should be two levels of biographies and they should be labeled as such. One would be the general biography series and the other the scholarly biography series. That way I am warned ahead of time.

Eutychus2 said...

I'm with you on your idea about better identifying levels of biography. You may have an idea there that will revolutionize a part of the book world! Go for it....
Bye the way have a great thanksgiving.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yeah, you have a knack of telling history in YOUR own way too. Pretty much ALL history is told that way. All historians, even lay ones (like us) put their own spin on the telling.

Every marine knows about the Barbary Wars. Our hymn refers to it..."From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli..."

Ed said...

Eutychus2 - Thanks.

Phil - Although I try to blank my mind and be impartial when reading someone's interpretation of history, I know that previous readings still probably effect how I interpret them. Same goes for politics. That is why I always try to read both sides of the aisle and come to my own conclusion.

I read and reviewed a book on here several years ago called the Pirate Coast about the Barbary Wars. It is certainly one of those amazing and little known stories.