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James Madison (Childhoods of the Presidents) - Mason Crest Publishers,Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.,Lisa Kozleski

James Madison (Childhoods of the Presidents)

Author: Mason Crest Publishers,Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.,Lisa Kozleski
Book title: James Madison (Childhoods of the Presidents)
ISBN: 1590842693
ISBN13: 978-1590842690
Publisher: Mason Crest Publishers (October 1, 2002)
Language: English
Category: Biographies
Rating: 4.9/5
Votes: 738
More formats: azw mobi azw mobi

He didn't sign the Declaration of Independence or fight in the Revolutionary War, but no one did more to create the United States of America than James Madison. This book explores the childhood and youth of James Madison, revealing some of the people, ideas, and events that would shape his later thinking.
Reviews: (7)
The title of chapter six of this book is: Foreign Affairs: Suckered Twice. And in chapter three Wills says: “Madison looked at England and saw only so many thousands of Hamiltons.” These examples give a good clue as to the language Garry Wills often uses to describe Madison’s actions as President and the type of generalizations he frequently makes. Wills argues that the very factors in Madison’s personality that made him a highly effective legislator and a giant in developing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the cause of his failures as a president. This is a strong hypothesis. A highly effective legislator may not make an effective executive. But Wills’ claim often gets lost in emotive language, comparisons with 20th century events, and many generalizations about Madison’s character. Given the length of the books, the American Presidents series makes fleshing out the character and actions of a president a difficult task. But it can be done (see Burns and Dunn’s book on Washington) and it can done without interjecting a generally negative attitude toward the subject. Cheney’s more recent biography of Madison puts Madison’s presidency in a much broader light – both the strengths and weaknesses. The depth of that biography cannot be matched in a book this short. But one would hope for a more objective portrayal of the 4th president and less intrusion by the author into the text. This is not one of the stronger books in the American Presidents series.
When we think of James Madison, we think of “The Father of the Constitution,” a bookish theoretician who successfully navigated the political waters of the early American republic, and our nation’s fourth president. Impressive as Madison’s accomplishments were, if you look deeper there is more to the story that puts the Virginian in a less-flattering light. Like the other Founding Fathers, including sacrosanct George Washington, Madison was human after all, with human flaws, and a politician in the truest sense of the word, which means he could give and take a punch with the best of them. Garry Wills’ short book (164 pages of text) is part of the American Presidents series of which Arthur Schlesinger is general editor. It’s not a biography but rather an account of Madison’s political life with particular emphasis on his eight years as President of the United States.

Wills traces Madison’s development as a political thinker, beginning with his years as a teen under the tutelage of Donald Robertson, to his years at Princeton under professor John Witherspoon, to his years in the Confederation Congress where he and Alexander Hamilton became fast friends and political allies, to his self-imposed crash course on the deficiencies of confederations, which historian Douglas Adair called “probably the most fruitful piece of scholarly research ever carried out by an American.” Undertaken in the spring of 1787, Madison’s intense research was made in preparation for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. It was his Virginia Plan that would become the blueprint for the new Constitution, and ratified by the states the following year. In April 1789 the new government took effect. George Washington was sworn in as president and consulted with Madison on almost every aspect of running the nation’s executive branch. A great deal was accomplished by Congress that first summer—the Bill of Rights was passed, the federal judiciary system was created, the federal revenue system was enacted, and the executive departments of state, war and treasury were created.

With Alexander Hamilton appointed as treasury secretary, provision for the massive war debt was the next order of business. That’s when the split between Madison and Hamilton began. Up to this point, the two had been in agreement on funding and assumption as the best way to address the crushing war debt. But in the next session, Madison reversed his position and began working in opposition to both Hamilton and Washington. The reason for Madison’s reversal has been analyzed by a number of historians. Wills puts it down to Madison’s provincialism. Overnight, Madison went from being a nationalist (strong central government, industrialization, a standing army, and navy) to a states rights advocate (small government, agriculture, local militias, no navy). Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson worked out a deal whereby Hamilton’s funding and assumption bill was passed by Congress, in exchange for moving the nation's Capital south of the Mason-Dixon line, to the banks of the Potomac. Madison and Jefferson soon regretted the deal. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he began dismantling the Hamiltonian Federalist’s programs in what has been called “The Second American Revolution.” Eight years later, when Madison became president, he continued the process, including (when the charter expired) dismantling the Bank of the United States. It might have worked had it not been for the ill-conceived and ruinous shipping blockade, started by Jefferson and continued by Madison. It divided their party, destroyed the New England economy, weakened the national economy, and led to the War of 1812. The nation was woefully ill-prepared for war, and the federal capital, including the White House, was burned to the ground. To reverse a series of military blunders and bring the British to the negotiating table, Madison was forced to resurrect several of Hamilton's policies, including rechartering the Bank, creating a standing army, and rebuilding the navy. Despite a long series of blunders (illustrated in detail by Wills), in the end Madison managed to right the ship of state, negotiate a peace treaty with England and end the war. With the blockade lifted at long last, the economy recovered quickly and Madison ended his term in office on a high note.

In some ways, this is a painful book to read, because of the damaging mistakes made by both Jefferson and Madison, particularly with enactment of the blockade, mistakes that could have been avoided had the two dispensed with their hatred of Hamilton and England, jettisoned their agrarian society ideals, embraced the future, and been more pragmatic leaders. In the closing chapter, Wills points out that it was not Federalism that Jefferson and Madison opposed, but modernity. And, try as they might, they couldn’t turn back the clock to an Arcadian past. The nation had changed, and the war had everything to do with it. “War is a centralizing force,” Wills writes. “The centralization that took place in 1812-15 was inclusive. It incorporated the energies and informality of the western territories. It made citizens more aware of the different parts of the nation. Psychologically, it shrank America. People huddled together. Tolerance grew. Dogmatism decreased.”

Historian Garry Wills is a thinker; he sees things others do not. “James Madison” is a think piece. It will make you see a number of crucial events in our early nation’s history differently, particularly Madison’s contributions as political theorist and national leader. I recommend the book highly.
One would think that any leader who loses their county's own capital would forever rank among that country's worst and most vilified leaders. Somehow, James Madison, the United States' fourth President, escaped that fate despite the British Army's burning of the government buildings in the then very young Washington D.C. on his watch. He even had to flee the city. Perhaps it doesn't really count because the British merely burned the city and left? They didn't occupy the capital and take over the fledgling nation, after all. Who would want to occupy smoldering ruins anyway? Or perhaps it doesn't count because the military implications of the fiery act didn't drastically alter the path of the War of 1812? Or maybe the United States just doesn't like to talk about times that it faced ignominious defeat, no matter how far in the distant past? Would dragging Madison down into the cesspool of the "worst ever presidents," especially considering his other stellar achievements, attract too much attention to this humiliating event? Not only that, the United States attacked first by burning the capital of Upper Canada, York, to cinders, which certainly doesn't earn them public relations points. This transforms the burning of Washington into a justified retaliation. Some American histories ignore this inconvenient fact. Many in Canada still refer to this largely forgotten war as "the war against American imperialism." Luckily for them, the United States didn't even come close to conquering the Great White North. At certain critical moments, it seemed as though the opposite might actually happen.

Madison's reputation managed to survive the largely botched war, but it shockingly also gave it an enormous boost. As the fourth volume of "The American Presidents" series claims, the War of 1812 didn't sap the country's morale at all, it instead left it "itching for another fight" and prepared it "psychologically for the use of power." The small unprepared nation had declared war against the might of Great Britain and, though heavily scathed, did not fall. Some sleight of hand helped. Just as war with France distracted Britain during the American Revolution, the United States found Britain once again heavily distracted, this time by Napoleon's ongoing imperial ambitions. Despite this seemingly easy opportunity, the 1812 invasion of Canada failed miserably from Fort Detroit and Canada ended up taking the Michigan Territory. Only a collective thirst for revenge and some surprising naval victories, compliments of the highly maneuverable sail-powered Humphreys frigates, secured Madison's re-election. Much worse would come in his second term.

Madison came to power in 1809 with Jeffersonian Republican ideals, including a distaste for war, which usually implied the "Federalist sins" of debt and taxes. His first two years seemed stalled, especially in his puzzling cabinet selections, which the book considers "as fit for their posts as Benjamin Franklin would have been for the corps de ballet." His secretary of Navy, Paul Hamilton, had a notorious drinking problem, but Madison kept him on regardless. Albert Gallatin split the already fractioned Republicans. Many consider Madison's retention of General James Wilkinson as his worst mistake. Federalists held the Supreme Court. It did not seem like a particularly auspicious beginning. The costly Yazoo land fraud scandals, the 1811 cancellation of the Bank of the United States' charter and an 1810 failed Florida land grab via "revolution" also frustrated the new administration. The book considers Madison "suckered" on foreign policy. He had a strange faith in the almost universally condemned Jefferson-era embargo. His careless boasting that Britain had finally capitulated to it led to Britain's continued impressment of sailors. This hated practice began because the US allowed deserted British sailors on their ships (both countries needed experienced crew members). Madison also thought that Napoleon needed an American alliance, which Britain took as a massive affront. Napoleon, not needing such an alliance, merely played the US and Britain off each other, with Madison as the unknowing and duped intermediary. Following more embarrassing controversy in the cabinet, James Monroe, with his somewhat more hawkish inclinations, came on as Secretary of State in 1811. William Henry Harrison also declared a "self-serving" victory over Tecumseh and "The Prophet" at Tippecanoe in 1811. No one wanted to sag military morale as tensions with Britain rose, so this questionable triumph went unchallenged and gradually transformed into myth. War fever spread and some considered Madison as dragged along helplessly on its inexorable torrent. A declaration of war appeared before Congress on June 1st, 1812. It took two weeks to pass the Senate and no Federalist supported it in the House. The war would change Madison as drastically as it would change the proud nation.

The War of 1812 continued to both overshadow and define Madison's presidency following the close election of 1812 - a month of vote counting in Pennsylvania decided everything. Cabinet changes, including the ousting of Paul Hamilton and William Eustis, just created new tensions. Tsar Alexander initiated peace negotiations in 1813, but Britain, probably still shocked that the US had initiated the conflict, refused to participate. US military losses piled up. Expediency, along with midtern elections, required a victory, any victory, so Secretary of War John Armstrong, Eustis' replacement, chose the relatively easy target of York, now Toronto, which fell on April 27, 1813. Henry Dearborn's troops looted and burned the legislative capital to the ground. Zebulon Pike perished in the assault. Things began to look up, at least a little bit, following Oliver Perry's naval victory at Lake Erie. "We have met the enemy and they are ours," Perry proclaimed. This proved short lived as defeats in New York and Niagara followed. Madison fell back on his favorite method, an embargo, but this fueled dissent among the New England states, who actually began to consider secession. News of victories in Niagara and Plattsburgh clashed with the startling notice of the burning of Washington D.C. on August 24, 1814. Upon hearing of the unexpected invasion of the capital, Madison rode towards the enemy, the last US President to ever face enemy fire, but the militia deserted leaving only an insufficient force at Bladensburg to face an entire British army. The British marched into Washington largely unopposed. Officials stored important documents out of harm's way and First Lady Dolley Madison famously cut the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington out of its frame for posterity. Everything then moved to Baltimore, which finally saw the US making adequate preparations for war. The "rockets' red glare" from British ships never threatened the city itself. Fort McHenry stood firm against the onslaught.

Peace negotiations in Ghent began with British retaliatory calls against the US, but even the Duke of Wellington himself backed down after hearing about losses in Niagara. Both sides appeared to back away slowly from what many now consider an unnecessary war. Andrew Jackson then attained military immortality at New Orleans as he decisively defeated the British in several battles in late 1814 and early 1815. He brought with it a new approach, including imposing martial law and establishing dictatorial powers during the conflict. The book contrasts this with Madison, who did neither. Congress ratified the Ghent peace treaty immediately upon arrival and a mood of joy spread over the country. This seems strange since, as the book points out, the US met none of its war goals. Perhaps the mere fact that it had survived, as the "Star Spangled Banner" suggests, was enough? Nationalism swept the country, with Madison serving as the heroic leader. His cabinet finally came together and the Republican party unified. The election of 1816 would see another Virginia slave owner, James Monroe, rise to the highest office. In the end, the book rates Madison's Presidency in the average to high-average range. It claims that he suffered from a rather shallow provincialism and naiveté and continually underestimated Britain. Despite everything, history does not consider him a failure. He supported religious toleration and enforced separation of church and state, even vetoing questionable government funding of religious buildings. Many praised the war as providing strength, optimism and "newfound glory" for the growing country. Madison retired to his Montpelier estate, served in the Virginia Constitutional Convention and some claimed that conflicting feelings over slavery, including his own guilty complicity, drove him to despair in his later years.

Madison's more acclaimed accomplishments also appear in the book's early sections, including his vital role in framing the Constitution, writing "The Federalist Papers," serving in the House of Representatives, framing the Bill of Rights and the variety of duties he performed in preceding administrations. In the end, the book considers only Washington and Franklin more important founders than Madison, which is quite a claim, though arguably justified. Yet, similar to Adams and Jefferson, his Presidency didn't really measure up to his Revolutionary activities. The introduction attributes this to three factors: Circumstances (Madison was dealt a bad hand); Temperament (he worked better in conventions); Errors (underestimating Britain and his relatively unworldly outlook from never leaving the US, unlike many of his peers). Not surprisingly, the final analysis declares Madison as "a great founder, but not a great President." More generously, the book concludes that, regardless of his Presidential deficiencies, he "did more than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough." Madison lingers on in American historical memory somewhat more obscurely than figures such as Washington, Franklin and Jefferson. "Semi-forgotten," perhaps, but not forgotten.
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