James Madison

18 November 2002: James Madison was the last of the Founder-Presidents; he was also the first American president to go war. In Garry Wills's account of his two terms in office, James Madison: President of the United States of America, 1809-1817 (Times Books), Madison emerges as something of a Janus figure, looking back to the idealistic moment when belief in American exceptionalism was the new nation's common coin, and forward to its more hard-headed role as a world power. The War of 1812, which ended in a draw, brought forward not only a generation of military leaders (five of whom would become presidents) but the conviction that the Republic must maintain professional standing armed forces, and this in turn meant that the old Republican dream of a nation of yeoman farmers patterned on Cincinnatus must be laid to rest. 

Like Jefferson, Madison was a passionate Republican, and most of the inconsistencies in his long career can be traced to the struggle between his belief in a firm union and his antipathy to big government. Although he wrote what is arguably the most famous of the Federalist Papers (No. 10), he fell out with Alexander Hamilton early in Washington's first term, and by 1796 he had lost the President's confidence; 'Federalism' was by now the name of a faction, based in the cities of the Northeast and devoted to mercantile interests, that Virginians generally deplored. The gulf that opened up in the 1790s between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians surprised everybody, and its very existence led to apocalyptic exaggeration. Jefferson and Madison were nearly unhinged by their fear and loathing of the worldly Hamilton; both men made surreptitious contributions to the burgeoning Nullification movement (which would have vitiated the Constitution by allowing state governments to decide for themselves whether to recognize and enforce given Federal legislation), and both would have had vastly curtailed political futures had this participation been known at the time. 

Ideology blighted Madison's presidency. Because he regarded Federalists as near-traitors, and because the Republican party was a house divided, the pool from which Madison could draw his cabinet was actually a puddle of incompetents, and Madison himself developed a reputation as a ditherer. He also believed in the efficacy of embargoes. It was his bad luck to govern during the zenith of Napoleon's Continental System, which he was suckered into supporting - support that led directly to war. At the same time, Madison was an assiduous implementer of the Constitution that he had done so much to shape; even in wartime he preserved his administration from anything like the excesses of Adams (the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts) and Jefferson (the use of armed force to impose the Embargo). And he saw to it that business resumed quickly in the wake of the burning of Washington's government buildings in 1814.

Madison will always be more celebrated as a Founder than as a president. Immensely learned and a gifted writer, he excelled at backroom negotiation. He also appears to have been something of a juvenile lead, energetically coaxing his elders, Washington first of all. Small and not particularly healthy, he impressed but did not threaten. Skill at managing older men, however, did him no good when he in turn reached the prime of life; he seems to have taken no interest in the careers that would follow his. His political career ended as it had begun, at a constitutional convention (Virginia's, in 1829). 

The focus on the issues of Madison's presidency allows Wills to draw a useful if sobering object lesson: the vicissitudes that Madison sought to forestall in the Constitution turned out not to be, or not quite to be, the difficulties that confronted him as Chief Executive. Wills's portrait of a great man who was nonetheless not a great president might have done the young Madison himself some good; it will certainly interest all thoughtful Americans. 

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