A New York Times Notable Book
The eternal conundrum about James Madison—a key framer of the U.S. Constitution, a formidable political figure, and a man of penetrating analytical intellect and tremendous foresight—is why, when he became chief executive, did he steer the ship of state with such an unsteady hand? Why was this man, whose pre- and post-presidential careers contributed so significantly to the future course of American political history, so lackluster and ineffectual in his tenure as president?
In this concise and readable examination of Madison's life and career, Garry Wills outlines the confluence of unfortunate circumstance, misplaced temperament, and outright poor judgement that bogged down Madison's presidency. Though a brilliant theoretician and effective legislator and collaborator, he was not a natural leader of men, and the absence of leadership was keenly felt during wartime. In fact, the War of 1812 was the first foreign war fought under the Constitution, and Madison was forced to adjust many of the assumptions he had made during the drafting of that document. He had to confront hard, practical issues such as public morale, internal security, relations with Congress, and the independence of the military. Though now remembered in part for fleeing the capital as it was under siege, Madison saw his administration come close to a close with his popularity on the rise.
Madison's later life, neatly traced by Wills, was also of consequence. For two decades after he left office, he remained tightly bound to the political life of the nation, happily playing the role of popular elder statesman, curiously prefiguring so many of our recent presidents.