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The American Presidents Series: The 4th President, 1809-1817
The American Presidents
Garry Wills; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor
Times Books, April 2002
ISBN: 978-0-8050-6905-1, ISBN10: 0-8050-6905-4,
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 208 pages,
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United States: Colonial to 1860
United States & Canada
New York Times
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.
"Madison's presidency is the most neglected part of his brilliant career, since he was a great constitutionalist but not a great president. Yet it was a presidency interesting in itself, for the waging of the first war under the Constitution, and the problem of putting together the genius of political science and the feckless commander in chief is endlessly fascinating."—
Garry Wills on James Madison
"[Madison] had already composed a brilliant defense of religious liberty, played a pivotal role at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and made an indispensable contribution to a series of essays (
) that served as foundational documents on the United States' constitutional democracy. But it is Madison as the nation's fourth president (1809-17) that is the subject of Garry Wills's short, finely written biography, and his achievements as chief executive are comparatively meager. 'How a man could be so shining in certain aspects of his life and so shadowed in another is not a question often asked,' writes Wills. He not only poses the question but makes his answer the provocative focus of his book . . . Wills's stimulating biography offers us a compelling reason to reconsider the presidency of James Madison."—
James F. Simon,
The New York Times Book Review
"Short and provocative . . . [Wills] presents an evaluation of Madison's successes and failures, finding both . . . And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and naïvete: What Madison had learned from the great minds by reading books allowed him to understand political theory better, perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed. Yet as Wills aptly concludes, 'Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough.'"—
Carl T. Bogus,
"Wills's book is the first volume to appear in the new American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Wills is amazing. He works fast and has the most remarkable range of any writer I know of working in America today . . . He has the admirable ability to read rapidly through masses of material, as he did in preparing this book, and to extract crucial n0 facts from this material and then give those facts his own provocative spin . . . Wills certainly has something interesting to say about Madison's presidency."—
Gordon S. Wood,
The New York Review of Books
"Historian Garry Wills takes on the seeming paradox of this 'genius of political science and feckless commander in chief' in his concise but solid
. . . Wills's books almost always provide a bracingly fresh and clear understanding of the foundations of the American nation and system . . . His new volume throws a similarly clear light on the nature of democratic leadership . . . Wills's crisp analysis of Madison offers thoughtful answers that can illuminate current events as much as they do past history."—
Austin American Statesman
"This relatively brief essay on Madison poses one central question, well worth asking. It is this: Why Madison's greatness as a political thinker—perhaps our greatest—whose moderation often, but not always kept Jefferson on the reservation and the early Union intact was not reflected in his presidency which is often judged to be a failure? That it was a failure is something Mr. Wills will convince any reader. But the reason is more complex and the author is good at laying out that failure."—
The Washington Times
"Wills is especially adept at laying open Madison, showing his strengths and shortcomings, then showing how those traits provided the framework for the presidency to help this country emerge from the war more united and more prepared to take a place on the world stage . . . Insightful."—
The Roanoke Times
"Wills's analysis of the Constitutional Convention and the War if 1812 is particularly fresh and incisive."—
"[A] thoughtful and sympathetic evaluation of the complex character that made Madison a great theoretician of government but a mediocre practitioner of it."—
"Written with flair, this clear and balanced account is based on a sure handling of the material. It should appeal to general readers as well as specialists. Highly recommended."—
T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure University,
"It's tough to write a compelling biography of Madison: though a great politician, he was also a provincial, cerebral and slightly dull man; any account of his life must contain the kinds of dry legislation—the Non-Intercourse Act, Macon's Bill Number 2, for example—that have driven generations of history students to distractions. But Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wills does as good a job as possible in this brief volume . . . Wills is well acquainted with his subject and balanced in his assessments. Madison, 'this unimpressive little man with libraries in his brain,' was the 'Father of the Constitution' and the nation's fourth president. But during an extraordinary four-decade public career, Madison also guided Washington and Jefferson in their presidencies; steered the pioneering Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom through that state's legislature in 1786 and the Bill of Rights through Congress, and helped Jefferson found the Democratic Party. But for all Madison's greatness, Wills nevertheless (and justifiably) judges him naïve, inconsistent, occasionally dishonest, prone to stiff conspiracy in any opposition, and, like so many Southerners of the time, deaf and finally paralyzed by slavery. To Madison's credit, unlike other wartime presidents, he didn't stretch the Constitution or invade civil liberties . . . Madison had 'the strength of his weaknesses,' concludes Wills in this fine, short biography of one of the nation's greatest public servants."—
About the Author(s)
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and cultural critic, and a professor of history at Northwestern University. A recipient of the National Book Award, his many books include
Lincoln at Gettysburg
Witches and Jesuits
, and a biography of Saint Augustine. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
is arguably the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he has been a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He served as special assistant to John F. Kennedy; won two Pulitzer Prizes for
The Age of Jackson
A Thousand Days
(1966); and in 1998 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography,
A Life in the Twentieth Century
, in 2000.
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