No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements threatened the enterprise, it was Madison’s calm logic to which the others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had “the most correct knowledge” about government affairs.
And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a distinguished political scientist wrote, “The Federalist is the most important work in political science that has ever been written, or is likely to be written, in the United States,” and that Madison’s contributions shine the brightest.
And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution–which, had they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn–it was Madison’s cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.
Madison’s place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation’s fourth President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of Garry Wills’s short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?
Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison’s presidency “dreadful.” Wills does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison’s successes and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W. Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).
Wills’s strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a “hapless commander in chief.” Nevertheless, Wills’s examination makes me wonder whether, out of deference to Madison’s other accomplishments, historians are being unduly charitable to his presidency.
The defining issue of Madison’s tenure was the War of 1812. Some historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a “War Hawk Congress.” Others, however, including most prominently Ralph Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America into a war for which it was ill prepared.