When looking back on the founding of the United States, some prominent names tend to rise to the top in the discussion of history: Washington, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and, most notably, Jefferson. Some will call upon Thomas Paine. Still others who spend more time invested in history will mention Patrick Henry. Somewhere amongst these names, someone is likely to bring up James Madison. His is a name that carries its share of weight, but few understand the true depths of his contributions to the founding of the nation. With JAMES MADISON AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, Kevin Gutzman has raised a glorious standard to illustrate and illuminate the importance of Madison and why he may be unfairly overlooked and buried in the shadow of Jefferson.
"On the whole, JAMES MADISON AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA is an impressive book. Gutzman makes history easy to read and keeps the expected dry boredom of reliving the 1700s at bay, making them vibrant and exciting, as they no doubt were to the people who lived them."
This is not an all-encompassing biography. Though it does begin with Madison’s birth in 1751, it very quickly steps its way into his political life in Virginia. Gutzman's ability to keep his focus here is necessary and rewarding. By page eight, the American Revolution is already beginning, and Madison is unable to join due to an infirm nature. Still, he put his young political skills to work as a junior member of the Virginia Convention of 1776, where Virginia would formally draft a state constitution and profess independence from Great Britain. During the debate and drafting of this constitution, Madison made a key recommendation for modification, one that would have resounding impact for the future of Virginia and, ultimately, the United States.
George Mason, senior member and widely respected learned man of Virginia, had drafted a section on religion calling for "fullest toleration." Madison felt that toleration was not strong enough and instead offered to amend the wording to include no compulsion to any religious action and that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." Madison's version was unanimously accepted by the convention, and by June 29, 1776, the Virginia Constitution would be ratified. By 1780, Madison would find himself a Congressman and desperately trying to ensure that George Washington and his soldiers would not starve as they fought the British.
The real meat of the book, however, deals with the two conventions: the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the Richmond Convention of 1788, where Madison would argue for ratifying the new Constitution of the United States, which was also the point of his involvement in The Federalist, which he wrote with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Gutzman immerses the reader in these conventions and unfolds the heated drama of the debates, but also the cleverness of Madison and others in their abilities to compromise and craft arguments to win their point. Over the course of 50 pages, Gutzman plainly displays the political wrangling Madison would undertake in convincing Virginia to sign on with the new Constitution, against the vehement protests of George Mason and Patrick Henry.
The Constitutional Convention is even more in-depth, covering 80 pages. Here, Gutzman shows Madison as the driving force in the debate, standing at the forefront of the Convention. Set on establishing a republican form of government, Madison spoke over 200 times and was always ready and prepared to answer questions and engage in debate. He also took the unofficial minutes of the Convention, and they are the only real documentation of what took place. While he did not write each line of the US Constitution, he was largely involved in nearly all elements of its drafting. During his time in Congress under the Articles of Confederation, Madison grew so frustrated with the inept nature of the Articles that he sought to push for a new Constitution. He settled down and wrote the Virginia Plan, which was presented to the Constitutional Convention on the first day. The ultimate work of the body collected for debate was to alter, amend, and fill the gaps of the Virginia Plan and create their new Constitution. Thus Madison, who did not write word for word the document on which our country governs, wrote the skeleton of that work, and is rightfully called the Father of the US Constitution.
With ratification complete and the new government in place, Madison would once again rise to the fore in the First Congress, submitting for approval what we know to be the Bill of Rights. It also includes a discussion of Madison and Jefferson's attempts to nullify burdensome and constitutionally questionable laws via the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These Resolutions offered that the government was expanding its own federal power and circumventing the law established in the Constitution, and in doing so would bring down the republic. These areas of the book are fascinating, of course, but given short shrift. Here the pace picks up once more, taking less than 100 pages to speak to Madison's life and work as Secretary of State, President, and his retirement and death.
If one were to have any problem with the book, it may be with Gutzman's frenetic pace with the early and later parts of Madison's life. However, when one remembers that the title of the book clearly stipulates the making of America, it is possible to forgive this. Other quality biographies exist that give greater attention to the presidency of Madison.
On the whole, JAMES MADISON AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA is an impressive book. Gutzman makes history easy to read and keeps the expected dry boredom of reliving the 1700s at bay, making them vibrant and exciting, as they no doubt were to the people who lived them. With this book, the foundations of America are laid open for examination, and the specific work Madison undertook to bring about the glorious new nation with a republican-style government gets the attention it properly deserves.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on March 2, 2012