James Madison: The American Presidents Series: The 4th President, 1809-1817

James Madison: The American Presidents Series: The 4th President, 1809-1817

by Garry Wills

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A bestselling historian examines the life of a Founding Father.

Renowned historian and social commentator Garry Wills takes a fresh look at the life of James Madison, from his rise to prominence in the colonies through his role in the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the first Constitutional Congress.

Madison oversaw the first foreign war under the constitution, and was forced to adjust some expectations he had formed while drafting that document. Not temperamentally suited to be a wartime President, Madison nonetheless confronted issues such as public morale, internal security, relations with Congress, and the independence of the military. Wills traces Madison's later life during which, like many recent Presidents, he enjoyed greater popularity than while in office.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250105349
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: American Presidents Series
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 411,469
File size: 488 KB

About the Author

Garry Wills 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, Reagan's America, 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 (1946) and 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.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA


St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt

James Madison

By Garry Wills, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2002 Garry Wills
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-10534-9


Before the Constitution (1751–1785)

We are all creatures of our time and place. But Madison's time and place enmeshed him in especially dense networks of both restraint and support, networks from which he never broke free, since he never wished to be free of them. Though he became very cosmopolitan in his reading and study, there was always a residue of provincialism in him. It came from his desire to remain in the cocoon of Virginia connections woven all about him. His wife, when he retired from the presidency, wanted him to see Paris with her. He went back to his father's home and stayed there the rest of his life, venturing out only once from his own neighborhood, and then only after twelve years had passed, and then only to another Virginia place: Richmond.

The Madison family had held plantations in various sections of its native state for a century before James's birth in 1751. The currency of influence was the land one held. Social functions were measured in relation to it. Lawyers served by vindicating land titles, politicians by protecting land interests, the professions by providing services to the plantations, the arts by refining their "great houses" as seats of authority. There were no major cities because the nodes of social and economic activity were those great houses. Getting some land counted for little, since there was so much of it. Large amounts of it gave one entry into the informal club that controlled the state's workings. Keeping and expanding one's holdings meant intermarrying within the club. The Madisons had married "up" — into the Taylor, Conway, and Catlett families. The brother of Madison's Taylor grandmother was the father of President Zachary Taylor.

The clergyman who presided over Madison's baptismal font was a relative, and so were the three godmothers and three godfathers clustered around the baby. Madison never moved out of this network of landholding "connections." His wife would later say that they streamed into his plantation by the hundreds. Madison's relatives, at this or that remove, included his namesake, Bishop James Madison, the president of the College of William and Mary (one of Jefferson's scientific collaborators); the legal giant (and Madison's political sponsor) Edmund Pendleton; the agrarian theorist (and Madison's schoolmate) John Taylor of Caroline. The in-law "cousins" included Andrew Lewis, one of Washington's in-laws, and Patrick Henry, his least favorite connection, who was related by marriage to his wife Dolley as well as to himself (K 4–7).

Being embedded in this weave of relationships gave a person a kind of social safety net. Madison grew up in a realm ruled by his namesake-father, who would live until James Junior — called Jemmy to distinguish him from James Senior — was fifty. All that time Madison lived in his father's house, supported even in his adulthood by a father who appreciated his genius. James Senior was the principal slave holder of Orange County — which made him, almost ex officio, justice of the peace, vestryman of the church, and commander of the county militia. These external duties were superadded to his responsibilities for the hundreds of acres and his "family" of 150 or so persons — free, slave, and kindred "subjects" over whom he had authority. A plantation owner had to perform many functions — as fiscal officer, agronomist, director of the commissary (so many shoes and shirts to keep supplying), adjudicator of disputes, dispenser of punishments, and minister of health. In the latter role, Madison's father had to make sure a midwife was always on hand for the many slave births (K 11), and the son was obliged, in his father's absence, to monitor an operation on a slave's tumor (1.190).

The whole system depended on authority and discipline. The master unable to manage this complex operation was soon debilitated by debt, shamed by relatives he let down, or driven to drink. Madison admired the way his father performed his duties. As the eldest of ten children, Jemmy had to set an example, tend his siblings, and uphold his father's authority before relatives and slaves, responsibilities he assumed with entire loyalty. In 1775, as the Revolution began, the twenty-four-year-old Madison became colonel of the Orange County militia, serving as his father's highest-ranking subaltern, drilling and participating in rifle practice (1.153, 163–64). Though it is hard for us to imagine a less convincing soldier than this short frail man, it was just as hard for his neighbors to imagine him not playing that role. He was born to it. In fact, his militia service did not last long, since he was elected in 1776 (age twenty-five) to the colony's revolutionary convention in Williamsburg. He was not re-elected the next year, since the twenty-six-year-old aristocrat disdained the election practice of providing drinks and jollity at the polls. It was the only election he would ever lose. And even then his connections came to his rescue — he was appointed to Governor Patrick Henry's Council.

Madison's revolutionary zeal went along with the authority of his father in these early days of the Revolution. James and his peers insisted on a loyalty oath in Orange County, "that being [said the younger James] the method used among us to distinguish friends from foes and to oblige the common people to a more strict observance" (1.135). This reference to the common people reflects the glee with which Madison boasted to his college friend in Philadelphia, William Bradford, that "a fellow was lately tarred and feathered for treating one of our county committees with disrespect" (1.141). Respect was a big part of Madison's world, even when it had to be violently compelled. He approved of a threat to a parson who had not observed the fast called for by the Committee on Safety: "I question, should his insolence not abate, if he does not get decked in a coat of tar and surplice of feathers" (1.161). That kind of menace, he was glad to say, had made another non-observer "very supple and obsequious" (1.161). At the Virginia Convention of 1776, he voted for a harsh anti-Tory law (five years in prison for disloyal speech), and when he was back in Orange County he tried to apply its full rigor to a man who praised King George (1.191–92).

There was a touch of Robespierre in this young revolutionary. When Bradford reported from Philadelphia that there was talk of Benjamin Franklin's secret ties to the monarchy, he responded that Franklin must be disloyal if he was not an active informer:

Indeed it appears to me that the bare suspicion of his guilt amounts very nearly to a proof of its reality. If he were the man he formerly was, and has even of late pretended to be, his conduct in Philadelphia on this critical occasion could have left no room for surmise or distrust. He certainly would have been both a faithful informer and an active member of the Congress. His behavior would have been explicit and his zeal warm and conspicuous. We have a report here that [Theodoric] Bland, one of our delegates, has turned traitor and fled from Philadelphia. ... Though appointed a member of Congress, Bland is in needy circumstances, and we all know age is not a stranger to avarice. (1.151–52)

He was as wrong about Bland as about Franklin. But he was willing to call into question even the loyalty of Washington (whom he had never met) for not joining Patrick Henry in an effort to recapture colonial powder taken by the British. Washington's loyalty was suspect because "gentlemen below [Madison's Piedmont], whose property will be exposed in case of a civil war in this colony, were extremely alarmed lest government should be provoked to make reprisals" (1.145). Madison's McCarthyite logic in these days (when he was in his early twenties) is summed up in his claim that "the times are so remarkable for strange events, that improbability is almost become an argument for their truth" (1.152). He displayed a paradox not rare in revolutions, an authoritarian rebelliousness. Some traces of this attitude lingered in his later conviction that Hamilton was a willing agent of England's king.

Madison's lifelong admiration of his father's plantation regimen dovetailed with his own great need for personal discipline, based on concern for his health. His early mentor and relative, Edmund Pendleton, referred to "your crazy [shattered] constitution" (3.172). Late in his life Madison told his biographer, William Cabell Rives, that he had "a constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy and suspending the intellectual functions" (K 51). Modern medicine rules out epilepsy, but Madison clearly felt he had to maintain as strict a regimen over himself as his father did over his plantation. He lived to be eighty-five thanks to that regimen. And he was methodical in preparing his responses to situations beforehand, which meant that he rarely had to improvise on the spot. Even the rare breakdowns of his calm came from the high regard he had for order and stability. He was edgily impatient with those who disregarded or opposed social discipline. His impatience with the states that were not "doing their part" for the Revolution would be a good example of this.


The young Madison's self-restraint almost gave way on one subject. He wrote to William Bradford in 1774 (he was twenty-three): "I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about this, to so little purpose, that I am without common patience" (1.106). He was responding to the imprisonment of Baptist preachers by the established church in Virginia. His sense of order had been offended by the dissolute and idle Anglican clergy, by what he called "pride, ignorance, and knavery among the priesthood" (1.106). He contrasted these priests with the sincere and energetic Presbyterians he had met and admired while attending Princeton. The very reason he had left Virginia for his education was that the colony's own College of William and Mary was run by incompetent Anglicans. The teacher there who had been helpful to Jefferson, William Small, was gone by the time Madison was ready for college, and the school's revival, which would occur with Jefferson on its board, was still some way off in the future.

When the sixteen-year-old Madison finished five years of schooling with a respected Scottish "dominie," Donald Robertson, in King and Queen County, his father brought him back to Orange County for two years. He had reached the normal age for entering college, but James Senior kept him home to monitor his health, and brought in a tutor for him. Thomas Martin, a recent graduate of Princeton, recommended that his pupil go to his alma mater for completing his studies. This was a great boon to Madison, and to the country he would serve. John Witherspoon, from Scotland, was just finishing his first year as president of the college. He supplied his pupils with up-to-the-minute reports from the Scottish Enlightenment, which was at its peak of intellectual excitement. Madison's great respect for "the Doctor," as he always called Witherspoon, nearly equaled that for his father. Thanks to Madison's tutoring at home, he was able to finish the regular Princeton course in two years, but he stayed on for an extra year of private study with Witherspoon, who sent him back to Virginia with an ambitious program for further reading (1.89). Madison went into a period of private study that delayed his choice of any career until the Revolution pulled him from his cabinet.

Perhaps more important than the formal studies he completed at Princeton was the experience of a setting where religious freedom was practiced and defended. The school proposed to educate with "free and equal liberty and advantage of education any person of any religious denomination whatever" (K 30). Despite his patriotism toward Virginia, Madison had to admit that his own colony lacked the vital freedom of religious thought and practice. In his close circle of friends at the school were several who entered, or considered entering, the Presbyterian ministry, and he admired and kept in touch with them for years. They visited his father's plantation and were allowed to preach in the Anglican stronghold of Virginia (1.136). Madison even went to Philadelphia in 1774, when the Presbyterians' annual synod was taking place, to see the friends assembling there (1.113).

His Princeton experience was not limited to his three years' residence at the college (1769–72), since he kept up a correspondence with his classmates for years, and had important later dealings with some of them (like Philip Freneau). The Princeton/Presbyterian network was an overlay placed across the Virginia web of connections. The interaction in his mind of these apparently contradictory systems can be seen in the typically Virginian way Madison expressed Presbyterian values.

If the Church of England had been the established and general religion in all the northern colonies as it has been among us here, and uninterrupted tranquility had prevailed throughout the continent, it is clear to me that slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us. (1.105)

Like his peers, Madison uses a rhetoric of slavery totally unrelated to the real slaves he owned. For him, slavery meant any retrenchment of the rights he felt entitled to as a member of his ruling class. What made him different from many Virginians was that he included religious freedom among the rights his people deserved. It was a new item in an old category of privilege.

Only one of Madison's Princeton friends had the foresight to keep a register of their correspondence with Madison, but we are lucky that the one who did, William Bradford, lived in Philadelphia. Madison pestered him with repeated questions on the way religious disestablishment worked in Pennsylvania. He wanted a copy of the colonial charter, "a draft of its original and fundamental principles of legislation, particularly the extent of your religious toleration" (1.101). He congratulated Bradford on freedoms that Virginians did not enjoy, and asked him to "pity me and pray for liberty of conscience [in Virginia]." He was reaching one of his deepest convictions: "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect" (1.112–13).

When the twenty-five-year-old Madison was elected to the Virginia Convention, he demonstrated for the first time what would be his greatest strength in committee, prior preparation. The convention was drafting Virginia's trailblazing Declaration of Rights, under the guidance of its principal draftsman, George Mason. The article on religion said "that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." This was considered the liberal position, based on Locke's treatise on toleration; but Madison had already moved beyond it. His reflections on the contrast between Virginia's and Pennsylvania's systems had made him realize that the state has no right to "tolerate" the free exercise of conscience, any more than it has the right to limit that exercise. The proposal of this young little newcomer was written into law as Article XVI, asserting that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience (1.175). Madison was defending a natural right, one (as he would later put it) "not within the cognizance of civil government" (8.301).

Madison's views on religious freedom are the inspiration for all that was best in his later political thought. This was the first subject to which he devoted his prodigious capacity for research and reflection. But private study was not the only factor in this brilliant legislative debut. In this case, his position grew out of actual experience — unlike some of his later schemes. The time at Princeton had disturbed one crucial aspect of his provincialism. He had seen the difference between Presbyterian divines in New Jersey and Anglican priests in Virginia. Some modern critics of Madison's separation of church from state think it is a "secularist" position, one that somehow downgrades or disables religion. On the contrary, he observed the greater sincerity of religious practice under conditions of freedom. This became a touchstone for him of the blessings of freedom in general. It was a religious insight before it was a political one. And his view has been vindicated in the history of the United States. Under our system, which separates church and state, religion has flourished more than in any modern industrialized society.


Excerpted from James Madison by Garry Wills, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. Copyright © 2002 Garry Wills. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Editor's Note,
Key to Brief Citations,
Introduction: The Problem,
I. Pre-presidential Years (1751–1809),
1. Before the Constitution (1751–1785),
2. The Constitution (1786–1788),
3. Three Administrations (1789–1809),
II. The Presidency: First Term (1809–1813),
4. Policy and Personnel (1809),
5. Domestic Affairs: The Partisans (1809–1816),
6. Foreign Affairs: Suckered Twice (1809–1810),
7. Maneuvering into War (1811–1812),
8. To Conquer Canada (1812),
9. Frigates and a Fresh Start (1812),
III. The Presidency: Second Term (1813–1817),
10. Peace Overtures and Professionalism (1813–1814),
11. Washington and Baltimore (1814),
12. Maneuvering Out of War (1814–1815),
13. Assessing the Presidency (1815–1817),
Epilogue: The Legacy,
Selected Bibliography,
About the Author,
Also by Garry Wills,
The American Presidents Series,

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James Madison 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book "James Madison" (as well as the others in "The American President Series") does not pretend to be an all inclusive biography. Rather, its purpose is to focus on the presidential years of James Madison. Garry Wills effectively accomplishes this by dividing the book into three parts. The first third of the book focuses on Madison the man including his many roles and accomplishments prior to assuming the presidency in 1809. Wills effectively gives the reader an understanding of Madison's personality, strengths, and weaknesses. This introduction is the framework for the next two sections - divided by terms of office. Wills' organization and presentation of the material is highly effective. His writing style makes the reading enjoyable. The reader is left with a satisfaction of knowing a bit more about one of our founding fathers but also with a thirst for learning more. One suspects that the purpose of the series is to stimulate greater interest in each president and period of U.S. history. To that end, Gary Wills succeeds admirably.
Prop2gether on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found Gary Wills's writing to be highly distracting in this biography. He was sometimes writing as a "pal"--'Remember when..." and sometimes as a critic and, more rarely, as a political historian. He made an important president (our first war was fought under him) distinctly boring. Wills relies heavily on annotated materials from other sources, which, while well-written in themselves, only point to missing language in Wills's book. The good news is the book is short and concise, and has a lot of history between its covers.
cyderry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book, IMHO, does not do justice to either the man or the era in which he served, glossing over a number of critical aspects and continually stressing other aspects.He was a great legislator but not a very competent executive. He had flaws which he apparently didn't recognize, or if he did was not willing to correct.He involved this nation in an unnecessary war simply because he would not recognize his own limitations as an executive and was constantly trying to protect his own political party as well as listening to the advice of Jefferson rather than making his own decisions. If I had to rank his abilities according to the information provided in this book, I would not be impressed with Madison in the slightest. However, I am willing to proceed to another more definitive biography before I make my final evaluation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AWFUL, LIBERAL AND BORING BOOK! The author acts like he is some bourgeois Professor and spends the whole book BASHING Mr. Madison. He hardly gives any attention to him writing the Constitution, and no mention of the Marbury v. Madison judicial review court case that involved him, just citing boring documents and while this is a short book, it took forever to read and was dull and boring. Wills talks like he is above all of us and as a college Political Science Professor, I would never subject my class to reading such a biased and inaccurate book on a President. This series has better books as I found the book on William Henry Harrison more interesting and easy to read. This is a slop of garbage that never ends and whether Wills wants to admit it or not, Madison was a great President and Founding Father. This is a book written by a liberal ideologue that is plain garbage.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago