James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, by Lynne Cheney. New York: Viking, 2014. 564 pp. $36 (hardcover).
With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 now past, historians and the general public are only scratching the surface of a flood of new books on the war and the president who supervised it, James Madison. Dr. Lynne Cheney, the wife of former vice president Dick Cheney and holder of a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has contributed a new full-length biography of the republic’s fourth president.1
Aside from the recent anniversaries associated with important events in Madison’s long public career and the war, Cheney argues that Madison warrants yet another comprehensive examination to counter widespread misconceptions about the diminutive father of the Constitution as a meek and mild leader. Cheney argues that Madison was “the political equivalent of Mozart” during the traditionally defined “great” period of his career (the 1780s and very early 1790s); and that, as president (1809–1817), and without “precedent to guide him,” he demonstrated “that a republic could defend its honor and independence—and remain a republic still” (pp. 7–8). In the age of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the like, considerations and reconsiderations of Madison—a man intimately associated with limited government, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the first declared war under that institutional framework—appear in order.
Cheney’s book aims to make a scholarly contribution to the field of Madison and early Republic studies and to do so in a way that can be appreciated by the wider reading public as well as academics. Despite the name of the author, it is clear that Cheney is not trying to write a Republican Party version of Madison’s life. Her arguments and conclusions about Madison’s virtues, ideas, and achievements have no direct application to the present except by inference. She does not use the example of Madison to condemn the political culture she is so intimately familiar with. Rather, Cheney reconsiders Madison’s life by visiting all of the well-known episodes and trials of the life and career of the fourth American president. Consequently, in addition to being a biography of Madison, the book may serve as a readable introduction to the major events, issues, and personalities involved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of American history and the ideas that motivated the revolutionaries.
Regarding Madison himself, Cheney does her most impressive scholarly work on his earliest years, focusing on the young Madison’s health issues and the development of his ideas during the American Enlightenment. . . .
You might also like
1. Lynne Ann Vincent Cheney, “Matthew Arnold’s Possible Perfection: A Study of the Kantian Strain in Arnold’s Poetry” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1970).
2. Lance Banning, The Sacred Fired of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).
3. Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
4. J. C. A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).
5. Irving Brant, James Madison, six vols. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941–1961).
6. Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971).
7. James Madison, The Federalist Papers 20, edited by Isaac Kramick (New York: Penguin, 1987), p. 172.