BOOKS OCTOBER 26, 2011
by Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, 287 pp., $26.99
GO TO THE homepage of the Federalist Society, and you will discover that its logo is a profile of James Madison. Whether Madison (as opposed to, say, Hamilton) is the best icon for this celebrated consociation of conservative lawyers and law students could be subject to some dispute. Madison’s revealing proposal, in 1787, to give Congress the power to negate state laws, which he wanted to use to protect individual and minority rights, could just as easily qualify him as a trademark for the ACLU. His criticisms in the 1790s of presidential abuse of the powers of war and diplomacy hardly accord with neo-conservative doctrine or the take-no-prisoners constitutionalism of Dick Cheney and his legal saber, David Addington. Yet Madison’s profound awareness of the difficulty of constitution-making reveals a conservative sensitivity to the dangers of the experiment he had just pioneered. Some of Madison’s writings on representation echo themes that we associate with Burke, whom intellectually grounded conservatives so deeply admire, even while American conservatism now appears to be plunging into a know-nothing vacuum that its modern pioneers, such as the late William Buckley, would have abhorred.
With his long association with Buckley’s National Review, Richard Brookhiser might seem the best writer available to explain why Madison might be a conservative icon. Brookhiser has become a major player in the literary-historical cult of “founders’ chic,” and by my count this is his eighth contribution to the trade. Yet portraying Madison as a conservative of foundational stature is not in fact the path that Brookhiser takes. For one thing, interpretation in any serious sense of that term is at best a modest feature of this book: much of it is simply a narrative into which Madison is made to fit. Reading this book is another reminder of the differences between the respective approaches of journalists and scholars to the same life. Brookhiser’s biography may be the quickest-paced biography I have ever read. Knowing the background (as a scholar must) left me either gasping or gaping at how quickly Brookhiser can reduce significant points to the shortest statement possible. Indeed at points his biography struck me as a sort of adult version of the Landmark Books I was reading by third or fourth grade (back around the time that Mr. Cub started playing shortstop at Wrigley Field).
Brookhiser saves his central argument for his final pages, and it might have been wiser to bring it out more explicitly much earlier, the better to explain the latent emphasis of his effort. Madison left two legacies, Brookhiser suggests. One is the manifest legacy—the monument of “American constitutionalism,” Brookhiser calls it, just as Sir Christopher Wren made St. Paul’s Cathedral, his burial site, his monument. This means not merely the primal documents (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, The Federalist) with which Madison is associated, but also “the laws of doing and not doing, and all the debate and revisions they have generated.” Here Madison is the author of the documents and modes of constitutional argument that give our tradition its underlying form. But Madison’s “other monument, coequal if not greater,” Brookhiser concludes, “is American politics,” meaning “the behavior that makes constitutionalism work.” This is the Madison who, even more than his ally Jefferson, constructed the first political party system of the 1790s, and who came to understand that the dominant force in republican politics was a public opinion that one could both educate and manipulate. This Madison is manifestly a political actor, making contingent decisions good and bad, and not simply a serious intellectual—arguably America’s greatest political thinker—whose legacy lies in the Constitution, its first ten amendments, and his twenty-nine essays in The Federalist.
Between these two points, there seems little doubt which one Brookhiser prefers as his real subject of interest. His treatment of Madison’s dominant role as the constitutional founder of the 1780s is, if not perfunctory, quickly dispatched. The major disputes that scholars still agonize over virtually disappear from his glib account. Almost exactly a century ago, Charles A. Beard and, in a different way, the early pluralist social scientists, made Madison’s Federalist 10 the ur-text of American constitutional thinking. That interpretation was effectively refuted by Douglass Adair in two famous essays written at mid-century. Ever since, platoons of historians and political scientists have made the republican Madison—and not Madison the co-chair of the Republican party—the creative genius of American constitution-making. This was the Madison who argued, against “the celebrated Montesquieu,” that large republics would prove more resistant to the “mischief of faction” than smaller ones, and that republican citizens, though hardly wallowing in depravity, would possess the same interests, passions, and self-confirming opinions as other ordinary mortals. Many conservative writers, following the late Martin Diamond, emphasize Federalist 10 as the model of a commercial republic, a society in which the ancient republican quest for virtuous, self-denying citizens yielded to a more modern conception that took the pursuit of self-interest as a more accurate norm.
Little if any of this interpretive stuff surfaces to disrupt Brookhiser’s narrative. Since Brookhiser does not carefully examine the broader context from which the Constitution emerged, or Madison’s efforts to make sense of the politics of the 1780s, his account cannot accurately describe how and why Madison’s analysis really mattered. To take one example, Brookhiser rightly emphasizes Madison’s interest in having Spain open the Mississippi to American navigation in the 1780s and in gaining American control of Florida later. But nowhere does he explain that the sharply sectional divisions which arose over John Jay’s efforts to negotiate a commercial treaty with Spain at the expense of southern expansion led Madison not only to worry that the Union might devolve into two or three regional confederacies, but also to start speculating about the problem of “factious majorities” that proved so essential to his constitutional thinking in 1787. Nor does Brookhiser have much to say about Madison’s disillusionment with state-based lawmaking in the 1780s, which was equally important in formulating his constitutional agenda. “What could he do with such clods?” Gordon Wood once quipped about Madison’s view of his fellow Virginia legislators. That theme is largely absent from Brookhiser’s book.
Yet as Brookhiser rightly observes, Madison was not (to quote Federalist 37) “an ingenious theorist” speculatively producing an ideal constitution “in his closet, or in his imagination.” Brookhiser’s engaged Madison could be “wrong and stubborn” on particular points, but “these are flyspecks against his patience and energy, learning and savvy. He lost arguments and he changed his mind.” Brookhiser is absolutely right to portray Madison as a politician whose leading ideas were driven by events, who did his best thinking precisely because he was responding to events, decisions, personalities, and elections.
Madison did not think of himself as a political writer. The very fact that he contributed to The Federalist was an accident of his decision to remain in New York as a delegate to Congress rather than return to lead the ratification campaign in Virginia. Brookhiser calls attention to the very different, slimmed-down essays that Madison wrote as a tentative platform for the Republican opposition in 1792. He errs in claiming that “Madison scholars spend relatively little time” on these essays, especially after Colleen Sheehan’s excellent book on Madison’s ideas of public opinion that places these “party essays” front and center. Yet Brookhiser also demonstrates the extent to which Madison the party-founder of the 1790s was actively conjuring up avenues of political competition that he might have abhorred only a few years earlier.
In assessing American politics after 1789, Brookhiser balances a residual profound respect for Madison’s general abilities with ample criticism of many of his positions. Like most commentators, he thinks Hamilton had a much better grasp of economic and foreign policies than his main detractors, Madison and Jefferson. When it comes to assessing their claims, in 1798, for a residual state role in protecting the Constitution against Federalist infringements, Brookhiser unleashes his editorial quill. Madison’s position in the Virginia Resolutions, alleging that the Federalists were edging toward monarchy “was, to speak plainly, nuts,” while Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions read the Constitution “like a divorce lawyer combing through a prenup.” Nice quips, but judgments such as these can never provide an adequate account of why people in the past acted as they did. Nor does it do much good to characterize their positions as “paranoia,” or to describe their attitudes toward Britain as Anglophobia. Those are descriptions, not explanations; and while they give the narrative a lift, they do little to clarify our understanding of the politics Brookhiser wants us to take seriously. The real challenge is to explain how the apparent abuse of executive power in the 1790s would have suggested that Federalist theories of executive power had monarchical elements, or to understand why the Virginians could have plausibly believed that Britain was a predatory power, even if Jefferson and Madison allowed the country to be snookered by the French.
Even with its journalistic flourishes, Brookhiser brings an admirable appreciation of the political realities in which Madison operated to every chapter, and that appreciation in turn reflects his own incisive grasp of Madison’s significance. “We will not find complete consistency in his career,” Brookhiser concludes, and “we should not look for it.” Politics is always too surprising, too dynamic, to allow that to happen. But so what? “It should be enough for us that a great mind gave it his best thoughts for as long as Madison did.”
Jack Rakove is writing a book called A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison.