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james madison

29 april 2008

James Madison is unquestionably one of the greatest American statesmen: one of the most brilliant writers among the founders, a consummate legislator, one of the few true intellectuals among American Presidents. But he is not considerered that great a President. In David Levine's analysis of those "Greatest President" polls of experts you see every so often, Madison places 13th of 42, in the light-green or pretty-good range instead of the bold green or Great President range. In his contribution to the Times Books American Presidents series, Garry Wills asks why such a great figure was a pretty-good President at best.

Part of it was temperament: Madison wasn't much of a log-roller. His political philosophy was one of logical elegance, not arm-twisting or horse-trading. And he didn't get out much. Unlike the other early Presidents, Madison never visited Europe, never tramped North America with the Continental Army, in fact didn't even spend much time in Washington during his term as President, preferring to hang out in Montpelier and delegate authority.

And then, he chose rotten delegates. His generals in the War of 1812 were barely lucid, let alone competent. Except for James Monroe (War and State) and an increasingly isolated Albert Gallatin (Treasury), his Cabinet appointments were political time-servers, not experts on their departmental portfolios.

And then there was just the bad luck of circumstance. Caught between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, inheriting from Thomas Jefferson a largely ineffectual embargo policy that was largely ignored by New England traders, Madison wasn't dealt a great hand. Nor did he improve it much by trying to continue "nonintercourse" without Congressional support. As a result, he was boxed into a war that he didn't fully understand the reasons for, and certainly couldn't control the course of, just because it seemed like a good idea to go to war against somebody. As George W. Bush has learned, you can grab a war by the tail quite easily; the problem is in the letting go.

After laying out these three factors, Garry Wills tries to explain Madison's failures with various examples. Oddly enough, though Wills is one of the great explainers of popular history writing, in James Madison he doesn't do very well. I am tempted to come up with a list of factors for Wills's own failures here, but that would be somewhat arch, wouldn't it? Suffice to say that some of Wills's exposition (like that about the nonintercourse flap) is impenetrable, and some of his stories (like those of naval exploits during the 1812 War) are quite digressive.

And in the course of writing, Wills actually works his way, unannounced, toward a novel but somewhat unexplored conclusion: that Madison wasn't that bad a President after all. His war was, ultimately, popular outside of New England, and provided the nation with heroes and a sense of unified nationalism that it had never till then achieved during the Constitutional era. (Somewhat ironically, Madison, as Wills points out, didn't intend the centralizing, nationalizing consequences of his war.) Madison left office in good odor; he turned the White House over to a protegé who ushered in the famous "Era of Good Feelings."

The conclusion is an interesting one, because it goes back to that poll issue. I am always somewhat uncomfortable with Great President Polls, because they seem to mix moral and amoral criteria. Lincoln, great, freed the slaves. Polk, great, invaded Mexico and grabbed California. Lincoln's and Polk's opinion of each other? Rather low. Why do they both rank so high?

Madison does OK in the Polls, he did OK at the polls, and he was a popular elder statesman when he left office in 1817. But he was also, as President, a leader who ignored Congressional acts, trumped up a war in which disingenuous propaganda about foreign threats masked a convenient land grab, and ran that war badly, failing to grab any of the land (Canada) he set out to grab. This deserves praise on account of its being popular?

Fortunately, there is a lot to admire about James Madison, though it won't make it into books strictly about his Presidency. He was a matchless constitutional thinker. He fought ably for the Bill of Rights. He was the single greatest advocate for the separation of church and state in American history – a separation that benefits both church and state in uniquely American and still-important ways. Not all war-besotted Presidents have done nearly so much for freedom.

Wills, Garry. James Madison. New York: Times Books, 2002.