Saturday, August 13, 2005

Garry Wills' Account of James Madison's Presidency

Garry Wills is one of our most eminent living historians. The scope of his interests and the depth of his scholarship dealing with those interests --from Saint Augustine to John Wayne, from Abraham Lincoln to Roman culture, from MacBeth to understanding what makes America American--is breath-taking.

To read his books is to know that Wills was always the smartest kid in school and though sometimes hints of hubris show, as in his book Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, which might have profitably explored various types and antitypes of leadership but devolved into a kind of silly subjectivity, for the most part his books are insightful, literate, and enjoyable. I have never finished reading a Garry Wills book and felt that I hadn't learned a lot...and more than just facts. Like all great historians, Wills provides logically-derived reasons behind the events, trends, and the plots of the life-stories he chronicles.

Lincoln at Gettysburg, for example, is simply one of the best books I have ever read. In it, Wills shows the relationship of the speech by the classically-oriented Lincoln to the great funeral orations of antiquity. He also shows how Lincoln, always most at home in the wifty nether regions of the mind where nasty reality could not impose itself, crafted his amazing piece of prose-poetry, framing a reason for a Civil War that, until that point, neither he or anyone else had compellingly presented. Finally and most impressively, Wills shows that for the first time in post-Articles of Confederation American history, the Declaration of Independence and not the Constitution, was seen as the basic social compact out of which the United States was birthed. That has changed America's view of itself and given it a surer sense of what's called American Exceptionalism, the notion that the country is more than a swath of geography, that America is about something.

Wills' book on Washington, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, should be required reading for anyone who would understand America.

Knowing all this, I was excited to learn that Wills was to author the volume on James Madison in The American Presidents Series, under the general editorship of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. When completed, these books will present short portraits--usually running from 150 to 170 pages--of the administrations of each of our presidents.

Schlesinger's choices for the volumes have been nothing short of inspired. Roy Jenkins, distinguished British parliamentarian and biographer of Winston Churchill, has produced the volume on Franklin Roosevelt. John Dean, counsel to the disgraced Richard Nixon and native of Marion, Ohio, has written the book on a disgraced native of Marion named Warren G. Harding.

I've not yet read those two volumes, although I hope to do so soon. But before reading Wills' book on Madison, I had read Hans L. Treffousse' work on Rutherford B. Hayes, a volume that may be so burdened by the author's consciousness of the general readership's ignorance of Hayes that at times, in the effort to inform, becomes bogged down in a recitation of facts that may or may not be important. Robert Remini's book on John Quincy Adams is more satisfying. But he seems so intent on villifying the sixth president's mother and her influence on his life, that the book becomes difficult at times to read.

But in his book on Madison's presidency, Wills has hit a homerun. Maybe that's because Wills has a restricted goal for this narrative and sticks to it. While giving an overview of Madison's life before becoming president and a brief look at the twelve years he lived after stepping down, Wills' goal is to look at what sort of president Madison was, at his successes and his failures, and the reasons behind them.

He convincingly shows that Madison, the master of legislative negotiation, whether at the Constitutional Convention or as an early leader in the US House of Representatives, was not really an executive. This accounts for so many failures of leadership on Madison's part.

He also shows that it was Madison, with certain ideas about England and the capacity of America to bring that imperial power to its knees, as well as a desire to take Canada, who pushed the US into the ill-advised War of 1812. With a few exceptions, America lost that war on land and sea and yet, through the surprising diplomacy of America's three representatives at the peace negotiations in Ghent, the nation emerged stronger and more self-assured than it had been previously.

In fact, Wills asserts that, contrary to his and Jefferson's principles, Madison led the United States to adopt such decidedly un-Jeffersonian notions as a standing army, military and naval academies, internal improvements, a national bank, and so on.

Wills' Madison-as-president sometimes reminds me of the fictional character I once saw profiled in Life magazine. The guy had been an incompetent at every post he'd held in industry and government, but somehow kept landing further upstairs. Somehow, he haplessly landed on his feet time and again.

But of course, Madison is no incompetent and Wills acknowledges his brilliance--as a scholar of government and a legislative tactician.

He also points to what a preserver of the Constitution Madison was. Of course, he had a huge stake in its preservation as its primary author. But he, along with his co-conspirator Thomas Jefferson, had often sought to undermine it. Not when he was president though. This is all the more remarkable because, for more than two years, Madison presided over the nation in time of war. Wills claims, and with good reason, that no President--not Lincoln, not Wilson, not Franklin Roosevelt--showed more respect for the rule of law or the rights of citizens during war time than Madison.

At the conclusion of this wonderful book, Wills presents us with this touching appreciation of Madison:
Madison's claim on our admiration does not rest on a perfect [philosophical] consistency, any more than it rests on his presidency. He has other virtues...In discussing his presidency, I had to leave out larger achievements. Among this nation's founders, only two were more important--Washington and Franklin...As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer--James Wilson came in second, but by a long distance. The finest part of Madison's performance as president was his concern for preserving the Constitution. As a champion of religious liberty he is equal, perhaps superior, to Jefferson--and no one else is in the running. Even if he is to be considered merely as a writer, only Jefferson and Franklin were manifestly greater stylists. No man could do everything for the country--not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough.

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