Perhaps it only grew on Madison in later years, but there was definitely a flash, a flicker, an irreverence that radiated from him, which history ignores. For whatever reason, modern scholars have made Madison not only full of thought, which he was, but a stone-faced politician, which he was not; and they have, with comparable ease, rendered Jefferson as the Federalists so often branded him, a confused idealist. — Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, “Madison and Jefferson“
The above passage seems to summarize the general error of history that Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg address in their colossal, that is to say, towering work on a friendship between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that endured for half a century.
Madison, as history has recorded, has been judged as the mostly quiet and stoic political thinker and constitutionalist, while Jefferson is widely thought of as the passionate, if not hyperbolic, consummate republican, always heralding the interests of the Virginian farmer against a potentially overbearing federal government that is always in danger of overextending itself.
Burstein and Isenberg break down these oversimplifications at every step of the way in this 644-page tome, masterful as it may be in its research, could have, I think, accomplished the same goal and expounded on its main thesis in half the time. The last 200 pages through the Monroe and John Quincy Adams administrations get distractedly cumbersome as we plod slowly through a seemingly endless paper trail of letters, mostly intended for private consumption between Madison and Jefferson and other politicians, toward the eventual demise of Jefferson on July 4, 1826 on the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Consequently, the second president, John Adams, gave up the ghost on the same day. If I were a believer in America’s consecration as a “Christian nation” or somehow ordained by the god of Abraham and Isaac, this might give me pause. Also too would this fact: Monroe, the nation’s fifth president, died on July 4, 1831, five years to the day after Jefferson and Adams’ passing.
Nonetheless, the length of the “Madison and Jefferson” does not detract from the fact that it is an important contribution to the legacies of the two presidents. While I find it difficult to believe that previous biographers of the third and fourth presidents have all failed in uncovering and correcting misconceptions about the true personalities and political proclivities of the two men, Burstein and Isenberg do meet the imperishable goal of correcting the lay interpretation of Madison and Jefferson, as they are commonly studied in high school and college. Of course, that being said, I doubt that many lay readers — those who might, for instance, chance to pick up “1776” by David McCullough because they heard it was a good read — would be willing to set forth the time and mental energy necessary to consume such a seminal work, perhaps bedeviling the whole point in the first place. I hope that is not the case, obviously, but in this age of trash fiction and revisionist history, I don’t hold out too much hope for the general public to become suddenly interested in new studies these two American founders. Even people who describe themselves as students of history may get a little frustrated with the length and breadth of this book, for along with the 600-plus pages are more than 100 pages of accompanying notes.
That being said, those who endure to the end of the book will be rewarded with the conclusions contained therein and the way the authors of “Madison and Jefferson” ultimately encapsulate the legacies of the two men. After getting some of the criticism out of the way, let’s look at what makes this work shine.
We begin with the title. In their preface, Burstein and Isenberg said that they did not intend to be ”cute or ironic” in reversing the order of the names from a previous biography of the two men, “Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration” (1950). While they describe the previous work as “a serviceable piece of scholarship,” they said the author gave Jefferson precedence in the title
for the same reason that a beautiful monument was erected to his memory in the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., in 1943. Madison, the dry, distant “Father of the Constitution,” generated little posthumous sentiment.
In reversing the order, the intention was
not to degrade Jefferson as a force of politics — not one iota — but rather to suggest that it is time to reevaluate their relationship and their distinct individual contributions. Popular historians have done precious little with Madison. And while political scientists have boiled him down to his noteworthy contributions to “The Federalist Papers,” the historians who place him within the larger context of party formation have presented Madison as a man unaffected by an emotional life, a man eclipsed by the more magnetic, more affecting Jefferson.
Again, I’m skeptical that all biographers of Madison have ignored the more nuanced parts of his character and personality, and this passage seems to scream for some supporting examples other than a work from 1950, but no notes are given in this section of the preface. I have quoted one passage about Madison’s irreverence and the flashes of flair that, perhaps, could be captured in some of Madison’s more uninhibited moments, but what are some of Burstein and Isenberg’s other claims about Madison and Jefferson?
One can hardly speak of the founder of the University of Virginia and its caretaker after Jefferson’s death without mentioning the subject of religious freedom and the myth that two of the most important founders in American history had any kind of healthy affinity for religion. Rather, they protected religious freedom at every turn. Indeed, Madison, after his friend died, worked to ensure that the University of Virginia remained a secular institution and was not taken over by the pious, and we can also see this in Madison’s ideas on what types of books to include in the future Library of Congress. According to Burstein and Isenberg:
For this purpose, he (Madison) tapped a list of 2,640 books cataloged by Jefferson, which Madison amended and expanded to include numerous titles by radical religious skeptics. Unfortunately, the idea of a Library of Congress was ahead of its time; it would not be established until the last year of John Adam’s presidency.
Further, the authors in the final chapter made it clear that Madison and Jefferson adhered to Enlightenment principles:
… Madison and Jefferson subscribed to the Enlightenment in ethereal form: its adoration of science and philosophy and its treatment of religious dogma as hopeless fallacy; its focus on grand nature and human nature; its teaching that we should privilege rational understanding over passionate conviction.
What about politics? Here, things get murkier. While these two slaveholders obviously fought tirelessly for personal liberty, for American Democracy against the British monarchy and western expansion, they held a rather dim view of the 1 to 2 million slaves and free blacks that were in the nation at the time, and neither Madison or Jefferson ever drew back their support for the untenable solution of black colonization:
No English monarchy or aristocratic body had ever welcomed progress. On the strength of this simple formulation, Madison and Jefferson advocated a republican government that kept power out of the hands of the undeserving and transferred it to new guardians of the public trust. Republican government extended happiness by minimizing taxes and maximizing individual freedom. This is their legacy. But in doing almost nothing to advance the cause of liberty for those enslaved, Madison and Jefferson also knowingly acquiesced to an American tyranny.
In essence, then, the “pursuit of happiness” applied to white happiness. The two presidents were surely smart enough to realize the inconsistently of their own positions regarding black people, but they must be viewed as a product of their times and not ours, and as the authors acknowledge, we would be in error if we attempt to “associate” them with today’s progressive movement, just as we can’t view Hamilton’s notion of a national bank as paving an early path to the modern American economy.
As for their political ideologies, Madison stayed more true to his principles throughout his political career than did Jefferson. The latter, before becoming president touted republicanism and states rights, while maintaining a skepticism for federal power, but as president, he oversaw a huge expansion of federal power, land grabs and initiated the First Barbary War without congressional consent. Moreover, he worked behind the scenes to attempt to destroy the credibility of Aaron Burr, Hamilton (Hamilton unrelentingly returned the favor to both Burr and Jefferson) and others, and as president, Jefferson had Burr arrested on the false charge of treason for filibustering schemes in Mexico, something that the federal government would in essence legalize in order to wrest land away from Spain and the Native Americans. Hamilton and Jefferson had at least one thing in common: they both felt threatened by the talented Burr:
Thomas Jefferson entertained grand expansionist plans, and James Madison was in favor of them all. Neither Jefferson nor Madison was opposed to what Burr was preparing for south of the border. What bothered them, and the president especially, was that Burr, only recently out of government, was already a step ahead. Jefferson, who never doubted Burr’s capabilities, feared that his rejected running mate was in a strong position to reap political gains from his independent efforts.
Jefferson also had a nasty relationship with Chief Justice John Marshall. Burstein and Isenberg again highlighted moments in which Jefferson went too far in his wrangling with political competitors:
The length to which he took his fears resulted in his applying a political litmus test of a most rigid kind. Purging the Supreme Court of Federalists is extreme (and unrepublican) behavior.
The most salient point to take away from “Madison and Jefferson” is that the two presidents are not to be viewed through a hyperbolic lens. They were men with prejudices, flaws and unique strengths like everyone else, some of which history has remembered, some of which we are, perhaps, now only becoming more aware. The failure of history has been to over-highlight some parts of their character while ignoring others. Or, in the authors’ words:
Biography is a tricky thing. Privileging one source over another inevitably alters conclusions. The particular problem among biographers of Madison and Jefferson are those caused by too much license being taken with too little information. As Benjamin Rush said so incisively in 1808, believing in the “great man” theory of history makes as much sense as believing in “witches and conjurers.” The celebratory biographer exists because nostalgia adheres to every generation.
Despite the specific flaws and strengths highlighted in this book, Madison and Jefferson were long-time politicians, yet through all the political rancor, remained long-time friends, and even in their occasional disagreements on policy, they wrote affectionately to each other in their final days. No matter the shrewd and sometimes inconsistent politics in which Jefferson might have engaged during his career, the consistency was an enduring admiration for his friend. To end on a fitting note, Jefferson, approaching his final days, had this to say of Madison in his autobiography:
… he sustained the new constitution in all its parts, bearing off the palm against the logic of George Mason, and the fervid declamation of Mr. Henry. With these consummate powers were united a pure and spotless virtue which no calumny has ever attempted to sully. Of the powers and polish of his pen, and of the wisdom of his administration in the highest office of the nation, I need say nothing. They have spoken, and will forever speak for themselves.