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A sweeping reexamination of the Founding Father who transformed the United States in each of his political “lives”—as a revolutionary thinker, as a partisan political strategist, and as a president
“In order to understand America and its Constitution, it is necessary to understand James Madison.”—Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci
Over the course of his life,James Madison changed the United States three times: First, he designed the Constitution, led the struggle for its adoption and ratification, then drafted the Bill of Rights. As an older, cannier politician he co-founded the original Republican party, setting the course of American political partisanship. Finally, having pioneered a foreign policy based on economic sanctions, he took the United States into a high-risk conflict, becoming the first wartime president and, despite the odds, winning.
Now Noah Feldman offers an intriguing portrait of this elusive genius and the constitutional republic he created—and how both evolved to meet unforeseen challenges. Madison hoped to eradicate partisanship yet found himself giving voice to, and institutionalizing, the political divide. Madison’s lifelong loyalty to Thomas Jefferson led to an irrevocable break with George Washington, hero of the American Revolution. Madison closely collaborated with Alexander Hamilton on the Federalist papers—yet their different visions for the United States left them enemies.
Alliances defined Madison, too. The vivacious Dolley Madison used her social and political talents to win her husband new supporters in Washington—and define the diplomatic customs of the capital’s society. Madison’s relationship with James Monroe, a mixture of friendship and rivalry, shaped his presidency and the outcome of the War of 1812.
We may be more familiar with other Founding Fathers, but the United States today is in many ways Madisonian in nature. Madison predicted that foreign threats would justify the curtailment of civil liberties. He feared economic inequality and the power of financial markets over politics, believing that government by the people demanded resistance to wealth. Madison was the first Founding Father to recognize the importance of public opinion, and the first to understand that the media could function as a safeguard to liberty.
The Three Lives of James Madison is an illuminating biography of the man whose creativity and tenacity gave us America’s distinctive form of government. His collaborations, struggles, and contradictions define the United States to this day.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Three Lives of James Madison
The Argument: In college, Madison forms the pattern of intense friendship that will come to shape his political vision of the constitutional republic.
¶As a southerner and an Anglican at mid-Atlantic, Presbyterian Princeton, Madison develops the interest that will bring him into public life and give him an almost accidental public career: religious liberty. As fervor for independence grows, Madison develops a distinction between religious dissent among Protestants who share common commitments, which should be protected as an absolute good, and Loyalist opposition to independence, which deserves to be suppressed because it threatens the political commitment to independence.
¶The Revolution gives Madison the chance to participate in writing the Virginia state constitution when he is just twenty-five. There Madison makes his first public mark, an improvement of the religious liberty provision. His career as a constitution designer and public official is launched.
He came to New Jersey for the air. Arriving at Princeton in the autumn of 1769, James Madison, Jr., found something unique in the North America of the time: a college offering both entrée into the European republic of letters and the ideas of the Enlightenment and a close-knit community of smart, ambitious young men intent on forming lasting friendships and getting ahead in the world. For the eldest son of a wealthy Virginia plantation owner, educated privately by tutors, this was the true start of his life.
Madison’s eyes were a clear green, his hair was dark, and he was perhaps five feet five inches tall. Neat and tidy, he looked younger than his eighteen years. Like his peers, he thought of himself as a British subject.
Yet Madison was different. His classmates mostly came from the mid-Atlantic colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Madison was a Virginian from the Piedmont. The college was a Presbyterian institution teaching students from a range of dissenting Protestant denominations. Madison was a member of the Church of England. The students, who rarely had independent means, aspired to careers in law, medicine, and the ministry. Madison, heir to four thousand acres and well over a hundred slaves, was a gentleman by birth. Indeed, he came up to Princeton accompanied by a slave named Sawney, whom his maternal grandmother had left to him in her will.
What made Madison most unusual was his profound sense of intellectual purpose. For many students, friendship was the most important focus of college life. Educated young men in late eighteenth-century America often spoke and wrote to each other of their great mutual affection. Declarations of passionate friendship, even love, were not considered unmanly. Madison had come to Princeton to learn, and his friendships reflected that priority. In his first year at the college, he formed a close bond with a Philadelphian named Joseph Ross, who had arrived the year before. Attracted to the challenge of intense study together, they decided to try to accomplish the next two years of required coursework in just one year.
Together, Madison and Ross experimented with how little they could sleep—and got themselves down to five hours a night for weeks at a time. Constantly in each other’s company, and constantly reading, the young men succeeded. Madison received his degree as bachelor of arts after just two years. This total commitment to a common project formed a paradigm for Madison’s friendships that would persist throughout his life. Sixty years later, he would downplay the accomplishment. But he still remembered Ross. And he was proud enough of what they had done together to say they had learned more in one year than they would have in the more usual two or even three years’ study.
Madison also became seriously ill in the process—a result, he believed, of the exertion. At commencement in 1771, Ross gave an English oration entitled “The Power of Eloquence.” Madison was too sick to attend. He did not leave Princeton early, but ended up spending his third year there convalescing, reading, and studying according to his own interests, not for a degree.
Alongside his studies, Madison allowed himself to have a little fun. He belonged to the Whig Society, a debating-club-cum-fraternity of which Ross was a founding member. The Whigs engaged in “paper wars” with another club, the Cliosophic Society. Madison himself wrote three long, humorously insulting poems in one such war. The poems include sophomoric rhymes involving scatological humor (“Urania threw a chamber pot / Which from beneath her bed she brought / And struck my eyes and ears and nose / Repeating it with lusty blows”) and sex (“[She] took me to her private room / And straight an Eunuch out I come”).
Yet despite humorous references to friends’ whoring, pimping, drinking, and swearing, Madison was well behaved and mainly serious. The president of the college, John Witherspoon, Presbyterian minister, philosopher, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and someone whose own seriousness was beyond question, told Thomas Jefferson a few years later that “in the whole career of Mr. Madison at Princeton, he had never known him to say or do an indiscreet thing.” Jefferson considered the comment so funny that he liked to tease Madison about it.
What Madison learned in college, much of it from Witherspoon himself, would influence the course of his thinking for the rest of his life. The students lived together in Nassau Hall, a massive structure that was the largest stone building in North America. Above the great hall, two stories high, used for prayer and lectures, were a library and forty rooms for students. The kitchen and dining room were just below ground. Although the hall would have been dwarfed by even the more modest university colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, by American standards, it was something special.
Madison arrived with strong Latin and workable Greek, both of which he continued to study in college. He had also been taught French by a Scottish tutor in Virginia. Except for Witherspoon, no one else at the college knew French, and it was not a subject of instruction. As Madison later recalled, one day a French visitor arrived at Princeton to see the president. Witherspoon was not at home, and Madison, the only other French speaker, was called to the president’s house to entertain the visitor. On meeting the Frenchman, Madison discovered, to his intense embarrassment, that he could neither understand spoken French nor make understood in it.
Fortunately, instruction at Princeton went well beyond language. Witherspoon and the tutors he employed started with the classics and works of contemporary theology that dominated the curriculum elsewhere. But Witherspoon’s lectures and assigned readings took the students into the heart of the most exciting intellectual event of the time: the Scottish Enlightenment.
Witherspoon came by this knowledge firsthand. A conservative, he made his academic reputation in his native Scotland by criticizing the philosopher Francis Hutcheson, who had himself taught Adam Smith and influenced David Hume. Remarkably, Witherspoon’s critical attitude toward the Enlightenment, without which he would never have been made president of Princeton, did not mean he neglected the importance of the movement. In his lectures on moral philosophy, which all Princeton students attended, Witherspoon quoted Hutcheson more than any other thinker. He never mentioned the towering philosopher and skeptic Hume without reproach, and Hume appeared not on the assigned reading list but on a list of outsider readings. Yet Witherspoon did discuss Hume’s views, and it would have been obvious to any student hearing the lectures that this was a figure whose work he had better read. As a result of Witherspoon’s leadership, Princeton for outstripped Harvard and Yale, at the time more parochial in their teaching.
It was Madison’s good luck that he happened into Princeton and Witherspoon’s intellectual orbit. Ordinarily, a young man of Madison’s origin and wealth would have gone to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where Jefferson had studied a decade earlier. In a brief autobiographical sketch written many years later, Madison gave two explanations for why he had instead been sent to New Jersey. One was that his private tutor during his teens, the Reverend Thomas Martin, had studied at Princeton, as had his brother Alexander Martin. They recommended their alma mater for Madison.
The other was the climate. Madison’s Virginia was not the Tidewater region in the eastern part of the state, already famous for its tobacco plantations, but the hills of the Piedmont farther west. In the era before germ theory or the recognition of mosquitoes as vectors of disease, explanations for illness depended heavily on geography. Hot, humid air was thought to be dangerous. Madison explained that the air of Tidewater Williamsburg “was unhealthy for persons going from a mountainous region” like the Piedmont, who were presumed more likely to become ill in an unaccustomed environment—and may conceivably have had less immunity to some diseases by virtue of less exposure.
Throughout his life, Madison felt he had a propensity for getting sick. As a result, he protected himself as much as possible from places and activities thought to produce disease. The care he took would sometimes have negative effects, chiefly in convincing Madison that he should not travel abroad. In the choice of Princeton, however, this concern had only fortunate consequences. It opened broader intellectual vistas than he would otherwise have encountered so early in his life. Perhaps most important, the fact that Madison, baptized an Anglican, received his education from Presbyterian ministers at a Presbyterian institution awakened in him an early and enduring interest in the protection of religious dissent.
An Obscure Corner
After commencement in March 1772, Madison was called home to Virginia to serve as a tutor for his younger siblings Nelly, William, and Sarah, ages twelve, ten, and eight, respectively. His brothers Francis and Ambrose, then nineteen and seventeen, had not gone to college, and were not suitable for the role. Madison had tried to find a classmate who would be willing to assume the post of live-in tutor while he was at college, but no one would take it. Without any definite professional plan, and with his family’s educational needs unmet, Madison had no reason or excuse to remain at Princeton, or for his father to support him there.
Going back to Virginia meant leaving a world of intellectualism and camaraderie for what Madison called, in a letter to a close Princeton friend, William Bradford, “an obscure corner.” The family farm in the Piedmont, not yet called Montpelier, featured a large, comfortable brick house with a fine view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But Orange County, Virginia, was a backwater compared to Bradford’s Philadelphia, which Madison rightly called “the fountain-head of political and literary intelligence” in North America.
Life proceeded according to the regular rhythms of agriculture. The plantation, administered by James Madison, Sr., produced barley, wheat, and corn. Slaves did the field work, performed domestic duties around the house, and participated in the gradual expansion of the buildings on the property. The forms of slavery were well established from the standpoint of the slaveholders, and Madison did not then have much occasion to question them.
There were no active local newspapers in the county. Religion consisted primarily of the established Church of England. The nearest parish church was some seven miles away. Madison’s father was a vestryman, a wholly respectable, well-off member of the local society. Deference to such men was normal in the Virginia of the day. Madison himself, despite his youth, expected and received similar deference from the family’s neighbors.
Apart from educating his brothers and sisters, Madison’s primary responsibility once home was to figure out what to do with his life. Not that the task was pressing. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Madison to continue in his father’s place, running the plantation, time reading as he might want to read, and eventually starting a family of his own: in short, following the quiet life favored by many Virginia gentlemen.
Madison missed college—and his letters from when he came home in 1772 until 1774 suggest a kind of post-graduation ennui. In a letter to Bradford, Madison spoke nostalgically of the days when they “were under the same roof” and Bradford “found it a recreation and release from business and books to come and chat an hour or two” with Madison. By contrast, Bradford’s letters to Madison are full of energetic, detailed analysis of whether Bradford should pursue law, medicine, or business. Bradford wanted his older friend’s advice as he evaluated his own character, intelligence, strengths, and weaknesses. He eventually chose law, which had been his preference from the start. In commercial Philadelphia with its culture of Quaker usefulness, there was no question of Bradford’s simply doing nothing.
On Madison’s side, no such soul-searching appeared. He told Bradford that he himself intended “to read law occasionally,” and that he would welcome any recommended readings on the topic because they would doubtless afford “entertainment and instruction.” He explained that “the principles and modes of government are too important to be disregarded by an inquisitive mind” and, he thought, “are well worthy [of] a critical examination by all students that have health and leisure.” Madison, in other words, had a general intellectual interest in law and legal institutions, but little desire to become a lawyer. He made no mention of medicine or business, each of which would have been an unusual choice for a Virginian of his class. He spoke highly of a career in the church, though without any indication that he thought of becoming a minister himself.
Madison did express a religious point of view in telling Bradford about his dissatisfaction with the London book reviews. He read them to keep up with the world of letters, but he found “them loose in their principles [and] encourage[r]s of free enquiry even such as destroys the most essential truths.” The reviews were also “enemies to serious religion,” he added. This moralizing tone, conspicuously absent from Madison’s later writings, provides an important clue to the single subject that actually seems to have excited Madison in the course of his readings. The young Madison took religion seriously. This interest would eventually blossom into a career that would shape the nation.
The subject that most animated James Madison was the freedom of religion and the question of its official establishment. On December 1, 1773, after numerous letters in which he had asked William Bradford for nothing except news of his friends and information about the latest interesting books, Madison finally requested something specific. Once Bradford had sufficiently studied “the constitution” of his “country”—meaning the organizing laws of Pennsylvania—Madison wanted him to send “a draft of its origin and fundamental principles of legislation; particularly the extent” of the colony’s “religious toleration.” Pointed questions followed: “Is an ecclesiastical establishment absolutely necessary to support civil society in a supreme government? And how far it is hurtful to a dependent state?” Although he insisted that he was not asking “for an immediate answer,” Madison told Bradford that when he had “satisfied” himself “in these points,” Madison “should listen with pleasure to the result of” his research.
Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the author of six previous books, most recently Cool War: The Future of Global Competition. He is a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University and a columnist for Bloomberg View.