Tuesday, June 24, 2014

James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham


James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham is a massively large and comprehensive work. My ruminations on its level of detail and why I chose to read it can be found here. Kethcham’s biography is not just filled with facts, but in my opinion it strikes exactly the right balance of analysis and commentary concerning Madison and the era in which he lived.

This is huge book. Its pages are large and the print is small. As I estimated in my previous post, had this book been conventionally formatted, I think that it would run over 1000 pages. I could not help but smile when in the introduction Ketcham apologizes to his readers for his lack of detail and refers those who want more to Irving Brant’s six-volume biography of the America’s fourth President.

First published in 1971, Ketcham’s book has become the seminal Madison biography for those interested in a detailed portrait of the man. Based upon a little Internet surfing on the work, it seems to garner great respect from both academics and lay readers and seems to eclipse more recent shorter biographies of Madison written by popular authors.

Born in 1751 to a prosperous Virginia family, Madison grew up exposed to the best education that the New World offered at the time. For his higher education, Madison attended The College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. This institution was a breeding ground for New Light Presbyterianism and Revolutionary thought in America. Ketcham devotes plenty of pages to explaining how Madison’s intellectual foundations can be traced to his time spent there.  

Beginning before the Revolution, throughout the war, and later in an independent America, Madison served in various State and Pre-Constitution Federal Legislatures. During this time, he gained a reputation as an extremely competent and even brilliant political theoretician and legislator. Ketcham dedicates pages and pages to Madison’s political theorizing, which borrowed and built upon classical and enlightenment thinking.

Madison was indeed a great political thinker. He really came into his own during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which led to the creation of the American Constitution.  Many, including Ketcham, describe him as the Father of the United States’ Constitution. Though I have read other authors, particularly James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, who consider this a bit of an overstatement, he likely had a greater effect upon the final document than anyone else. Many of the most important features of his basic outline for the American Government made it into the Constitution. Madison pushed for a strong Federal Government as well as popular representation over what, at times, was vigorous opposition.  Madison’s blueprint for the American government has had a profound impact down through the present day.

In the fight to get the Constitution ratified, Madison co-authored the Federalist Papers. These works were landmarks in political theory that helped create and shape ideas that still represent some of the cornerstones of modern republics, balanced governments and political theory.

Later Madison continued to serve in various capacities in the Federal Government, from Congressman to Secretary of State. During this time, he married Dolly Payne or Dolly Madison, a vivacious and dynamic woman whose distinctive personality contrasted with Madison’s somewhat socially awkward character. Dolly eventually became one of America’s most popular and famous First Ladies.

In 1809, Madison was elected President of the United States. Serving two terms, this Founder’s time in office was often contentious and was marked by the War of 1812, in which the United States once again came into conflict with Great Britain. Madison’s presidency was also characterized by innovations in finance and infrastructure development that impacted America for decades to come.  Ketcham does not pull any punches, and his picture of the Madison Administration is portrayed as a time of great mistakes that were balanced by some equally great achievements.

After his term as President, Madison enjoyed a long retirement spent at his home in Montpelier, Virginia. Here, like many of America’s Founders, he engaged in a constant correspondence with other thinkers of the time. He also influenced, and sometimes participated in, both Virginia and National politics and the debates that characterized this time.

Madison’s shortcomings are not glossed over. For instance, though he opposed slavery, he could never bring himself to actually free his slaves. He also, while popular with his family and friends, was a socially awkward man.

As I am known to do, I will focus upon just one of many important aspects of Madison’s life. Madison was a vitally important figure, both in terms of his actions and political philosophy. Even if we confine ourselves to just examining Madison’s political philosophy and theorizing, there are too many fascinating and important angles to examine in a single post. Instead, I will spend a few words on just one thread of his political thinking. That is, Madison’s belief in, and championing of, an abundance and diversity of ideas, opinions and interests, especially when those ideas, opinions and interests contradicted each other.

An integral part of Madison’s social and political belief system revolved around the concept that many diverse belief systems could come together to form strong and meritorious ideological governmental and social systems. Madison argued that these conflicting systems would at times counterbalance and at other times complement one another, leading to a strong society and a strong republic. Ketcham writes about this and analyzes this belief somewhat extensively. At one point he describes and comments upon Madison’s viewpoint on this stew of various interests and ideas,

“this would preserve freedom rather then threaten it, because no one interest would control government; each interest – economic, religious, sectional, or whatever – would be a natural check on the domineering tendencies of others. Madison made a virtue of human diversity and neutralized the selfishness of mankind.””

Ketcham details how Madison’s view on this matter grew over time. Madison initially made this argument in relation to religion only, when he advocated and helped to achieve religious freedom in Virginia. Madison believed a variety of groups, including various Christian denominations, Jews and non-religious thinkers should be free to exercise their beliefs without either interference or official support from government. He believed that such a separation of church and state, which was almost unheard of in Europe at the time, would actually strengthen society and religion.

Later, Madison extended these theories to encapsulate a multiplicity of views and interests in society as a whole. Such a variety of ideas would help to create and foster good ones. Even the worst tendencies of human nature would cancel each other out when pitted against one another. Hence, the “neutralization” of “selfishness” that Ketcham refers to in the above quote.

In analyzing modern democracy, we often hear political theorists and commentators observing the virtues of the “marketplace of ideas,” that is, the tendency for free societies to generate lots of ideas, both good and bad. Presumably, the good ideas will compete with the bad ones and win out. Though in my opinion this is not perfect and does not always work in the short and middle term, as some terrible ideas are very popular for what seems like long periods of time, this system does generally work in the very long run. It is indeed one of the engines that powers modern society. In his anticipation of this “marketplace of ideas” (this term actually precedes Madison’s time but in my opinion really achieved its full modern meaning in the twentieth century), as well as his role as an architect of a society that helped to foster such diversity, Madison displayed pure genius.

There is so much to Madison’s life that is included to this very big book. This is not a read for the faint of heart as the detail can be overwhelming, and those who are not as interested as I am may find it a little tedious. Folks who have a great interest in the period, the history of government or of Madison himself will, however, find this an essential and very informative, yet fun, read.





35 comments:

Tracy Terry said...

Sounds like an in-depth read, a great mix of facts and commentary but perhaps too big an undertaken for any but those really interested in the man or his politics.

James said...

A great biography for one of the greatest American thinkers and statesmen. The "diverse belief systems" that he championed sounds like a noble ideal. I am glad that we still have at least a vestige of one of his other noble ideals: The Constitution.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Indeed this one is for the hardcore only :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - His political architecture has had a profound impact on the modern world. I do believe that in out modern world, if one just gets away from popular culture, there are an awful lot of beliefs floating around out there.

Lindsay said...

Great review and thoughts on this one Brian, I feel like I've learned a little about him through reading your comments. I'm not surprised you smiled about what the biographer wrote in the introduction! This sounds very detailed and yet there is a six volume biography if you want more! It sounds like he displayed foresight in some of his ideas.

JaneGS said...

Really enjoyed this post. I actually don't know much about Madison--working my way towards him, but those first 3 just are so compelling.

I was interested in hearing about Madison's belief that diversity of ideas would lead to a stronger society. I do believe this, but in actuality this is difficult to achieve, especially in the modern era when the media can really be controlled by mega-corporations with strong political agendas.

Are you going to read the Brandt 6-vol bio next? :)

Suko said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this book about Madison. I don't know much about him, but he does sound interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lindsay - The six volume biography may be even too much for me!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I actually thing that we are doing fairly good with the marketplace of ideas. Yes, popular culture is fairly narrow. But if we look back at newspapers, television, films and other outlets of the past, I do not believe that diverse ideas were all that available ever.

When we move past the very poplar stuff, if we look at the digital world, or even some of the less popular television and film, I see a world bursting with ideas and opinions.

The six Volume Biography is even beyond my patience!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - He was interesting indeed! A bit under - appreciated too!

Violet said...

Isn't it wonderful that there was someone so dedicated that he produced a 6 volume biography? It sounds as though one condensed volume was quite enough! It takes so much effort to read small print, so well done for sticking with it! :)

Madison sounds like an interesting man. That era certainly produced some great thinkers, although it's a shame he didn't free his own slaves. It's interesting how people can be in favour of a philosophical argument but fail to enact it in real life.

I'm not sure what I think about the marketplace of ideas. In theory is sounds like a good thing, but in practice it could be disastrous for some minority groups? I'm thinking about nationalism, Nazism, etc.

We're having an interesting debate in Australia about a speech that was to be given at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Its title was 'Honour Killings Are Morally Justified', and it was to be given by a Muslim man who supports the idea of an Islamic caliphate. On the one hand, it seems to me that he should have been allowed to speak, so that we could hear what he and his associates' thoughts are. But, on the other hand, we don't have legislated freedom of speech in Australia, so people can't just say whatever they want to with impunity. I doubt the speaker would have advocated 'honour killings', but I think his idea of 'honour' and what that encompasses may have clashed with Western values. I would have liked to know what he had to say but he was shut down, and maybe rightly so because it's a concept absolutely abhorrent to the majority of Australians and could be said to amount to 'hate speech' againgst women. I don't know, but his proposed talk certainly stirred up a lot of public feeling and outrage. See here if you're interested.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I think that the value of ideas competing is shown to work in the very long run. It also works in a society where there are certain safeguards to liberty that are difficult to break.

Unfortunately in the short to medium term, and in societies that do not have long histories of stable, democratic governments, you get NAZIsm and similar ideologies winning out. Though I am often critical concerning our modern culture, society, and governments, I think that this concept has led to the modern liberal democracy, which I think is mostly a good thing (OK, If climate change does us in, I am wrong).

Interesting story. I fall on the side of free speech as long as someone is not advocating violence. However It SEEMS like Badar was not, but I do not know enough to go out on a limb. But I mean "free speech" as in no government interference. If, as in the case of highlighted in the story, a private group choose not to allow him to speak at their event, it is their right to disallow him. The same thing could happen in the US, no violation of free speech.

JacquiWine said...

I'm not a big reader of biographies, but like Lindsay, I feel I've learned something about Madison simply by reading your thoughts and analysis in this post. Enlightening commentary - thank you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Thanks so much.

Even if one were inclined to read biographies this is some long biography.

Naida said...

Not a president I am too familiar with, but this book sounds like a good one for those who are interested in him.
I like that you call this long, detailed book about Madison "fun" though :P

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - What I call fun is a bit odd :)

One reason that he is not so known as President is that I think that his greatest accomplishments occurred before he held the office.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Reading your commentary makes me want to pick up a biography, I haven't read one in ages. It's fascinating to read about the life of a person, especially if we have some background knowledge about the person.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia- Indeed reading about a subject, be it a biography or something else that we already have knowledge of, can be so extra informative.

Caroline said...

I'm not familiar with this president at all but what struck me is that once upon a time a president could be a political man and a philosopher. I'd say this is a tradition that's lost nowadays.
Sounds like this was one hefty tome.
I have to agree with others, you give a great overview.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Thanks so much for your kind words.

Very true, concerning the philosopher politicians.

Gordon Wood has written about this and I think that his theories are mostly correct. They apply to American History but I guess similar things happened elsewhere. Basically, it took a certain kind of group of Philosopher/ Politicians to create the Declaration of Independence, The American Constitution and other aspects of post colonial America. Ironically, The political and social system that these Founders created made it impossible for this kind of Philosopher/Politician ever to come to power in the future.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I've read this post several times over the past week. Great post. The book sounds appealing on one level, and daunting on another. I read a positive review on the Lynn Cheney biography, but I reckon it's not in the same league as this one! I do love Madison, what I know about him. I loved studying him with my daughter for US History. Is there a shorter biography of Madison that you would recommend? Or do you think I could branch out on this one? I do want to read that Jonathan Edwards biography from Yale Press soon too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi -


Thanks so much!

This is really detailed and I would say that one should read it if they really want to dig into Madison, his era and his philosophy and who wants to spend a lot of time reading about these things over one's lifetime. As I mentioned this is my thing, It is REALLY dense!

I have actually not read any other biographies of him and actually had a little bit of a hard time finding one that I wanted to read. James Madison by Richard Brookhiser is really popular these days. It looks good but some folks complain that it is a bit too short. http://www.amazon.com/James-Madison-Richard-Brookhiser/dp/0465063802

Harvee Lau - Book Dilettante said...

A great president. He left us his ideals.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Indeed his ideals have had such an impact upon the modern world.

Andrew Blackman said...

Wow, you've been reading some big tomes lately, Brian! I love a good in-depth biography. I remember reading Robert Caro's massive biography of Robert Moses years ago, and feeling that I understood not only the man but also the city of New York. I think you'd like that, if you haven't read it already.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - Indeed this is a big one! As I allude to in my other post, I think that a book this size is really written for those with a special interest in the particular area.

I had heard that Caro's biography of Robert Moses was really goos and I want to read it. I live on Long Island so many of our local roads and infrastructure were originally "built" by him.

Heidi’sbooks said...

PS I saw this book on the shelf in Barnes and Noble yesterday. I was rather surprised...but my Barnes and Noble has a great history and biography section right at the front of the store. We must have lots of history buffs in my area. I was tempted.....

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Some of those Barnes and Nobles have HUGE history sections with some books that often surprise. I think that lots of folks are reading stuff on the Founders.

vb said...

right balance of analysis and commentary is exactly how I would sum up your blog..It seems this man seemed to be a unique combination of philosophy and politics..Don't you think old brains were good at comprehending everything churning the best from all..I m not sure just a thought

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Thanks so much for your kind words.


Gordon Wood wrote about the political - philosophy mix of America's Founders. His theory is that Madison's generation of people embodied this. Ironically they created a political and social system where such thinker politicians could never get elected to office in the future.

Maria Behar said...

This does indeed sound like a rather daunting read, and I love how you note that it's "not for the faint of heart". Lol. However, even though it is indeed a long work, it also seems to be a fascinating one. Ketcham has apparently dedicated himself to being a staunch supporter of Madison and his political theories, and wants to make sure the reader appreciates his subject's complex personality to the utmost.

Not knowing much about Madison (shame on me, I know....) I'm delighted that he was totally in favor of a diversity of ideas, so that one idea would not monopolize American culture and influence the government of the time. This is a very salutary approach to politics and government, as well as being what characterizes the American culture. I think this is what has always set us Americans apart from the citizens of other countries -- this dedication to a diversity of ideas. It's also what makes us strong as a nation. Far from finding such a concept threatening, we welcome it! It's fascinating to see how the Founders incorporated this concept into the very fabric of the new country's society and government.

I think the concept of the separation of church and state is also an important component of American society, although I don't believe it should be taken as far as it has in recent years, with people trying to actually ban public Christmas displays, for instance. Although it's true that the Founders were for the most part Deists instead of traditional Christians, the fact does remain that Christianity -- especially of the Protestant variety -- is the majority religion in the US. Christian principles have influenced such movements as the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement.

All around, this definitely sounds like a totally engrossing, fascinating portrait of a president who has perhaps not received all the attention he deserves.

Thanks for your excellent commentary, as usual!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for your kind words.


One nice ting about Ketchem's book is that he does point out Madison's flaws too.

I think that Diversity of ideas thing is a great thing. I actually think that our modern digital age is promoting this diversity and is thus beneficial.


I would quibble with you just a bit about displays of nativity scenes on public grounds (Government Property that is):) As I think you know I am very tolerant of religious beliefs. But one important component of democracy is to protect the rights of minorities, such as non believers. Public places are paid for by my tax money I really do not want my taxes or government supporting any religion. I want the separation of church and state upheld. This is true even though I find many Christian values admirable. One thing that Madison and others did point out is that as soon as a religion is promoted by the government, the religion is now open to attack from all quarters. Once my tax money subsidizes religious symbols, religious theology becomes my business. With all this said I do not think that this is high on the list of problems that American's need to deal with.


Thanks for the great comments!

Maria Behar said...

Well, I do see what you mean about government support of a particular religion, but I still think that excessive attention has been paid to these public Christmas displays in recent years. I really don't think that putting a Nativity scene in a public park, for example, constitutes government support of Christianity. To me, government support would mean actually giving tax money to religious institutions.

What I think IS objectionable is the voucher system espoused by Republicans in the case of public education. In Florida, for instance, this was heavily supported by Jeb Bush when he was governor. It's also supported by Marco Rubio. I think this is something TOTALLY out of line for ANY government -- whether state or federal -- to do! If a public school is not meeting state quality standards, then the state government should help said school to meet them, and the best way to do that is to properly fund the school. But since Republicans abhor any type of government support for social causes, they think it's "better" to give parents vouchers so that they can take their kids out of the public school that's not functioning adequately, putting the kids in private schools instead. Many of these private schools are religious schools. THAT I find extremely offensive, and not just because I happen to be a public school employee. It's because any country calling itself democratic and free MUST have a decent public school system. If not, how can people EVER emerge from poverty, and change their lives? The voucher system takes government support away from public schools, giving it to private schools instead.

You know, one day I happened to be listening to the radio while my husband was driving me to work, and this conservative guy (his name is Jimmy Cefalo) on an AM station actually made the following statement: "I have no problem with the private sector entirely taking over education," OMG. I saw RED. HE has no problem! Of course not, since he probably makes very good money. But what about poor families?!

You see, here's where I think that the government is stepping out of bounds. And it's highly ironic, too, considering how Republicans are ALWAYS chastising the Democrats for doing just that -- stepping out of bounds and over-controlling everything.

Well, I'm off my little soapbox now....lol.

I will remain a moderate in my views. Too much to the left, or too much to the right, I think, is not good for any society.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - You can stand on a soapbox here whenever you want as I love thoughtful and engaging discussion. I am really good with controversial issues too!


I agree with there is concerted effort going on to erode public education and it is much more important to preserve the separation of church and state in this areas.

I would like to think of myself as moderate leaning to the Left as I believe that a slow and cautious drift towards a progressive society has historically led to almost all human progress and the flowering of virtue. With that said I believe that America has drifted very far to the Right in recent years, and that The Republican party has become an extremist party. The Democrats have drifted to the Right too. There are almost no true liberals in power anymore

Thus I seem to be much more Liberal then I am, at least by international standards. I also wholeheartedly support the Democratic Party because despite its flaws, I think that it is the best chance of stopping what seems a dangerous shift to the Right.

Thanks again for the great comments!

Maria Behar said...

You're very welcome! Thanks for your own honest opinions, although I may not agree with all of them, and for 'listening' to mine!! : )