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 Presbyterianism and KetchamCollege of New Jersey, later New Light
Ketcham dedicates pages and pages to Madison’s political theorizing, which borrowed and built upon classical and enlightenment thinking.
Ketcham, describe him as the
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.
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.