THE PRESIDENCY OF JAMES MADISON

By Robert Allen Rutland

University Press of Kansas. 233 pp. $25

For those inclined to find fault with him, there are two James Madisons. James the Good was a small man possessed of a powerful, analytic mind and tireless devotion to a just and workable political system. After serving in the Continental Congress during the Revolution, he saw the need for a strong and stable central government, figured out how such a system could be applied in the New World, and in 1787 pretty much gave us the Constitution. Modern America's debt to James the Good is monumental.

James the Bad was a States' Rights Southerner. The federal system he did so much to establish had hardly begun to shape the nation when this James repudiated federal power. With his friend Jefferson he invented the Republican Party in an attempt to frustrate the executive branch's ability to raise money, to maintain any army or navy. He was dead set against any national banking system or the use of the general welfare clause of the Constitution to permit the federal government to do anything, even build roads and canals.

James the Bad seemed to lose James the Good's astonishing powers of accurate political analysis. As President Jefferson's secretary of state he convinced himself that the British, then fighting a world war with Napoleon, would stop interfering with our shipping if we punished them with a total trade embargo. The embargo was supposed to keep us out of war as well, but as American ships rotted in harbor and trade declined, it proved ineffective on both scores. After taking office as president in 1809 James the Bad so badly misread both the intentions of Napoleon and the British that in 1812 he found himself obliged to declare war on Great Britain anyway.

James the Bad was no kind of war leader. He had trouble coping with his Congress, his armed forces (highly politicized by his party), his Cabinet, his generals, his feckless secretary of war and all of New England, whose leaders threatened to make a separate peace with the British.

It was not until near the end of President Madison's second term that James the Good showed his head again. The haplessly conducted war had, all but miraculously, ended happily for the infant United States. Before retiring to Montpelier to worry ineffectually about slavery, Madison began to talk of the need for a national banking system like the one he'd opposed. He also decided that even a peaceable republic needed money to maintain adequate armed forces.

This rough caricature -- first codified by historian Henry Adams a century ago -- remains true enough so that anyone who hopes to make Madison a hero while limiting the discussion to his White House years has a hard row to hoe. But Robert Rutland is clearly the man for the job. He was for 17 years the editor of the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia and has written a handful of scholarly and readable books about Madison and his period. "The Presidency of James Madison," his brief, rather conversational biography (part of the University of Kansas Presidency series), is full of lively details about a presidency carried on with almost no staff, at almost no public expense, at a time when it could take more than a month for diplomatic exchanges across the Atlantic. If it doesn't really succeed in changing the Madison caricature, that is partly because the author, though intensely partisan, is also intensely fair-minded, a rare quality that he shares with James the Good.

He admits that Madison at first tried to conduct a war without taxes and was wimpish with Congress about his Cabinet choices. He concedes that Madison was foolishly over-patient with his hopeless secretary of war, John Armstrong, a gullible believer in the usefulness of militia and the widespread notion that we could take Canada pretty much by walking over the border. He observes that Madison was, with Jefferson, the architect of a pre-war foreign policy vis-a-vis France and England that failed miserably. As explanation and excuse Rutland insists that Madison believed in diplomacy rather than fighting, had never been personally involved in war, and above all did not want to endanger the Union by expanding, or even unduly exerting, the powers of the presidency, no matter what the wartime risk.

Madison's scruples were real, all right, though citation of more heart-searching private notes or letters in support of these points would help a good deal. In the end, though, defending Madison's presidency on the ground of the president's pure motives leaves Rutland, as critic Randall Jarrell once said of poet John Crowe Ransom's affection for the vanishing South, "full of an affection that cannot help itself for an innocence that cannot help itself." In a president, in a world at war, innocence and misjudgment are likely to have unfortunate consequences. In the War of 1812 they did. It was mainly British distraction with Napoleon, some victories by a U.S. Navy that Madison and Jefferson had tried to drown at birth and a miraculous last-minute peace that saved President Madison's reputation.

The reviewer is a member of the editorial board of Smithsonian magazine.