Carol Berkin is the author, most recently, of “Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.”
By David O. Stewart
Simon & Schuster.
419 pp. $28
David O. Stewart is an acknowledged master of narrative history. He can explain a political crisis or an ideological debate with perfect clarity and exactly the sense of urgency required to capture and hold the reader’s attention. Writing for a general audience, in “Madison’s Gift” Stewart provides a panoramic view of the early republican era, with accounts of James Madison’s role in the Constitutional Convention, the struggle for a bill of rights, the rise of the Jeffersonian party and the War of 1812. As Stewart moves from crisis to crisis, from problem to solution, he emphasizes both the fragility of the American experiment and Madison’s determination to preserve it. The story Stewart tells relies firmly upon the recent outpouring of scholarship on this era, but his fluid writing ensures that he tells a familiar story well.
Perhaps too well. Stewart is so focused on narrating the political, diplomatic and military history of the early republic that we learn little about the quality of Madison’s “partnerships,” as the subtitle calls them, with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and his own wife, Dolley Madison. Stewart devotes only a few sentences to the character and personality of these allies, and touches even more briefly on the differences in personality between Madison and these complex figures.
It is disappointing that he does not tell us how Madison and his political partners negotiated these differences. What allowed the charismatic, passionate Hamilton and the unassuming, restrained Madison to closely collaborate? What made it possible for the highly intellectual Madison to mentor the ambitious and far less intelligent Monroe? The dynamics of these relationships remain unexplored in Stewart’s rush to discuss the events they influenced and those that influenced them.
Stewart is clearly less concerned with the mutual benefits of friendship than with the fruits of collaboration. Madison’s “gift,” it would seem, was his talent for making alliances with those who could help advance his civic goals. This talent allowed him to play a major role in shaping the young republic’s political and diplomatic trajectory, although Stewart exaggerates the centrality of Madison at the expense of factors such as a long-standing Anglo-American political culture based on rights and liberties, abundant natural resources, a natural increase in population, European conflicts and the context of an emerging transatlantic liberal capitalism. Historians, especially biographers, are wise to remember that people make history — but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
Except for his long friendship with Jefferson and his happy marriage to Dolley Payne Todd, Stewart’s Madison seems to lack a gift for genuinely intimate relationships. Yet he had a keen eye for effective collaboration. In Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson he chose men whose attributes complemented his own; their strengths balanced his weaknesses. But these partnerships, built around shared ideology or political goals, abruptly dissolved when goals diverged or views clashed.
When Washington endorsed Hamilton’s financial plans and John Jay’s treaty with England, Madison renounced the president, and the ties between the two Virginians were irrevocably broken. Together Hamilton and Madison made history by pressing for a convention to create a stronger national government. Together they made the case for ratification of the constitution that convention designed. But soon after the new government began to function, Madison rejected Hamilton’s fiscal policies — and a second partnership came to an end. Although Madison mentored the younger Monroe, differences of opinion on diplomacy led to an estrangement that lasted until the two men agreed on foreign policies once again during the War of 1812. That the friendship with Jefferson never faltered is a tribute to their unswerving commitment to the principles of the political party they founded together.
Madison’s only intimate partnership was formed with Dolley, whose gender confined her influence to the informal realm rather than the political one. That Dolley Madison wielded great influence in the early years of the republic has been well documented by historian Catherine Allgor. In “Parlour Politics,” Allgor established Dolley’s critical role in creating a social environment that encouraged compromise and cooperation between Congress and presidents. Dolley’s eclat served Madison well; he may have been a raconteur at his own dinner table, but social skills eluded him outside the doors of Montpelier or the White House. In his sociable, charming wife, Madison found both a valuable collaborator and a true friend. Stewart captures the harmony and devotion that characterized the Madisons’ marriage and gives the reader a portrait of Madison the private man to go with the one of Madison the political animal. Theirs was a marriage that rivaled that of Abigail and John Adams.
The most insightful chapter of this book comes near its end. In “A Sad Blot on our Free Country,” Stewart leaves the realms of friendship and collaboration behind and examines Madison’s long and frustrating internal struggle over the morality of slavery. He details the Virginian’s efforts to reconcile an intellectual rejection of slavery with a practical reliance upon it. Stewart does not spare Madison. He portrays him as a man who knew that slavery was morally wrong but would not take steps to end it, even in his own household. In his old age, he resorted to planter society’s long-standing solution to personal debt: selling off black men and women, destroying black families to benefit white ones. At his death, Madison did not free the slaves of Montpelier.
Throughout much of his life, Madison wrestled with how to produce a politically feasible plan for emancipation. He failed, not only because the cost of freedom seemed prohibitive but also because the integration of African Americans into the existing political and social order seemed impossible. In the end, Madison embraced forced relocation as an alternative. He became an advocate for colonization, supporting the removal of all freed men and women to Africa.
Stewart lays bare Madison’s failure to act on his belief that slavery had no place in a republic and his fear that, if the institution continued, it would destroy the union. Despite this uncensored accounting of a man’s moral weakness, Stewart’s portrait is rich in empathy and understanding. Madison may have lamented slavery, but, as a husband and a stepfather, he saw his first duty to provide for his family. Although he saw clearly and felt intensely the contradictions between the free and the unfree in a nation that lauded liberty, he was also keenly aware that his ability to participate in shaping that nation’s future rested on the shoulders of the people he owned. He did not flinch from the truth of his tragic collaboration with slavery. To Stewart’s credit, he does not flinch from exposing this most enduring of Madison’s partnerships.