Book Review: James Madison by Garry Wills

July 17, 2010

I borrowed this book from the local library.

I set a goal to read, in order, all of the biographies of the presidents of the United States who have passed away.

  • 184 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069054

This short biography of James Madison focuses on his time as president of the United States – imagine a biography of Miguel de Cervantes focusing on his time as a soldier in a Spanish Navy infantry regiment.

James Madison was a great theorist, extraordinary writer, cunning politician and an effective legislator – but as president he was simply “good”.  Madison was never counted as one of the great presidents and author Garry Wills acknowledges as such in the opening of the book.  As a matter of a complete biography this approach, in my mind, is the opposite of what it should be.  Wills points this out and follows with a clear, clean and interesting biography focusing on Madison’s administration.

The book is divided into five parts:
–    Introduction
–    Pre-Presidential Years(1751 -1809)
–    The Presidency: First Term (1809-1813)
–    The Presidency: Second Term (1813-1817)
–    Epilogue: The Legacy

Wills hits the highlights and low lights of Madison’s time in office.  The author lauds the president for trying extremely hard, and succeeding, in not to abusing the Constitution during the War of 1812 (something which could not be said for his successors such as Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and others) but balances those with such behavior as Madison’s quixotic paranoia about such people as Alexander Hamilton.

James Madison, even though short, is written in an academic style.  Information is being sent at the reader fast as if you were reading a textbook – just data without the spicy anecdotes which make a biography worth reading.  I still don’t feel I know Madison’s personality or what, if anything, did the lively Dolly Madison saw in him (besides some rich guy from Virginia).  I’d rather read the long, more paced biographies that give me a complete picture of the person.Please leave a comment if you agree or disagree with my review, or just to say hello.

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More Books by Garry Wills*

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5 Comments

  • Violette Severin July 17, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Hi, I found your blog from the Book Blogger Hop and am now a follower of your blog. Re the James Madison book, I am surprised that Madison was just an OK President given everything that he did to found this country. I am interested in reading more about him now that I have heard this opinion of his Presidency.

  • Man of la Book July 17, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Hi Violette, Welcome.Madison did a lot for the country before he became president. He was the principal author of the Constitution hence the nickname "Father of the Constitution". He also wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers (allong with Alexander Hamilton – probablly the smartest founding father and John Jay). Madison, while in the House of Represintatives also worked closly with Washington to organize the new federal government and as Jefferson's Secretary of State he supervised the Louisiana Purchase (James Monroe negotiated the purchase as ambassador to France, but Jefferson recieved virtually all the credit).All that, before he was president. That's what I meant when I said that a biography of Madison focusing on the presidency is like a biography of Cervantes focusing on his time as a soldier in a Spanish Navy infantry regiment.

  • Carin B. July 23, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Hmmm…I wonder if there is a better biography of Madison out there since you just seem so-so about this book. I would like to start reading about our presidents, but I haven't started yet. I'll keep this one in mind just in case I can't find another one.

  • Man of la Book July 24, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Carin B. yes there are several better biographies of Madison. I was under time pressure because we are going on vacation this week and are visiting Madison's house (as well as Jefferson and Monroe).

  • Jessyca November 27, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I had to read the book for my world history class. We had a book review to do over anyone born before 1940. I chose James Madison because I knew he was extremely influential and would be great to read about.

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