Each year around the time of our American Independence Day I try to read a book related to American History. This year I chose Garry Wills’ JAMES MADISON. Madison is thought to be the founding father most responsible for the American attitude toward religion(s): tolerance and acceptance of every religious tradition by assuring that the state establishes no one religion for the nation. (see my blog series based on his collected WRITINGS: Keeping Church and State Separate ) Madison did accept Christianity as the superior religion (probably the religion most in line with the ideals of the Enlightenment). He did believe that ultimately Christianity would be strengthened by not being the state religion but by being the religion people freely embraced. Thus he argued thoughtfully for complete religious freedom – meaning the state stays out of religion and doesn’t impose religion on anyone (see my blog Madison: In Favor of the Separation of Church and State). Yes, he did favor a separation of church and state and opposed the president calling for days of prayer and fasting or of their being government supported chaplains for the military or the congress.
I also had opportunity to watch the wonderful HBO miniseries JOHN ADAMS as I was reading the book on Madison. I found the series to be excellent, really putting humanity on some of the great figures of the American revolution and the founders of our nation, who all too often are thought of as marble statues. What these men and women had to sacrifice in terms of family (and what their families had to sacrifice in terms of their being away at American business!) was very obvious in the miniseries.
(As an aside, I’ve also been listening to the CDs of Professor Mark Steinber’s A HISTORY OF RUSSIA: FROM PETER THE GREAT TO GORBACHEV as I drive in my car. A highly recommended lecture series which gave me the additional dimension of learning about what was happening in Russia at the same as the American Revolution and Adam’s and Madison’s presidencies.)
Wills’ book focuses on the presidency of James Madison (Wills says the common consensus of historians is that his presidency is ranked as merely average for U.S. presidents, but the 2010 Siena Research Institute ranking by presidential scholars shows Madison being consistently listed since 1982 among the top 10 American presidents, ranking as high as 6th). Wills writes critically of Madison and does not hesitate to point out his faults, but in the end writes a highly sympathetic evaluation of Madison as president, claiming his personal faults and foibles both were the cause of the War of 1812, as well as the ways in which Madison’s presidency actually did good for America.
There is little doubt that Madison was a brilliant man and rightfully called “the Father of the Constiution” because of the ideas he contributed to shaping the Constitution and our country as a whole. My reading of Wills is that Madison was also a complex politician. He was considered to be a good legislator (he effectively worked with others in getting things passed through legislatures), but he also was an ideologue and at times allowed his ideology to cloud his thinking and cause him to fail to distinguish between his ideas and reality. The end justified the means in his thinking, and so he was willing at times to deceive, to be duplicitous, to hide his true goals while manipulating others to vote for things he favored. He was willing to appear on different, even contradictory, sides of an issue to secure the support of others, and then worked hard to cover his trail to make sure others didn’t discover the truth about the political games he was playing. His political maneuvering cost him the respect of George Washington who at one time relied on Madison completely. But when Washington discovered that Madison was both duplicitous and dishonorable, he cut himself off completely from his former confidant. Though I had read previously that both Madison and Jefferson worked covertly to undermine the Presidency of John Adams (and Jefferson was his vice-president!), Wills reports that the two of them did the same to President Washington. Both Jefferson and Madison shared ideological leanings and felt subversive methods were needed to support their anti-federalist ideologies. (Read a recent WALL STREET JOURNAL article on The Feuding Fathers and see their graphic E Pluribus Unum? – political polarization was well established by the founding fathers of our nation).
Though Wills notes that Madison was at times duplicitous, and willing to take positions contradictory to previous positions he held as part of his ends justifies the means way of leading, still America emerged a stronger nation at the end of his troubled presidency. Madison endeavored to remain faithful to the constitution which he helped write, though he would by his own actions strengthen the powers of the federal government over the states, an idea which he often spoke against. He was responsible for helping create the Constitution as one of the founding fathers of our nation, and then was responsible for creating a sense of nation and nationalism (as versus individualism, and against the powers of the individual states) as president. He no doubt contributed much to our modern sense of what it means to be Americans and what the United States means to us.
One very anti-federalist quote of Madison long before he became president:
“War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” (1795)