James Madison (The American Presidents Series)

James Madison (The American Presidents Series)

by Garry Wills

ISBN: 9780805069051

Publisher Times Books

Published in Literature & Fiction/United States, Literature & Fiction/Contemporary

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Before the Constitution (1751 - 1785)

We are all creatures of our time and place. But Madison's time and place enmeshed him in especially dense networks of both restraint and support, networks from which he never broke free, since he never wished to be free of them. Though he became very cosmopolitan in his reading and study, there was always a residue of provincialism in him. It came from his desire to remain in the cocoon of Virginia connections woven all about him. His wife, when he retired from the presidency, wanted him to see Paris with her. He went back to his father's home and stayed there the rest of his life, venturing out only once from his own neighborhood, and then only after twelve years had passed, and then only to another Virginia place: Richmond.

The Madison family had held plantations in the Virginia's Piedmont (Orange County) for a century before James's birth in 1751. The currency of influence was the land one held. Social functions were measured in relation to it. Lawyers served by vindicating land titles, politicians by protecting land interests, the professions by providing services to the plantations, the arts by refining their "great houses" as seats of authority. There were no major cities because the nodes of social and economic activity were those great houses. Getting some land counted for little, since there was so much of it. Large amounts of it gave one entry into the informal club that controlled the state's workings. Keeping and expanding one's holdings meant intermarrying within the club. The Madisons had married "up" - into the Taylor, Conway, and Catlett families. The brother of Madison's Taylor grandmother was the father of President Zachary Taylor.

The clergyman who presided over Madison's baptismal font was a relative, and so were the three godmothers and three godfathers clustered around the baby. Madison never moved out of this network of landholding "connections." His wife would later say that they streamed into his plantation by the hundreds. Madison's relatives, at this or that remove, included his namesake, Bishop James Madison, the president of the College of William and Mary (one of Jefferson's scientific collaborators); the legal giant (and Madison's political sponsor) Edmund Pendleton; the agrarian theorist (and Madison's schoolmate) John Taylor of Caroline. The in-law "cousins" included Andrew Lewis, one of Washington's in-laws, and Patrick Henry, his least favorite connection, who was related by marriage to his wife Dolley as well as to himself (K 4-7).

Being embedded in this weave of relationships gave a person a kind of social safety net. Madison grew up in a realm ruled by his namesake-father, who would live until James Junior - called Jemmy to distinguish him from James Senior - was fifty. All that time Madison lived in his father's house, supported even in his adulthood by a father who appreciated his genius. James Senior was the principal slave holder of Orange County - which made him, almost ex officio, justice of the peace, vestryman of the church, and commander of the county militia. These external duties were superadded to his responsibilities for the hundreds of acres and his "family" of 150 or so persons - free, slave, and kindred "subjects" over whom he had authority. A plantation owner had to perform many functions-as fiscal officer, agronomist, director of the commissary (so many shoes and shirts to keep supplying), adjudicator of disputes, dispenser of punishments, and minister of health. In the latter role, Madison's father had to make sure a midwife was always on hand for the many slave births (K 11), and the son was obliged, in his father's absence, to monitor an operation on a slave's tumor (1.190).

The whole system depended on authority and discipline. The master unable to manage this complex operation was soon debilitated by debt, shamed by relatives he let down, or driven to drink. Madison admired the way his father performed his duties. As the eldest of ten children, Jemmy had to set an example, tend his siblings, and uphold his father's authority before relatives and slaves, responsibilities he assumed with entire loyalty. In 1775, as the Revolution began, the twenty-four-year-old Madison became colonel of the Orange County militia, serving as his father's highest-ranking subaltern, drilling and participating in rifle practice (1.153, 163-64). Though it is hard for us to imagine a less convincing soldier than this short frail man, it was just as hard for his neighbors to imagine him not playing that role. He was born to it. In fact, his militia service did not last long, since he was elected in 1776 (age twenty-five) to the colony's revolutionary convention in Williamsburg. He was not re-elected the next year, since the twenty-six-year-old aristocrat disdained the election practice of providing drinks and jollity at the polls. It was the only election he would ever lose. And even then his connections came to his rescue - he was appointed to Governor Patrick Henry's Council.

Madison's revolutionary zeal went along with the authority of his father in these early days of the Revolution. James and his peers insisted on a loyalty oath in Orange County, "that being [said the younger James] the method used among us to distinguish friends from foes and to oblige the common people to a more strict observance" (1.135). This reference to the common people reflects the glee with which Madison boasted to his college friend in Philadelphia, William Bradford, that "a fellow was lately tarred and feathered for treating one of our county committees with disrespect" (1.141). Respect was a big part of Madison's world, even when it had to be violently compelled. He approved of a threat to a parson who had not observed the fast called for by the Committee on Safety: "I question, should his insolence not abate, if he does not get decked in a coat of tar and surplice of feathers" (1.161). That kind of menace, he was glad to say, had made another non-observer "very supple and obsequious" (1.161). At the Virginia Convention of 1776, he voted for a harsh anti-Tory law (five years in prison for disloyal speech), and when he was back in Orange County he tried to apply its full rigor to a man who praised King George (I. 191-92).

There was a touch of Robespierre in this young revolutionary. When Bradford reported from Philadelphia that there was talk of Benjamin Franklin's secret ties to the monarchy, he responded that Franklin must be disloyal if he was not an active informer:

Indeed it appears to me that the bare suspicion of his guilt amounts very nearly to a proof of its reality. If he were the man he formerly was, and has even of late pretended to be, his conduct in Philadelphia on this critical occasion could have left no room for surmise or distrust. He certainly would have been both a faithful informer and an active member of the Congress. His behavior would have been explicit and his zeal warm and conspicuous. We have a report here that [Theodoricl] Bland, one of our delegates, has turned traitor and fled from Philadelphia ... Though appointed a member of Congress, Bland is in needy circumstances, and we all know age is not a stranger to avarice. (1.151-52)

He was as wrong about Bland as about Franklin. But he was willing to call into question even the loyalty of Washington (whom he had never met) for not joining Patrick Henry in an effort to recapture colonial powder taken by the British. Washington's loyalty was suspect because "gentlemen below [Madison's Piedmont], whose property will be exposed in case of a civil war in this colony, were extremely alarmed lest government should be provoked to make reprisals" (1.145). Madison's McCarthyite logic in these days (when he was in his early twenties) is summed up in his claim that "the times are so remarkable for strange events, that improbability is almost become an argument for their truth" (1.152). He displayed a paradox not rare in revolutions, an authoritarian rebelliousness. Some traces of this attitude lingered in his later conviction that Hamilton was a willing agent of England's king.

Madison's lifelong admiration of his father's plantation regimen dovetailed with his own great need for personal discipline, based on concern for his health. His early mentor and relative, Edmund Pendleton, referred to "your crazy [shattered] constitution" (3.172). Late in his life Madison told his biographer, William Cabell Rives, that he had "a constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy and suspending the intellectual functions" (K 51). Modern medicine rules out epilepsy, but Madison clearly felt he had to maintain as strict a regimen over himself as his father did over his plantation. He lived to be eighty-five thanks to that regimen. And he was methodical in preparing his responses to situations beforehand, which meant that he rarely had to improvise on the spot. Even the rare breakdowns of his calm came from the high regard he had for order and stability. He was edgily impatient with those who disregarded or opposed social discipline. His impatience with the states that were not "doing their part" for the Revolution would be a good example of this.


The young Madison's self-restraint almost gave way on one subject. He wrote to William Bradford in 1774 (he was twenty-three): "I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about this, to so little purpose, that I am without common patience" (1.106). He was responding to the imprisonment of Baptist preachers by the established church in Virginia. His sense of order had been offended by the dissolute and idle Anglican clergy, by what he called "pride, ignorance, and knavery among the priesthood" (1.106). He contrasted these priests with the sincere and energetic Presbyterians he had met and admired while attending Princeton. The very reason he had left Virginia for his education was that the colony's own College of William and Mary was run by incompetent Anglicans. The teacher there who had been helpful to Jefferson, William Small, was gone by the time Madison was ready for college, and the school's revival, which would occur with Jefferson on its board, was still some way off in the future.

When the sixteen-year-old Madison finished five years of schooling with a respected Scottish "dominie," Donald Robertson, in King and Queen County, his father brought him back to Orange County for two years. He had reached the normal age for entering college, but James Senior kept him home to monitor his health, and brought in a tutor for him. Thomas Martin, a recent graduate of Princeton, recommended that his pupil go to his alma mater for completing his studies.


Excerpted from "James Madison (The American Presidents Series)" by Garry Wills. Copyright © 2002 by Garry Wills. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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