James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

[Amazon Link]

A biography of the founding father by Lynne Cheney (yes, Dick Cheney's wife). My interest was prompted by Charles Murray's recent book By the People; Murray calls himself a "Madisonian" therein, indicating his agreement with Madison's understanding of the strictly limited powers of the Federal government described by the Constitution. And there was a good review in the Wall Street Journal.

Madison lived from 1751 to 1836. For about forty of those years, he was deeply involved in the invention of our country; it's fair to say that we'd be a different, and probably worse, nation without him. His biography is pretty much a biography of the USA.

Just consider the résumé: an early advocate of American independence; member of the Virginia legislature (1776–1779); delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-1783); delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787; author of many of the Federalist Papers; member of the US House of Representatives (1789-1797); Secretary of State under Jefferson (1801-1809); and US President (1809-1817).

And then he took it easy for a while.

Mrs. Cheney's book is a pretty good history lesson for those of us whose last formal study of the matter was a dimly remembered high school course. I was surprised by a number of things, but mostly by Madison's fervent advocacy of the "national veto", by which the Federal legislature could nullify legislation passed by state legislatures. That idea (weird to my ears today) went nowhere in the convention, and Madison eventually dropped it. Obviously this defeat didn't stop him from becoming a fervent advocate of the version of the Constitution that was eventually produced.

Mrs. Cheney also deftly sketches the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Madison, originally partners in getting the Constitution adopted, only to turn into ideological rivals over its eventual interpretation. Madison considered the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 to be strict limits on Congressional powers: if it's not in the list, guys, you can't do it. (This was also the reasoning behind Madison's initial opposition to including a Bill of Rights into the proposed Constitution; unneeded, he argued, since Congress was limited only to its enumerated powers.)

Hamilton, on the other hand, advocated for viewing the enumerated powers as (mere) examples, while the General Welfare essentially gave Congress a blank check for all sorts of not-expressly-prohibited actions. And, unfortunately, that's where we are today.