“Madison’s Gift,” by David O. Stewart

“Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America”
By David O. Stewart

419 pp., Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by Márcia Balisciano
Founding Director, Benjamin Franklin House, London

James Madison’s gift, referred to in the title of David O. Stewart’s impressively researched biography, was his ability to partner with others to ensure that a fledgling nation found stability in uncertain times. In exploring his relationship with five pivotal figures – Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Dolley Madison – he also reveals Madison’s many gifts. In particular, his “profound yet affable brilliance,” which he translated into studied and reasoned analysis, and quiet, yet heartfelt, oratory in order to realise a Constitution and a national government, marked by the peaceful transition of power and adequate defence in war.

Stewart masterfully weaves the chronology of Madison’s life into the story of how Madison engaged with his partners, who each imparted something he lacked.

Hamilton – commanding presence

Alexander Hamilton, Stewart points out, showed that raw talent could get you far in the new America. Born in the Caribbean to a father who ran off when he was ten and a mother who died shortly after, he did not have a promising start. Showing talent as a trading house clerk, local leaders sent him to mainland America for formal education, where he would eventually attend what became Columbia University. With the outbreak of war, he joined the Continental Army where he came to the attention of George Washington who elevated him to aide-de-camp.

From this vantage point, Hamilton became convinced that the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to function properly, not least in its ability to collect tax and pay soldiers’ wages.

Madison and Hamilton met when they served in the Continental Congress and found themselves kindred spirits, though according to a visiting Frenchman, Madison “can be more profound than Mr. Hamilton, but less brilliant.”

In 1786, both attended a meeting in Annapolis on interstate trade. It was their opportunity to call for a gathering of states to rewrite the Articles. Working in lockstep, they suggested the states hold nominating conventions to identify delegates. When a majority of them agreed, the Constitutional Convention opened in May 1787. During the proceedings, Madison and Hamilton complemented one another. Hamilton was forceful; one delegate called his speeches “flowing and rapturous.” Madison by contrast, while he was “the best informed man of any point in a debate,” “cannot be called an orator.” Together they achieved their mark: the delegates agreed a five-person Committee of Style to produce a final draft constitution, among them were Madison and Hamilton.

The result was a document that gave no delegate or state exactly what they hoped, including Hamilton, who had advocated for a strong federal center. It was the result of messy compromise – on the size, responsibilities, and power of the congressional branch of government, but though flawed, as Madison wrote to Jefferson, “if the present moment be lost, it is hard to say what may be our fate.” They were, he said elsewhere, “framing a system which we wish to last for ages.” Hamilton was characteristically starker when he wrote to Washington: they could not “let slip the golden opportunity of rescuing the American empire from disunion, anarchy and misery.”

In a race to get nine states to ratify the Constitution, at which point it would take effect, Hamilton seized on the idea of producing essays to reinforce its adoption. Hamilton started writing, Madison joined him, and in the end–with minor support from New York’s John Jay– they had produced 190,000 words, The Federalist Papers, which according to Jefferson were “the best commentary on the principles of government.”

Washington – gravitas of a hero

Stewart notes that Madison set out to win the friendship of America’s First Citizen. In 1783, General Washington had moved his headquarters to Princeton to be close to where the Continental Congress had temporarily moved in the waning days of the Revolutionary War. Universally respected for, as Abigail Adams put it, a “faculty of appearing to accommodate and yet carrying his point…if he was not really one of the best intentioned men in the world he might be a very dangerous one.” That Washington and the young Madison would become collaborators was not obvious but, as Stewart says, “As a talent spotter, Washington had few peers.” Madison’s intelligence and diligence brought him a good reputation and despite differences in personal and physical stature, they shared much in common. including a love for their Virginia land and an interest in Western territory.

Madison was taken with “a mind like [Washington’s], capable of grand views” and their correspondence was warm and free-ranging. He kept Washington informed of developments at the Annapolis Convention and deployed Washington’s name to garner support for the Constitutional Convention. Few in states north or south, big or small, wanted to go against the wishes of the Revolution’s hero.

Washington was firm when he needed to be, including with his young protégé. When Madison complained of the personal cost of lobbying for ratification of the Constitution, Washington reminded him that “the consciousness of having discharged that duty which we owe to our country is superior to all other considerations.”

With the Constitution safely adopted, Washington accepted the first presidential mantle. He asked Madison to draft his speech for the inauguration and then, in his role as a member of the first House of Representatives, Madison drafted the chamber’s response to his own speech.

Madison’s respect for Washington never wavered but ultimately his political support did. Hamilton had shocked fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention with his remarks on the inability for the people to “judge or determine right.” He had argued then that power was best placed in the hands of “the rich and well born.” And importantly, in that first American administration, with Hamilton at the helm of the Treasury, he believed that the states should have “very limited powers.”   Madison and Jefferson disagreed with Hamilton’s proposal for a central bank, assumption of government debt, which they believed caused speculation and corruption, and more. Washington, to their disappointment, lined up with Hamilton, and Madison and Jefferson began to see themselves as Republicans, no longer willing to be styled Federalists as they had in those heady days 1787.

As Madison noted on Washington’s demise in 1799, “Death has robbed our country of its most distinguished ornament, and the world of one its greatest benefactors.” Madison called him “a hero in the field…pursuing peace everywhere with sincerity.”

Jefferson – natural leader

As Stewart describes them, Thomas Jefferson was smart and tall with “an air of relaxed command,” while his friend was “short, skinny, pale and reserved.” You could immediately warm to Jefferson, while Madison’s appeal took longer to appreciate. 8 inches taller but also 8 years older, Jefferson embodied the legend of American Independence (and was author of its Declaration with help from sage Benjamin Franklin), as envoy to France he held his own among royalty and rebels. He returned home to serve as America’s first Secretary of State under Washington, and in due course, after losing to John Adams, serving as Adams’ Vice President in an election that sparked controversy, but not insurrection.

“I long to see you,” Jefferson wrote to Madison when time had elapsed between their seeing one another. And they were not afraid of being direct. When Madison objected to one of Jefferson’s many declarations of intent to leave public service for Monticello, Jefferson wrote the decision would “rest on my own feelings alone.”

But the two men conferred closely and were perplexed by Hamilton’s propositions for greater centralisation in the hands of the government. As Jefferson wrote to Washington, Hamilton’s aim was to move “the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy.” He did after all routinely extol the virtues of British governance.

Later, during the Adams administration, Madison and Jefferson were united in their opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, made criticising the government a crime.  Slowly the two patriots were emerging as Republicans, leaving the cloak of Federalism behind.

Stewart might have given a more prominent role to Adams whose steely political and personal brilliance did much to shore up the new nation. However, he does allow Adams the book’s best, and most choice quote. Adams, complaining about Jefferson and Madison’s style of campaigning for high office by feigning disinterest, offered: “Mr. Madison is to retire. It seems the mode of becoming great is to retire. Madison I suppose after a retirement of a few years is to be president or V.P…. It is marvellous how political plants grow in the shade.”

Monroe – military and diplomatic expert

James Monroe was a teenager when he enlisted in the Continental Army, crossing paths with those who would lead the United States, including Washington and Hamilton. Stewart cites his respectable war record and a genial “earnestness that inspired trust.” In 1783, Madison returned to Virginia after serving three years in the Continental Congress and Monroe took his place as Virginia’ new delegate. A year later, Jefferson recommended Monroe to Madison saying “a better man cannot be” thus beginning another Virginian friendship which would span their lives. It mirrored Madison’s closeness to Jefferson and Washington, whose plantation homes were horse rides away from his own beloved Montpelier.

Madison and Monroe shared enthusiasm and resources for acquiring Western land, and they held similar convictions on political matters, including that the Articles of Confederation should be superseded. But it was not all smooth sailing. Monroe worried about the negative effects of an over-strong federal government. According to Stewart, he did not support ratification of the Constitution while in the Virginia legislature, but not so vehemently that he could not be forgiven.

Madison’s nemesis in the Virginia legislature, the Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry, had other plans for Monroe, convincing him to run against Madison for a seat in the new, post-Constitution House of Representatives. Madison won handily in 1789 and was gracious in victory. He wrote to Jefferson, “I have no reason to doubt that distinction was duly kept in mind between political and personal views, and that it has saved our friendship from the smallest diminution.” The following year, Monroe was appointed to the new US Senate and went on to serve in France as Jefferson had done before him.

But there would be other clashes. During Jefferson’s second term as President, Monroe was an envoy to Britain and France, at a time when both states were fighting in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Jefferson declared neutrality hoping the conflict in Europe would not prevent the flow of American imports and exports. But the British – who stepped up impressment of sailors (often to reclaim those that had deserted to better paid, more relaxed American merchant ships) to literally ensure enough hands on deck in their maritime battles – and eventually the French, would have none of it. In 1807, Monroe and William Pinkney, a Maryland lawyer also sent to negotiate with the British, opted to sign a treaty that did not include stopping impressment which they deemed a point they could not win. Though it had other things to recommend it, including a loosening of restrictions on American trade. But Jefferson and Monroe rejected it and Monroe left his post dejected and returned to Virginia.

During Madison’s second term as President, a turn toward war, prompted a rapprochement and Monroe became his Secretary of State and eventually his Secretary of War. Monroe, Stewart quotes, was “happy to have restored” their “ancient relations,” while on “public affairs we confer without reserve…animated by a sincere desire to promote the public welfare.” While they could not avert the British burning of Washington once America declared war in 1812, they persevered and the Americans won key battles including the defense of New Orleans; a peace treaty resulted in 1815. There was not much that had been gained but as John Adams suggested during the conflict, “It is necessary against England: necessary to convince France that we are something: and above all necessary to convince ourselves that we are not nothing.”

Dolley Madison – charm offensive

In the spring of 1794, when then Senator Aaron Burr introduced Madison, a bachelor in his late 30s, to the bright and vivacious 24 year old widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who had a two year old son, he was smitten. Disappointed in love previously, he embarked on a brief but assiduous courtship and they were married by the autumn. His modest appearance – she called him “the great little Madison” – did not concern her. In social gatherings, he might be branded timid, while she shone.

“Everybody loves Mrs. Madison,” declared Kentucky legislator, Henry Clay. Self-aware Dolley responded, “That’s because Mrs. Madison loves everybody.”

She was a dedicated companion throughout their married life, providing her husband with soothing counsel. She also proved a potent political asset. To positive effect, she might place a word here during a soiree, or send a charmingly written note there. Stewart references a letter she sent in 1810, potentially to a self-exiled James Monroe, in which she declares that Madison had “necessity for your aid,” bidding her recipient to “Come then, as soon as possible to my husband who will not call, though he wishes for you every day.”

Madison’s Federalist challenger to the presidency in 1808, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, ruefully complained that he was “beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

Throughout his narrative, Stewart shows the pall slavery cast on Madison’s legacy. Madison was prescient in recognising that more than Republican versus Federalist, the real divide was between the slave-holding south and the anti-slave north: “the great danger to our general government is the great southern and northern interests of the continent being opposed to each other.” It was an irony not lost on America’s early observers that a nation which had gained its independence over man’s right to liberty, denied it to others.   His livelihood depended on maintaining his slaves despite advice from family and former comrades to release his slaves.

Ultimately Madison was not the solitary figure on horseback. As Stewart points out, “Madison’s heroic moments tended, like him, to be quiet ones.”

At the end of his life in 1826, Jefferson wrote Madison, “you have been a pillar of support throughout life.” It was a role he attempted to play with all his partners.

Dr. Marcia Balisciano is Director of the Benjamin Franklin House in London.