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The Confederate Lawyer
February 7, 2012

James Madison
A book review
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

James Madison

GLEN COVE, NY — For anyone who wants to understand the history of the American political system, Richard Broookhiser’s James Madison (Basic Books, hardcover, 304 pages, 2011), a biography of our nation’s fourth president, is necessary reading. It is concise and thorough enough for the beginner, with depths of research that will offer even seasoned historians new insights.

During his lifetime, Madison was regarded as the father of the Constitution. He was one of the original proponents of a Constitutional Convention. When the Convention was held, he was the first to arrive, and he would turn out to be one of the only two members with perfect attendance. He was also one of three final draftsmen of the Constitution; one of three authors of its most important defenses, The Federalist Papers; and he was the final drafters of the congressionally proposed Bill of Rights.

Mr. Brookhiser also explains Madison’s central role in laying out the groundwork for America’s two-party system, and how this cost him the friendship of Washington, a painful loss to Madison. He describes Constitutionalism as the living monument all around us to Madison.

Madison could be inconsistent. He opposed a bill of rights but then drafted one, and he opposed a national bank but then supported one. There were certain issues on which he never deviated, however, including religious liberty, freedom of the press, and westward expansion.

The first significant political event Mr. Brookhiser describes in the drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. George Mason’s draft called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” This was language that recalled America’s brief experiment with religious liberty in the 1680s. Madison had witnessed the harsh persecution of Baptists in colonial Virginia and wanted more than mere “toleration.” He substituted the words “free exercise of religion” (italics added)—words he would use again in the Bill of Rights. Persecuted religious minorities always supported Madison in politics. Indeed almost until our own generation, the Democratic Party—which Madison co-founded with Thomas Jefferson under the original name Democratic-Republican Party—had strong support from religious minorities.

One should not suppose that Madison’s idea of religious freedom resembled twentieth-century aberrations. He supported freedom for Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Quakers, and Jews—not native African or American Indian religions.

Madison had strongly opposed the Sedition Act—a law that outlawed the writing, printing, or publishing of “false, malicious, and scandalous” material against many U.S. government officers—during John Adams’s administration. The law was largely directed at the partisan newspapers, another Madison creation.

Upon taking office after Adams and Jefferrson, Madison himself could have enacted similar repressive measures of his own. He had ample excuses for doing so. The country was embroiled in the War of 1812, and meanwhile, most new Englanders actively undermining Madison’s presidency by conspiring to either change the Constitution or break up the Union, by engaging in extensive—and criminal—trade with the Canadian enemy, and allowing enemy British merchant ships into their ports. Despite all this, Madison remained faithful to his belief in freedom of speech and religion and refused to allow a sedition act to be passed.

Again, one should not suppose that Madison’s support of a free press resembled twentieth-century aberrations. He was a very proper man who would have been horrified by obscene newspapers.

Madison was Secretary of State when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the country. As president, he seized the Alabama and Mississippi coastal areas, then known as West Florida. By fighting the War of 1812, he ended the British and Canadian practice of paying Indians to scalp Americans, and also ended British hopes of a vast Indian reservation in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan (at least).

It would be Madison’s protégé and successor, James Monroe, who would obtain Florida by treaty, and it would be many decades later before America got the Southwest. But Madison nonetheless left America a country that spanned the continent from the Atlantic to Oregon.

Madison’s legacy is thus all around us: a Constitution, a body of civil liberties, a two-party system, and an America that stretches, literally, from sea to shining sea. In encapsulating all of this and more in James Madison, Mr. Brookhiser tells the late president’s story as well as it can be told.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2012 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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