A closer look at James Madison, ‘Father of Politics’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In his new book, “James Madison,” historian Richard Brookhiser argues that James Madison wasn’t merely the fourth president and the Father of the Constitution — he was also the Father of Politics.

We don’t mention that latter point much, Brookhiser writes, because “politics embarrasses us.”

Brookhiser and I recently had a chance to discuss Madison.

(Listen to a podcast of our full conversation here.)

To understand Madison is to understand his friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson. One of the greatest political collaborations in American history took place between the two. As Brookhiser describes it, “Jefferson was sort of the cool older brother” Madison never had. “Madison was probably smarter — but Jefferson was more brilliant.”

The partnership was mutually beneficial. Madison frequently served as a sounding board to Jefferson — a vitally important role — and a resource that many brilliant leaders desperately lack. “Madison often functions as Jefferson’s reality check,” Brookhiser said.

The duo, of course, eventually teamed up “to push back against Adams and Hamilton” — and this is where Madison earns the “Father of Politics” title. Stopping Adams and Hamilton meant doing many things, including starting a newspaper and starting the nation’s first political party (both of which are detailed in the book).

So what would Madison and Jefferson say of the modern political milieu they set in motion? Brookhiser tells me the founders would look at MSNBC and Fox News and the blogs — and “they’d say, ‘you know you’ve calmed everything down’.”

America’s early politics, he argues, was even more bitter and partisan that today’s — primarily because the stakes were thought to be even higher. (Sure, the Constitution called for a peaceful transfer of power — but who knew if that would actually happen?)

Talk about paranoia: “Hamilton and his friends — they think their enemies are like French revolutionaries,” Brookhiser explains. “They’re going to set up guillotines. [Meanwhile,] Madison and Jefferson are afraid that Adams and Hamilton will be monarchists … and people are really afraid of this.

We’re just scratching the surface of “James Madison,” of course — but here’s what I liked most about the book: Most biographers tend to lionize the Founders — to place them on “Mount Rushmore,” so to speak. Brookhiser — a conservative who still writes for National Review — doesn’t fall into that trap. No doubt, his background as a political journalist helped him spot and decode their sub rosa political maneuverings.

“I do believe they were great men,” he says. “But they were men [and] they were also politicians.”

Matt K. Lewis