There is a tendency by some to look down their noses at politics; viewing it as the grubby fight for power and the inevitable disappointment that results from politicians who promise everything during election years only to deliver hot air and favors for friends once safely ensconced in office. To be fair, all too often this is what politics actually offers.
But in his biography of founding father James Madison, Richard Brookhiser argues that politics is the working out of our ideals; that for freedom, democracy and republican government to function in the real world requires politics and all the baggage that entails.
We pay much less attention to James Madison, Father of Politics, than we do James Madison, Father of the Constitution. That is because politics embarrasses us. Politics is the spectacle on television and YouTube, the daily perp walk on the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report. Surely our founders and framers lefts us something better, more solid, more inspiring than that? They did. But they all knew – and Madison understood better than any of them – that ideals come to life in dozens of political transactions every day. Some of these transactions aren’t pretty. You can understand this and try to work with this knowledge, or you can look away. But ignoring politics will not make it stop. It will simply go on without you – and sooner or later will happen to you.
Madison is one of, if not the, smartest of the founders but he lacked the stature of Washington, or the eloquence of a Thomas Jefferson or a Patrick Henry, and so his intelligence is sometimes overlooked. Madison may not have been an eloquent speaker – he often spoke so quietly that the audience couldn’t hear him – or writer but he learned to master many of the important skills necessary to move public opinion, pass legislation and build coalitions.
In fact, he developed a conception of political action that modern readers will recognize. At a time when most people understood the role of the public as cyclical (citizens vote, let their leaders lead and then either vote them out or return them to power based on the results) Madison began to develop a view of public opinion as a necessary part of leadership and governing.
Madison also realized that in order to succeed long-term, he needed another tool: a political party. And so with the help of Thomas Jefferson he built the Republican Party – which rather confusingly eventually changed its name and became today’s Democratic Party. Where parties, often known as factions, were once looked down upon Madison played a big role in making them a standard part of elections and governance.
And in many ways Madison’s story is the story of how that party triumphed while the party of Washington and Hamilton faded away. This led to the Virginia Dynasty; two terms each for Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. And it ended the long friendship and partnership between Madison and George Washington.
Madison also sought to use public opinion as part of coalition building and governing; while seeking to mold that opinion to his ends. This included journalism, public speaking, lobbying and more – in other words what we call politics.
As a result, Brookhiser gives a tour of the development of American politics from the battles over the Constitution to the War of 1812 and the battles that prefigured the Civil War. This included the nature of federal power versus state’s rights; trade and economic development; international relations and military strategy; and a number of important constitutional questions.
Madison played a central role in every major debate of this period and served in government at every level; from state and local bodies and conventions to Congress, the cabinet and eventually the presidency. His life is a great window into this time period and the issues, ideas and personalities involved.
And this is where Brookhiser shines. His writing is crisp and clear. He is not afraid to make judgments and offer assessments. He doesn’t feel the need to drown the reader in detail, but rather offers an overview and quick sketches of important events and characters.
The story is full of one line descriptions and aphorisms; of memorable opinion and useful insights.
On John Adams:
If Adams had had to make a living as a journalist, he would have starved; he hid diamonds of psychological insight in dunghills of pedantry.
On John Randolph of Roanoke:
All his life, his voice never broke and he never used a razor. He kept the world in awe with his quick tongue and quicker temper. In his twenties and thirties, he was not as crazy as he would later become, after alcohol, opium, and disappointment had done their work. But he was always willful and domineering.
On Thomas Jefferson:
Jefferson had a gift of seeing views and making leaps. He was a prophet; he was also a bluejay, snatching at every shiny idea that caught his eye. He expressed his thoughts in crystal-clear words; the words in turn brightened the thoughts.
On Madison’s relationship with Jefferson:
Madison was like a box in which Jefferson could deposit his savvy, on occasions when it conflicted with his other impulses or emotions. But Jefferson always remembered how to find it again.
Brookhiser writes popular history as it should be: learned and insightful but not exhausting; with sharp writing not afraid to offer an opinion but not polemical for the sake of scoring points; with prose that is clear and a joy to read.
If you are interested in the founders and framers, the politics of the immediate post constitution era, or just good and engaging history you should check out Richard Brookhiser’s books.
And this biography of James Madison has much to teach us today as we engage in politics:
Politics can be low, sometimes sordid. Much of that has to be endured, because that is the way men are. “If men were angels,” as Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” But some of the shortcomings of politics may be capable of improvement. So say why and do better. As Madison also wrote, “The censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.” Both of those remarks were addressed to government, but they also apply to politics.
Madison at his best, and worst, belongs not just to his family, but to every citizen. We have been working together for a long time.
Worth thinking about this primary season and heading into 2012.