WILSON, N.C. — In his recently released biography of the nation’s fourth president, James Madison, A Son of Virginia & a Founder of the Nation, Dr. Jeff Broadwater aptly achieves his goal of presenting the “essential Madison” for the modern reader, as he concentrates on specific aspects of Madison’s life that he believes would be of most interest today.
From Broadwater’s perspective, no single figure can tell us more about the origins of the American republic than James Madison. Broadwater focuses on Madison’s role in the battle for religious freedom in Virginia, his contributions to the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, his place in the evolution of the party system, his relationship with Dolley Madison, his performance as a wartime commander in chief, and his views on slavery.
While Madison is remembered primarily as a systematic political theorist, the author’s lens reveals that this bookish and unassuming man was also a practical politician who strove for balance in an age of revolution. What Madison lacked in charisma, he made up for in character, scholarship, and resilience.
To better understand Madison’s contributions to modern democracy, one must look beyond the accomplishments that immediately come to mind. Broadwater states, “To many historians, the intellectual creativity Madison demonstrated in helping to write the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist far overshadowed the rest of his career…” Madison is described in the preface as one who “often worked quietly, sometimes obscuring his own accomplishments.” Broadwater further explains that Madison’s “victories came through the familiar combination of dedication, talent, and connections, with no secret weapons or magic formulas. He worked hard and did his homework. He learned to accommodate himself to disappointments, and he persisted in the craft of politics when public service offered few pecuniary rewards.”
Broadwater portrays Madison as “an unlikely wartime leader who survived repeated setbacks in the War of 1812 with his popularity intact.” He further elucidates, “Madison tolerated incompetent commanders during the war, which led to repeated reversals along the Canadian border and to the burning of Washington, D.C.” However, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory in the Battle at New Orleans was a boon for this struggling commander-in-chief when other military commanders’ reputations suffered greatly following the attack on Washington. Additional concerns, looming large for this president, included a variety of weaknesses throughout the federal government, especially with regard to its finances. Yet, Madison is credited with quickly returning Washington “to its normal routines” following the raid. And, Broadwater said in an interview, “… by tolerating dissent in New England, Madison probably avoided a civil war. He also showed a great respect for civil liberties. As messy as the war was, when it was over, most people thought that Madison had done fairly well. It helped that the war ended on a positive note with the victory at New Orleans. I think in Madison’s era, character counted for relatively more, and results for relatively less, than they do today. Madison got good marks for character.”
Madison also struggled with the debate on slavery. It was an issue he would grapple with throughout his life. “Madison believed that white prejudice was so great that African Americans would not benefit significantly from the abolition of slavery unless they could be colonized outside of the United States,” Broadwater continues. “Madison seemed to think that the benefits of emancipation without colonization did not outweigh the costs to white society. He supported colonization all his life and could never admit it was wholly unrealistic. Madison’s thoughts about slavery were about as muddled as they could be, but they represented the enlightened ‘moderate’ opinion of his day.”
Madison’s wife, Dolley, was a tremendous influence during his presidency, and she is described by Broadwater as Madison’s most effective lobbyist with Congress. “The socials she hosted allowed her to cultivate members of Congress, who, in her day, selected presidential candidates and probably helped him in the 1808 and 1812 elections,” he continues. “But even Dolley could not overcome the partisan divisions in Washington, and Madison had a hard time with Congress.”
Broadwater speculates that readers may be most surprised by the depth of Madison’s commitment to the separation of church and state. “Madison worried about paying military chaplains out of public funds, and he thought if members of Congress wanted a chaplain, they should pay him with their own money,” he explains. “In Madison’s day, mail was delivered on Sunday so the federal government would not have to recognize any religion’s holy day. In retirement, he thought limits might be placed on the amount of property a church could acquire. He believed in freedom of religion, but he also feared ecclesiastical power.”
Early reviews have recognized both Dr. Broadwater’s scholarship and Madison’s mark on American history. Among them, Publishers Weekly described the book as “Meticulously researched and surprisingly readable,” and predicted “History buffs and early-America aficionados will find Broadwater’s work indispensable.” And, a critique by Stuart Leibiger at LaSalle University, reads, “Jeff Broadwater has mastered the voluminous literature on Madison. With lively and fast-paced prose, this succinct synthesis of recent scholarship will appeal to historians, political scientists, and general readers alike.”
Broadwater’s book lecture schedule continues through the summer and into the fall, including June speaking engagements in Raleigh and Edenton as well as at Madison’s family reunion at Montpelier in Virginia. He ends the month in Kansas City, Mo., as the featured speaker for the public library’s Presidential Biographers Series. On September 18, Broadwater will speak at Barton College during a book signing in observation of Constitution Day on campus. The Virginia Historical Society in Richmond has also scheduled March 17, 2013 for Broadwater to discuss “Why Washington Burned and How the President Survived.”
A lawyer, historian, and scholar, Broadwater also is a professor of history at Barton College. He is the author of three previous books, George Mason, Forgotten Founder, which received the Richard Slattern Award for Biography from the Virginia Historical Society and was listed among the Washington Post’s Best Non-Fiction Books of 2006; Adlai Stevenson and American Politics: The Odyssey of a Cold War Liberal; and Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade; as well as a chapter titled “James Madison and the Dilemma of American Slavery” for A Companion to James Madison and James Monroe, which is to be published by Wiley-Blackwell.
James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation is a selection of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book-of-the-Month Club. $30, hardcover, ISBN # 978-0-8078-3530-2
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