My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked James Madison by Richard Brookhiser.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!
James Madison by Richard Brookhiser
All said, I found James Madison by Richard Brookhiser somewhat disappointing. Perhaps it’s just because I recently finished 3 giant biographies of Presidents that seemed to offer so much more insight into their character, backgrounds, and motivations than this book did, but I felt left wanting. Indeed, I didn’t feel as though I got as strong a grasp on the life and career of Madison as I did of the former 3 Presidents, and that’s a shame because it seems Madison has much to offer.
Madison is often called the Father of the Constitution, and though names like that often seem to lionize their namesakes rather than offer any compelling insight into their character, in this case it seems fairly accurate. Madison’s greatest contribution, it seems, was to effectively set our country’s entire government up by helping to write, amend, and sell the Constitution. I say sell because he did a lot of legwork and writing to help convince others the Constitution was a good idea. He helped strengthen the central government of the United States.
Another pre-Presidency achievement of Madison was to help complete the Louisiana Purchase. He was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State at the time and it was in part at his urging that this massive increase of land of the United States was purchased. Though many may see this as purely excellent for the U.S., it is also clear that the Louisiana Purchase led to many later ills, particularly the destruction and genocidal acts perpetuated against First Nations groups on this continent.
As far as his Presidency goes, perhaps the flashiest aspect of it was the War of 1812. Madison clearly gave in to some popular opinion here, following the Hawks in congress and elsewhere and signing the war into law. This war was filled with disasters for the United States–including the burning of Washington, D.C. However, it also led to more leaders understanding the importance of a well-trained military and, particularly, a powerful navy. It set the United States on track for becoming a world power. More interestingly, after the conclusion of the war, relations between the U.S. and Great Britain continued to get better, not worse.
Madison’s legacy is clearly one of compromise. That word is often seen as a negative, but there is no good reason for negative connotations in this or many other cases. Madison knew that it took working together with people with whom he disagreed to get things done, and he frequently did exactly that. His lasting legacy may indelibly be wrapped into that of the Constitution, and for that Americans have much to thank Madison.
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!
1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.
3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.
4. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
*Rankings not definitive
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