Making the Case for Greatness

Lynne Cheney explores James Madison's presidential legacy.

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When Lynne Cheney began studying James Madison in 1987, she came to agree with John Kennedy, who labeled the Founding Father “our most underrated president.” With “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” Cheney, the wife of the former vice president and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, hopes to restore the fourth president to his proper place in history as a theoretical and political “genius.” She recently spoke to U.S. News about Madison’s contributions that shaped the nation and why his views on limited government resonate today. Excerpts:

You’ve been studying James Madison for a long time. What drew you to him?

First of all, the enormity of his accomplishments. He’s the father of the Constitution, the architect of the Bill of Rights, the founder of the first opposition party in America, secretary of state for eight years, and our fourth president. He was also commander in chief in the first war under the Constitution. So, he has these enormous accomplishments, and I think is totally underappreciated. It looked like it was a good story to tell, and [I was] trying to make sure that Madison has his due. It’s been a labor of love, but a great five years of digging through archives.

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Why do you think he’s been overshadowed by more prominent Founding Fathers?

Well, he was a reserved politician, rather than a histrionic one like you might call someone like Alexander Hamilton, I suppose. But he also was unfortunate in his first biographer. Henry Adams wrote a biography of Madison in the late 19th century that kind of repeated what his worst enemies believed.

What are some of the misconceptions that you dispel in this book?

How strong a leader he was, for one thing. And how he was not only a theoretical genius, but a political genius who got some of the most amazing legislation through difficult situations, including the Bill of Rights. Even his physical strength [was notable]. He was ill from time to time, but when he was strong, he was very strong. I think I read that he was on horseback for 60 hours when the British burned Washington. And he would go off to New York through a snowstorm to try to make sure that Congress did not derail the Constitution. He was the man who shaped the country we know today, and who was front and center with debates that we’re having about government today.

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Who was Madison’s most influential contemporary?

[Thomas] Jefferson. [They] were very close friends, and it was an interesting friendship. Jefferson was a kind of dreamer, a man of soaring prose, and Madison was the fellow whose concepts were workable. They were an amazing pair. Everything was in balance when Madison and Jefferson were together.

What was his biggest accomplishment?

The Constitution. Without him, I don’t think the Constitution would have been created. First of all, he organized the Constitutional Convention. He made sure that [George] Washington would attend. If Washington had not attended, it likely would not have come together. He made sure that the delegates there would be men of high standing and eminence, so that people would respect their decisions. He came up with the agenda for the convention, so that the ideas that he had thought about for years would be in the debate.

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What surprised you most in your research?

Dolley Madison is pretty surprising. She wasn’t a political theorist, but she had an amazing sense of how to get him elected president. In the days when he was secretary of state, Washington was a new city, and it was kind of a miserable place to live. Dolley invited all the members of Congress, both parties, over to their house regularly; made sure they had a good time when the rest of their lives were not so enjoyable. And in those days, the presidential nominees were picked by the congressional caucus. So he definitely had more of an inside track to the nomination with Dolley than he would have [had] without her. His marriage to Dolley proves one of the rules of political success, which is: Marry well.