Book: James Madison: The Founding Father
Author: Robert Rutland
1. Date published-Originally published in 1987, Robert Rutland’s book attempts to update the life of James Madison for a late 20th Century audience. The result is a focus on efforts to preserve the union and also a candid discussion of Madison’s life and status as a slave-owner. This is particularly representative of biographies of the 1980s and 1990s that seem to highlight slavery in a matter of fact way without being overtly negative. This work was originally considered because of its most recent coverage of the post-presidency of Madison. This has since changed with the updated 2013 release by Kevin Gutzman. This is certainly not the most recent work but is an update that at a time was of superb value for contemporary readers.
2. Scope-For this work scope is a tricky barometer to judge. The pre-presidency is at once well documented but also lean. The narrative begins long into Madison’s life, past the Revolution, and into the 1787 Constitutional Convention. From here until his death in 1836 the scope of Madison’s life is complete with a decent sized chunk devoted to the presidency. Despite barely registering at 250 pages, the scope covers a lot of ground. However, the events before 1787 are almost non-existent with hardly a token mention of Madison’s upbringing and career that led to his prominence.
3. Author- Robert Rutland seems to never decide if he is a cheerleader or a critic of Madison’s life. The result is a remarkably even-handed look at the successes and failures of his life. Particularly beneficial to the reader is sympathy for supposedly hypocritical moments of Madison’s life. Here Rutland shows his strength in highlighting the existence of the hypocrisies but also putting them in context and attempting to fairly put them in place. Rutland previously wrote about Revolutionary figures such as George Mason as well as multiple writing credits on Madison’s papers and other of the era’s most important documents. For all the extensive research conducted on Madison’s life it is perhaps most surprising that Rutland chose the route of a short biography over a single volume epic.
4. Length-At barely over 250 reading pages, this work is a solid choice for those seeking a short biography on Presidents. The length allows a brisk overview of key events while giving due attention and detail to more important moments. However, the work does feel too brief especially considering the lack of discussion about his birth, education and career prior to 1787. In other short biographies of notable stature particularly His Excellency (Washington), these aspects of the subject’s life are brief but mentioned in their rightful place in the chronological development of the man and future President. The length is solid but could have used just a bit more.
5. Mission-By the mid-1980s, authors such as Rutland worried that Madison had been given an unfair shake and cited the work of Henry Adams as instrumental at creating an impression of a weak president. This work was an attempt to put Madison in the perspective of some of the greats. Rutland reveals in the closing chapter that the overall mission was to showcase Madison as an elite president and the founding father of the nation. The statement is bold and the mission ends up falling flat as a result. There are surely many aspects of Madison’s career highlighted in this work. Unfortuantely, to make a claim that he was among the founding brothers of the nation, Rutland never gets concise enough to hammer home the claim that Madison alone was responsible. The part of updating the perspective was a successful mission especially in 1987. Yet, as a work to stand a the standard bearer for the fourth president, the mission falls short.