In This Review

James Madison
James Madison
By Garry Wills
Henry Holt, 2002, 184 pp.

The American Presidents, a valuable series under the general editorship of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has produced yet another excellent short biography. Madison, whose administration blundered into the dismal War of 1812, had to flee the White House as a British raiding party burned it and much of Washington to the ground. His administration has long been considered a disappointment, and his reputation has depended instead on his brilliant contributions to the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. Wills adds some luster to this reputation, assigning to Madison some credit (usually given Jefferson) as the great defender of religious liberty among the founders. He also analyzes the causes of Madison's weaknesses as president, attempts to assess Madison's place in American history, and provides what may well be the clearest account ever produced of the politics and strategy of the War of 1812. Summing up the record, Wills writes, "Madison did more [for his country] than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough." High praise -- which can also be applied to Wills as a biographer.