Book Reviewer Takes Look at James Madison

As a precursor to Constitution Day, a Wheeling audience took a closer look at James Madison, one of the most important, but least recognized, framers of that document.

Dr. Joe Laker, a retired professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University, reviewed a new book, “James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government” by Villanova professor Colleen Sheehan, for a Lunch With Books program at the Ohio County Public Library Tuesday, Sept. 14.

Laker found the work to be a “thoughtful, very well-written book, well researched with lots of footnotes.” However, he wished the author would have given more information on the figure of Madison and the times. He said the book was “rather narrowly focused,” primarily on Madison’s political philosophy.

The professor described the nation’s future fourth president as being short, shy, scholarly and a major intellectual force. He said that Sheehan’s book begins with what happened after the Constitution was ratified, when “the real hard work starts,” and the author writes of “the rivalries that existed from the very beginning of the country.” Laker observed, “There was a lot of political strife among the so-called founding fathers.”

Laker said Sheehan cites four schools of thought about Madison: she rejects a progressive view that he was anti-democratic; she also argues against a mid-20th century liberal demoncratic intrepretation of a mechanistic approach to government; she contends a classical republicanism view of aristocratic leadership in the republic is still not at the heart of Madison; she finds a synthesism theory of mechanistic plus aristocratic leadership to be partly true.

At the time, the Federalist Party dominated politics, but Madison was “the first great leader” of the Republican Party, which later became the Democratic Party, with Thomas Jefferson as his principal supporter and ally, Laker said.

Laker explained that Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist, wanted the federal government to have ongoing debt so that people would have an investment in government, but Madison thought the government might be in debt to the wrong sort of people. Hamilton thought the federal government should carry out policies to stimulate growth in manufacturing and commerce, but Madison and Jefferson were appalled, fearing corruption in government from favored deals.

Madison favored small government, “close to the people,” and contended that all people should be involved in the political process and understand the issues, Laker said. “Our society is a very politicized one. This is actually what Madison wanted, to keep the people politically engaged at all times,” the professor observed.

“I actually enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about what was taking place in America,” Laker commented, but added, “I would have liked more on the character and personality of the man, and more of what he did as president.”

In response to a question from the audience, Laker said Madison’s wife, Dolley, “was a very engaging, outgoing person,” almost the opposite of her husband. By contrast, Madison was a shy, withdrawn person who didn’t marry until his 40s. “Then he marries this engaging, sparkling woman. She certainly broadened and helped him in the White House,” Laker remarked.