Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Relationships of power

Politics is such a distasteful subject that I really don't like to discuss it often. While I'm generally rather conservative in my social views, I don't necessarily subscribe to the thought that the country is going to be in ruins because of the current president. True, I disagree with many of his programs, but personally I think the country has been in a slide for a good long while. Social liberals have set the policy at least since the early 60s and religion and anything moral has been under attack long before then. But it's important for all of us to know and understand our nation's history and what the threats to our liberty really are. Too often we hear vaunted and idealistic portraits of the "Founding Fathers" that are based more upon myth than reality, and distortions of the truth don't really honor what they actually accomplished. And while this book, Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, probably isn't for beginning history readers, it's an excellent look at two central figures and the important roles they played.

Madison and JeffersonIf you've read David McCullough's excellent John Adams, you're aware of the friendship Adams had with Thomas Jefferson, both men dying within hours of each other on July 4, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But even that relationship pales in comparison to the one between Jefferson and James Madison, the 4th president. And in this excellent dual political biography, Burstein and Isenberg have turned the order of the presidents around in their title in an effort to reassert the forgotten contributions of Madison. (Well, that and maybe the fact that Jefferson and Madison as a title had already been used.) Madison wasn't simply Jefferson's "junior," but more like the driving force behind Jefferson's reentry into politics in 1796.

As I've read and studied about the founding of our nation, in my mind George Washington perhaps stands closest to the ideal of a truly noble hero. John Adams is likewise admirable, although hampered by his vanity and having the misfortune to follow in Washington's very long shadow. By the time I get to Thomas Jefferson, though, things get ugly. The nastiness of party politics becomes intractable - and Jefferson was a natural at hardball politics.

Both Jefferson and Madison were Virginians first and Americans second, and this heavily influenced their politics. Jefferson, the idealist and philosopher, is quite frequently seen in a contradictory light. His lofty ideals and eloquent way with words had a way of swaying opinion. His fear of monarchial tendencies in government drove his policies, and he sought to maintain states rights and limit the power of the federal government (even while, as president, he greatly enlarged federal power). Madison, credited as the "Father of the Constitution" for his monumental efforts in 1787, is seen wrongly as a continuation of the Jefferson presidency, and many assumed Jefferson was still pulling the strings. In spite of their close friendship, they frequently differed in opinions and the courses of action they took. And while Jefferson appears as cordial and pleasant, Madison is portrayed unfairly as cold and unemotional. And the book does a good job of highlighting the important role played by Madison in the history.

This is a lengthy book with the narrative being almost 650 pages long, with dense writing that requires careful attention (I spent nearly 2 months reading it). As such, it's probably directed at serious readers of history rather than casual ones. The focus is mostly on politics, although there's enough information on their personal lives to give it a decent balance. With two authors it sometimes feels a little uneven, although the book doesn't suffer for it. The ending, however, seemed a bit disconnected and I vaguely suspected the authors of inserting some of their own personal present-day politics. But even this doesn't take away from the terrific work they've compiled, and in spite of the length and depth it kept my interest throughout.  (Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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