At the outset, Schlesinger notes that Madison is not on anyone's top ten list of great presidents. Nevertheless, he was not our worst president and the well-researched book does have some fascinating insights into this fairly well forgotten section of our history. I mean, how many details do you know about The War of 1812? Here are a few. Madison was president at the time. There was a battle in New Orleans. Washington was burned to the ground. We fought the British.
Let's see if you can guess this: Name the five men whose fame in the War of 1812 led to their seats in the White House? O.K. that was a trick question. Back then the president's residence had another name until Teddy Roosevelt called it the White House at the outset of the 20th century.
Gary Wills begins the book with three chapters about Madison's failings and weaknesses. The rest of the book is devoted to convincing readers that Madison actually did make some significant contributions in spite of these.
I think it's the anecdotes that stick with me most when I read a book like this. An image is conveyed and you get a small aha, or something to catalog in your brain when you recall that concept or person again.
One of Madison's great achievements was his stand on the separation of church and state. He did not want New Englanders, like the Adams contingent, dictating the kind of faith everyone would have to accept. Madison believed we would be a better country if everyone worshipped as they wished. It's a counter intuitive idea. Do not allow the government to push religion, and you end up with more churches rather than less. Sure enough, America today has far more citizens who attend church on a regular basis than England, with its "State religion" has had in perhaps a hundred years.
The anecdote which I found quite interesting in the book, pretty much mentioned only in passing, was how William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana, turned a fiasco into a PR coup. Harrison led U.S. forces to quell the Tecumseh-led Native American uprising that was occurring in the Midwest. Harrison's troops fought a smaller group, yet lost more men and suffered more casualties. In addition, they lost still more of their troops due to malaria and morale was eroded. Yet the first message to the Capitol was that they won a great victory.
The press picked up the story, Harrison was suddenly a hero. Madison later learned a bit more about the truth of what happened, and seriously considered a federal investigation. Rising tensions with the British (we were blaming the Brits for inciting the Native peoples against us) kept Madison distracted enough so that he never followed through on that. Harrison was thus enabled to ride the waves of popular opinion to reach the presidency, his campaign slogan being, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too."
The story reminded me of an incident in the Viet Nam War era bestseller The Ugly American in which falsified accounts of Viet Cong incursions were printed in the newspapers in order to influence funding of the war. The journalists were safely ensconced in Saigon while reports would be wired "from the front" that an attack occurred here or there in some remote region. The military had its agenda (to mislead the public) and the journalists got their "story."
Enough for today. The five men who reached the presidency were: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor. How'd ya do?
NOTE: The picture top right was based on an image of Andrew Jackson. I mention this only to avoid the accusation that I have no clue what James Madison looked like. The lower right fellow with a drooping mustache is.... just another guy. For more portraits and profiles, visit my art blog The Many Faces of Ennyman at http://ed-newman.blogspot.com