My sons gave me birthday gift cards for Barnes and Noble, my favorite place for hanging out aimlessly and browsing, and I’m there now, contemplating a dilemma.
A couple of days ago, I saw the review in the WSJ about this new biography of James Madison by Richard Brookhiser, and they have it here. Since college — when I took so many electives (to some extent concentrating on that period) that I ended up getting a second major in history when I hadn’t planned to — I’ve been drawn to that period, and the Founders. Particularly the Framers.
But do I really want to use one of my cards for that? The publisher overpriced it a bit, for a book with such large type and so few pages. Nowhere near the heft of McCullough’s John Adams. I could get several paperbacks for this price.
Also… I’m still reading, and fascinated by, Charles Mann’s exploration of the Americas and the world pre- and post-1492.
Do I really want to delve into my mixed attitudes toward Madison right now (I inadvertently typed “Jefferson” just then, a pre-Freudian slip)?
The thing is, I revere the man as the Father of our Constitution, a political achievement I honor as much as any in human history.
But… he’s also the father (note the lower case) of a bastard child — American partisan politics. Or one of the main fathers, anyway (the mother was indiscriminate). Certainly the most successful one. The Federalists (which, if I had to pick a party, would have been my preference then) faded away, but Madison’s Democratic Republicans remain vital, although in different form, under truncated name. (And no, for those who don’t follow such things, it’s not the Republicans, a later invention.)
I love one of his children, but the other is the bane of my life as a political writer.
Another reason to hesitate, and wait until this, too, is marked down or in paperback… I have yet to read the book about his chief rival, the one by Ron Chernow, that Fritz Hollings recommended to me several years ago. Fritz thought it was great, and I asked one of my kids for it for birthday or Christmas, and it sits on my shelf yet.
Of course, if anything, my attitudes toward Hamilton lean even more toward the jaded. Despite my Federalist leanings (which is really more of a reaction to the Democratic Republicans than a love of the Federalists), and despite my great admiration for the role that he, too, played in the Constitution, there’s that nasty partisanship thing.
While Adams and Jefferson were conducting themselves more or less above the fray, Hamilton and Madison were carrying out the nastiest sort of partisan warfare in their behalfs. But at least Madison served Jefferson well in so doing. One thing I respect about Adams is that he truly hated party politics, as much as I do, and his own party worked against him perhaps more than it supported him (to name but one example, there’s the way they blackened his legacy with the Alien and Sedition Acts). Jefferson was more affected in his nonpartisanship, and carried it off well, while Madison more smoothly conducted his dirty work.
As for my decision — oh, I’ll have to read the book at some point. I just haven’t decided whether to get it now. I’ll browse a bit more first…