Madison and Jefferson

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Esteemed historians Burstein and Isenberg join forces to reveal the crucial partnership of two extraordinary founders, creating a superb dual biography that is a thrilling and unprecedented account of early America.

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Nov 25, 2016

The True Complexity Of The Past

Dedicated aptly to those who appreciate the "true complexity of the past" Andrew Burstein's and Nancy Isenberg's sprawling dual biography of over 650 pages of text and an additional 100 pages of notes and bibliography, "Madison and Jefferson" has the virtue of showing the difficult, multi-faceted character of historical study. The book resists the temptation of single-aspect historical explanation. The more one looks, the harder explanation becomes, to paraphrase the authors in their Preface. The book has two subjects and two authors. Burstein and Isenberg are the former coholders of the Mary Frances Barnard Chair in nineteenth-Century U.S. History at the University of Tulsa. They are now, respectively, Manship Professor of history and professor of history at Louisiana State University. Isenberg is the author of a well-received revisionist biography of Aaron Burr, "Fallen Founder" Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr while Burstein has written previously on Jefferson. Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, Andrew Jackson, and other subjects in early American history. There is a degree of repetition in this lengthy study probably resulting from the dual authorship.

The book examines the friendship and relationship between the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (1743 -- 1826) and the fourth president, James Madison (1751 -- 1836) during the course of over 50 years. The book has a number of aims which, in addition to its length and the complexity of its subject give it a polemical, disjointed character in places. It is a serious historical work but also has some of the unfortunate characteristics of an attempted blockbuster.

In tracing the interrelated careers of Madison and Jefferson, the book tries to rescue Madison from his position of relative obscurity and subordination to his more flamboyant, better-known colleague. The book has the commendable aim of making Madison better known. It separates his accomplishments from those of Jefferson by showing how the two founders had different perspectives, characters, and aims, how the frequently disagreed, and how Madison's accomplishments over the years, and his political skill as a legislator and president were as important to the early United States as those of Jefferson. In focusing on Madison the politician, the book takes away to a degree from Madison's accomplishments at the Constitutional Convention (the author's deny that Madison is entitled to the title "Father of the Constitution"). The authors also tend to understate the importance of the "Federalist Papers" which Madison coauthored with his later political foe, Alexander Hamilton.

The book attempts to do substantially more than explore the long-term relationship between Madison and Jefferson. The book is written with the aim of changing how Americans view these individuals and the rest of the founders. The tone is set in the first sentence of the book which describes Madison and Jefferson as "country gentlemen who practiced hardball politics in a time of intolerance." The authors attempt to remove Madison and Jefferson from what they perceive as their current status as iconic heroes and to see them as politicians in a harsh, challenging age. The book is skeptical and somewhat deflationary. Madison and Jefferson must be understood, first and foremost, according to the book, as the products of the plantations in the Tidewater area of Virginia in which they were raised and to which they always owed their first allegiance. Throughout their political careers, Madison and Jefferson did and wrote nothing without first asking the question, "How will it play in Virginia." Their actions and political philosophies were geared to maintaining the primacy of Virginia among the colonies and then among the states. They did so, the book maintains, by promoting Westward expansion of the new nation for the purposes of increasing agricultural settlement by free farmers, and by defending the southern institution of slavery. More broadly, the aim of the book is to strip the generation of the founders from the sentimentality which, in the view of the authors, it still enjoys among too many people. The Revolution, its rhetoric to one side, did not promote equality among all but simply substituted the American elite, including Madison and Jefferson in Virginia and the commercial elite further North, from the ruling class of Great Britain.

In three lengthy parts, subdivided into chapters and subsections, the authors discuss Madison and Jefferson in the broader context of the revolutionary era. The first part "A Time of Blood and Fortune" covers 1774 -- 1789 and considers the Declaration of Independence, early colonial Virginia, the Revolution, and the Constitution, concluding with the Bill of Rights and the early days of Washington's presidency.

The second part, "The Pathological Decade and Beyond" covers the years 1790 -- 1802, including most of Washington's presidency and that of John Adams. It deals with the early days of the Republic and the conflict between Hamilton and Madison, originally, and Hamilton and Jefferson when the latter became Secretary of State. The theme is the beginning of party politics which was, indeed, nasty and personal during the 1790s. The part ends with Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800 and westward expansion with the Louisiana Purchase.

The third part "Signs of a Restless Future", covers 1803 -- 1836 and discusses the eventful latter part of Jefferson's presidency and his vindictiveness against Justice Samuel Chase and Aaron Burr. It proceeds to the events which led to the nearly disastrous War of 1812 during Madison's presidency. Madison distanced himself, eventually from his predecessor in rechartering the Bank of the United States, which both had earlier opposed, and in strengthening the Nation's defenses and expanding its budget in an un-Jefefrsonian way. The final sections of this chapter consider the retirement of the two ex-Presidents, their continued friendship and political activity and their efforts, especially those of Jefferson, to shape how the revolutionary generation would be viewed by posterity. The book concludes with a rambling epilogue "Thawing Out the Historical Imagination" in which the author's try, with limited success, to tie together the many threads of their narrative.

There is much to be learned from this study. Among the values of the book, it shows that history must be learned slowly, with caution, over time, and from many sources. It is all to easy to extrapolate from the present to the past, a course which does not allow the past to speak in its own difficult, different voice for the lessons it may have. The problem with this book is that the authors overestimate their own originality, resulting in an irreverent tone not only to the era they consider but to prior students of the era. The authors view their skeptical, political approach to the era as an antidote to the tendency to idealize. But their deflationary tone is more part of the current temper than a critique of it. It seems to me that Americans are less guilty of idealizing their history and the founding generation than of ignorance of and lack of interest in it. This book is unlikely to make much impact on those who are apathetic about American history because its appeal will be largely to those readers who have a background and interest in the subject. For these readers, the skepticism and polemics in the book is overdone and probably all too unnecessary. This book is still a valuable contribution to understanding Madison, Jefferson, and early American history.

Robin Friedman

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