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James Madison: A Biography

A Biography of James Madison by Ralph Ketcham

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A Well Researched but Very Tedious Biography of James Madison

  • May 29, 2009

I am not going to go into a long history of who James Madison is in this review.  If you want that, read this book!  If you are an American and don't know who James Madison is, then that is kind of sad, but he is one of the founding fathers, served in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, and is often considered the Father of the Constitution because of his efforts at the Constitutional Convention and his subsequent co-writing of The Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. He also served in the first Congress, and was the sponsor of the legislation to introduce the Bill of Rights to state conventions for inclusion into the Constitution.  He also served as Secretary of State under the third President, Thomas Jefferson, and was the fourth President of the United States.

Clearly, James Madison is one of the most influential and important politicians and intellectuals in American history.  His role as one of the primary framers of the Constitution of the United States and his subsequent role in its passage in state conventions, in and of itself, marks him as one of the most important founding fathers.  His entire adult life was devoted to politics and much of it to the establishment of the new United States government.  His is a life well worth knowing about.

This biography, however, is not the place to start.  In fact, it may not even be the place to ever go for a biography of Madison for the layperson.   It is excruciatingly detailed and painstakingly written in an academic, unenticing prose that will make the most avid reader flinch and ponder how they will wade through such a ponderous tome.  Even those intimately interested in the founding era and James Madison will not find reading this biography a pleasant task to endure. 

That said it is a very well researched, very, very, very detailed account of James Madison's life.  The biggest flaw is that the importance of his life gets lost in the minutiae.  It's hard to really dig out the analysis and texture of the thoughts and events that shaped Madison's life and the intellectual development that lead to his evolving philosophy of the nature of the federal government over his lifetime.  While some say he was inconsistent in his thought because he went from an advocate of a centralized, strong central government to a sycophant, which may be a bit unfair a word to use, of Thomas Jefferson and states' rights .  But Ketchum lays it all out there and will tell otherwise.  You just have really dig deep for it.

I would not recommend this book for someone casually or even keenly interested in James Madison.  There are not a lot of one volume biographies out there but there are more accessible monographs on his role in the Constitution and American Founding that are likely to be more enlightening, or at the very least, more accessible.

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May 29, 2009
ha ha, yeah, this one is a real slog to get through.
May 29, 2009
Thanks for the heads up. I'll stay away from this one!
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Quick Tip by . June 11, 2010
Awesome book and history, Good read.
About this book


Product Description
A biography of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, who was elected in 1809. Ketchman provides an analysis of his political theory and of the way in which he sought to apply it to the establishment of constitutional government. (From Amazon)
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ISBN-10: 0945707339
ISBN-13: 978-0945707332
Author: Ralph Ketcham
Genre: Nonfiction, American History,Biography
Publisher: University of Virginia Press
Date Published: 1971
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