Friday, November 06, 2009

Perpetual Union and liberty, please!

now finished: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham
now reading: This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving
up next: So Big by Edna Ferber

Last night I finished reading the James Madison biography with tears in my eyes.

Spoiler alert? The book ends with the dramatic telling of his death, touching tributes from John Quincy Adams and others, and Madison's final plea for everyone to value both the Union and the liberty for which he had worked his entire life.

Basically, Madison and his buddies changed the world. I think this is all too easy for us to forget, because now we take the United States for granted. But for the past month I have been swept up in the world of someone who not only was born and came of age when the U.S. did not even exist, but who was a huge part of forming the very foundation of it.

The book is superbly researched. I kind of want to be Ketcham's friend. I doubt that I would want to be his research assistant, although I steadfastly admire anyone who is. I think Ketcham read everything while writing this book -- Madison's writings, his friends' writings, his enemies' writings, Congressional reports, colonial newspapers, letters to and from just about everybody who ever knew Madison and his family.

Highlights for me included Madison's time at Princeton and his insane devotion to studying and learning, let alone figuring out what to do with his life. I've already mentioned here that my boy Madison, just like me, read the law due to interest in public affairs but never even attempted to be a counselor-at-bar. Madison was so well-respected in Virginia after his lifetime of service that multiple people praise the depths of his intellect and visited him in his old age just to chat and bask in his wisdom. Plus he came out of retirement in 1829 to be in the Virginia legislature one more time to try to head off the nullification crisis (Southern states resenting the federal government - we all know where that was headed).

A favorite scene of mine was a New Year's reception during Jefferson's presidency -- when Madison was Secretary of State -- whose guests included Native American chiefs and an ambassador from Tunis. The latter took it as a given that the U.S. hosts would provide concubines for him, but then, he did bring Arabian horses along as presents for the U.S. officials and their wives. Ah, dipomacy. He also asked the Cherokee what god they worshipped, and they said the Great Spirit. So he asked them if they believed in Mahomed, Abraham, or Jesus Christ. None of the above, said the Indians. Well, then, asked Sidi Sulliman Mellimelli, what prophet do you worship? None, they said. They worshipped the Great Spirit without an agent. Well then "you are all vile Hereticks" he told them.

How awesome is that? I love how he's so inquisitive, like, well, there must be some prophet, let me just see what category you're in, any religion would be fine. But no prophet at all? Shocking! It just goes to show - again - how much the three biggies of monotheism have in common. And how much do you love the Cherokee and the other Chiefs there who are like, we don't need some prophet. We're directly in touch with the Great Spirit, hello!

Dolley, of course, is a righteous babe. You grow up in elementary school hearing about how Dolley Madison was a "great hostess." Translation? She knew how to party! Not to mention her teenage sister who lived with them during the early years of their marriage to take full advantage of the fashions and social scenes of Philadelphia and later Washington D.C.

And the friendship, partnership, and accomplishments of Madison and Jefferson together? Astonishing. And what good friends they remained throughout their lives, just down the road on their little farms there, always visiting, and philosophizing, and revolutionizing, and whatnot.

Basically - I love this book. I think I enjoyed it as much as reading David McCullough's John Adams. It has definitely renewed my fervor for my presidential bios project. It has also cultivated in me a great respect for Madison and his ideals, including his strong belief in the Union and true liberty.

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