The Founding Realist

If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason

by Richard K. Matthews
University Press of Kansas, 297 pp., $25.00

Poor James Madison! Think of who he was and what he achieved. The major architect of the Constitution; the father of the Bill of Rights and one of the strongest proponents of the rights of conscience and religious liberty in American history; co-author of The Federalist, surely the most significant work of political theory in American history; the leader and most important member of the first House of Representatives in 1789; co-founder of the Democratic-Republican party in the 1790s; secretary of state in Jefferson’s administration; and the fourth president of the United States—all this, and still he does not have the popular standing of the other founding fathers, especially that of his closest friend, Thomas Jefferson.

Madison seems unable to escape from the shadow of Jefferson, and seems smaller than his Virginia colleague in every way. He was after all only about five feet six inches tall compared to Jefferson’s six two or three, and somehow that difference in height has carried over into the different degrees of popular esteem that the country has paid to these two founders. Jefferson has a huge temple erected in his honor in the nation’s capital; but until 1980, with the naming of a new Library of Congress building after him, James Madison had no such memorial. Jefferson’s ringing statements on behalf of freedom and democracy are inscribed everywhere but this is so of very few of Madison’s. Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has been restored to Jeffersonian perfection and has become a shrine visited by thousands of people every year. Madison’s home, Montpelier, has only recently been opened to visitors, and it remains dominated by the twentieth-century horsy tastes of the Du Ponts who once owned it.

Although the two men collaborated on many things throughout their careers, especially in passing Virginia’s bill for religious freedom and in organizing the Democratic-Republican party, Jefferson has received all the glory while Madison did much of the work. Indeed, Jefferson has come to symbolize America and America’s ideals to an extent that no other single figure in our history has matched. Certainly Madison has not even come close. Until now, that is.

It is the burden of If Men Were Angels, by Richard K. Matthews, professor of government at Lehigh University, to show us that Madison, not Jefferson, is the more accurate symbol of America. Madison, not Jefferson, says Matthews, stands for the America of the past two hundred years; he, not Jefferson, articulated the beliefs and values that have made us what we are. Matthews contends that Madison is the most influential and most representative thinker among the founders of the United States. Madison is the “quintessential liberal” whose “passionless notion of reasonable liberal politics” has shaped our culture as no one else’s has.

As the term “passionless” and the word “heartless” in the subtitle jarringly suggest, however, Matthews’s book is not meant to enhance Madison’s reputation. For Matthews does not much like the …

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Letters

An Exchange on James Madison May 23, 1996