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James Madison (The American Presidents #4)

3.56 of 5 stars 3.56  ·  rating details  ·  464 ratings  ·  51 reviews
A bestselling historian examines the life of a Founding Father.

Renowned historian and social commentator Garry Wills takes a fresh look at the life of James Madison, from his rise to prominence in the colonies through his role in the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the first Constitutional Congress.
Madison oversaw the first foreign war under the constitution
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published April 2nd 2002 by Times Books (first published January 1st 2002)
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Book fifteen of my Presidential Challenge. Let me get this out of the way right here: James Madison was a great man. He is known as the "Father of the Constitution" because he wrote a huge chunk of it. He also wrote the Bill of Rights...yeah, that Bill of Rights. If he had never become President he would still go down in history as one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived.'s the deal, he did become President. The fourth President to be exact. And by all outward measures, he was
Zohar -
This short biography of James Madison focuses on his time as president of the United States – imagine a biography of Miguel de Cervantes focusing on his time as a soldier in a Spanish Navy infantry regiment.

James Madison was a great theorist, extraordinary writer, cunning politician and an effective legislator – but as president he was simply “good”. Madison was never counted as one of the great presidents and author Garry Wills acknowledges as such in the opening of the book. As a matter of a c
Kai Palchikoff
Nov 16, 2014 Kai Palchikoff marked it as to-read
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A bestselling historian examines the life of a Founding Father. Renowned historian and social commentator Garry Wills takes a fresh look at the life of James Madison, from his rise to prominence in the colonies through his role in the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the first Constitutional Congress. Madison oversaw the first foreign war under the constitution, and was forced to adjust some expectations he had formed while drafting that document. Not temperamentally suited to be a ...more
Randal Samstag
Garry Wills's short book on Madison is not the complete story on our puzzling fourth President, but it captures well the many contradictory positions which Madison embraced during his long life. Wills's book was a commissioned study in The American Presidents Series, so he concentrates on Madison's tenure as President, which most historians (except perhaps Lynn Cheney) see as not anywhere near to the quality of the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, or FDR.

The most notable event in Madison's p
Other than the biography on George Washington, this book by Garry Wills was the best of the first four volumes in the American Presidents Series. I enjoy biographies that enable the reader to picture the man and the circumstances he was in in his or her mind's eye. The John Adams and Thomas Jefferson volumes in this series did not enable me to do that. This one did. I got a clear picture of what James Madison looked like early on, and I was able to picture him acting and reacting in the various ...more
Bart Breen
Another Wills Gem

Garry Wills is fast becoming a favorite Historian and Author to me.

As is his habit, he brings his pithy and rich style to an examination of Madison's Presidency which in many ways was decidedly less successful than his stellar legislative and constitutional achievements. Rather than stating surprise at this, as many historians do, Wills outlines why this outcome was somewhat predictable when the skills of Madison early on are examined dispassionately. Madison was a superb legisl
Steven Peterson
Garry Wills, eminent author on the American mind, writes a literate and compelling political biography of James Madison, "Jemmy" as he was called earlier in his life. Here was someone whose resume seems made to become president. Yet this man, "the Father of the Constitution," was not near the success that one might have guessed from his background.

His pedigree includes: key figure in the Constitutional Convention--from getting George Washington to attend (a coup) to helping structure the agenda
James Madison is the picture perfect Presidential flip-flopper, but in many ways this was because he grew as a person through his years in politics. He wasn't the best President and many of his own actions were the cause of his lackluster Presidency. He had a few obsessions that he would not let go no matter how many times they failed or floundered. For example, a trade embargo that wasn't influential in forcing the desired outcome yet he would not give it up. His cabinet was full of sparing pol ...more
This biography is a good primer to the fourth President - the first president who really came to the nation-building cause after the whole treason thing had passed.

James Madison is a bit of a conundrum - a great committeeman but not that strong or independent a leader. He can be considered personally responsible for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc., but he went on to build a nepotistic (and fraudulent) cabinet, managed to let the British burn down Washington, and was the ultimate flip
Eric Paulsen
James Madison goes forgotten in most circles. Countless friends inquire how my Presidential Biography Project is going, and when I mention the name of our fourth president, many had no idea who he was, much less know anything else about him. I don't say that to shame anyone, for my knowledge of the man was limited to the 10 minute documentaries History Channel plays during President's Day. In my readings of his three predecessors, I have obtained a fairly general vantage into his life, particula ...more
This biography, James Madison, wasn't quite what I was expecting. It focuses primarily on Madison's time as president, while I was hoping for more coverage on the other accomplishments he achieved during his life.

It was very interesting to learn that Madison, despite not accomplishing any of the goals he set forth at the beginning of the War of 1812, was able to bring the country together by basically abandoning his Republican principles during the war. It sounds like Madison was wildly popular
Gary Wills’s book on Madison gives an interesting insight into Madison life. You learn how Madison was a master legislator and is the leader drafter of the U.S. constitution. However, many of his strong character traits that lead to his success of before his reign in office lead to his weak Presidency. I believe you see this combination of a strong law maker but a weak president repeated in US in history multiple times (one example being LBJ). Madison intelligence an ability to work deals made h ...more
I must admit, I mostly chose this biography because of its length. I think it gave a fairly good overview of Madison, though it mostly focused on his time in office and I would have liked to learn a little bit more about his personal life than this biography covered.

Madison shaped our country quite possibly more than any other man, but as a president, he was simply average. He was a wonderful writer and a brilliant political mind but wasn’t the best leader. He was a bit of a flip flopper and he
I'm a great fan of Garry Wills, but I was a little disappointed with this book. It's part of a series of short biographies of the presidents, and as such didn't really have room for all of Madison's accomplishments (you know, writing the Constitution and all that), but Wills states at the beginning that he's interested in one particular question: how a man of such talent could have had such an undistinguished presidency.

And then he discusses those aspects of Madison's life that have a direct bea
Steven Taylor
This is a rather brief book that is useful for getting some context about the Madison presidency, but is a lot less biographical than it ought to be. One does not get much of a sense of the man or even of his presidency (aside from the fact that it was somewhat dysfunctional).

Most of the discussion is understandably focused on the War of 1812, but in so doing the focus is less on the President at war as it is simply on the war itself. Indeed, there are some relatively lengthy segments that descr
I enjoyed this exposition, but I was disappointed there was not more detail about Madison the man and president.
While I understand that you cannot divorce the presidency of Madison from the War of 1812, the book was more about the war and its prosecution under (for the most part) inept and incompetent commanders. This was great military history; but I wanted to read a biography of James Madison.
That said, I did enjoy this book. Wills is a fantastic writer and has a great narrative style. His bo
Wish it had been more informative about the personality of Madison and less heavy on maritime details of the war of 1812. Madison didn't seem like a great president, but he was most definitely a brilliant legislator. Our country owes much to him.
After finishing the very good book in this series on Chester Arthur, I decided to try the book on James Madison next, who is one of my two favorite Founding Fathers along with Jefferson. Unfortunately I was disappointed in this entry; I learned a few things, but there wasn't anything very memorable about it, and Madison's writer didn't bring him and his peers to life the same way Arthur's did. I'll have to look around some more for a good Madison bio.
Jennifer Nelson
Garry Wills has produced a short, at times dry, little sketch of James Madison, mainly focusing on the presidency and the political culture of the time. Amid the dustiness, though, there were some very brilliant gem-like observations of and insights into James Madison’s personality and character. He takes a somewhat critical view of Madison’s presidency but pays tribute to brilliance of this man’s writing and thinking skills.
Dave Mcmahon
An interesting book, Wills sheds light on a more obscured president. Madison's time as a legislator is well documented and interesting. It also brings interesting tones to the presidencies of Washington and Jefferson.

The part on the War of 1812 is interesting, specially as the description of the war is neither biased toward the American or British point of view.

Easy read, good entry into the history of James Madison.
Jerry Landry
Very good, solid biography of Madison. I like the premise that Wills begins the biography with and crafts it around from beginning to end -- that Madison had his flaws but that they could be understood as strengths in some of his more admirable moments (crafting the Constitution, aiding in writing the Federalist Papers, pushing the Bill of Rights through Congress, etc.). Very well done and highly recommended book.
Gary Wills knows how to write. In this short biography, he asks a simple question: how did a brilliant theorist and legislator become a lackluster president? The answer lies as much in the roles as in the man and is heavily informed by circumstance. Much to Wills' credit, he also demonstrates that the clarity of the poles he posits are not so clear, after all.

As part of my ongoing project to read a biography of every president I progressed from Jefferson to Madison. Madison quite frankly wasn't our most interesting or effective president. The War of 1812 seemed to be a debacle from the start and the book itself was a little too text-book like. Oh well. On to Monroe!
I love The American Presidents series but this one, which is often comprised of long passages taken directly from Madison's own writing, is proving a difficult read. I'm about 50 pages into and just getting to where Madison enters into public service. Hopefully things will lighten up a bit.
Prior to this book, most of my knowledge regarding James Madison revolved around his involvement at the constitutional convention. This book gives a fairly decent look into his role as the president. After reading, I can understand why historians only consider him an average president.
Michael Garner
Short read, read in less then a 24 hour period. I nice introduciton to the 4th president, mainly concentrating on his efforts during the constitution convention and his actions leading up and druing the war or 1812. Very little on his early or late life.
James Madison was a brilliant founding father, commonly known as the "Father of the Constitution". However, as President, he had his struggles. He was more well liked after his term in office. Good read by Garry Wills, but a little heavy at times.
William J. Shep
A balanced overview of Madison's career, but not Wills' best writing as he displays a certain ambivalence regarding Madison throughout his text. This may be valid but it leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied in the end.
Katie Umland
A book for people who like history, but i was not really that impressed with it and only had to read it for college class. Not just about James Madison's Presidency, does have things about other history events in it.
Sarah Riddle
I am going to get to see Garry Wills as part of the Humanities Fest and I wanted to read something else by him beforehand. It's cool because it focuses on Madison's time as president which was a tad lackluster. Holla
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Garry Wills is an author and historian, and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. In 1993, he won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which describes the background and effect of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

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