It will perhaps not become me to quibble with a review (“Little Jimmy Rides Again,” August) that says my new book, James Madison and the Making of America, may justly be “billed as the new standard on its subject.”  Yet I hope that Chronicles readers will accept a reply to Clyde Wilson’s very amusing, insightful appraisal.

Dr. Wilson achieved the remarkable feat of simultaneously lauding the book and me, laying out an appraisal of Madison himself that is highly consistent with mine, and making it seem that I had glossed over the many discrepancies between Madison’s life and the Standard Version of that life found in virtually every Madison biography.  So, for example, Wilson says that Madison did not deserve the accolade “Father of the Constitution,” likely would not have risen to political prominence if his father had not been the wealthiest man in his county, lived for another six decades after claiming that his physical infirmity would not permit him to join the Continental Army, and unjustly receives great credit for coauthoring a book—The Federalist—whose influence was closer to nil than to epochal.  I think that anyone who read James Madison and the Making of America after reading Wilson’s review would be surprised to see that my book makes all of these points.  In fact, my book is the only Madison biography that makes all of these points.

I don’t quite see why Wilson calls my book “less worshipful . . . than most other treatments of Madison.”  The reason I wrote the book was to correct the thoroughly worshipful current historiography, with which I began to take issue in a scholarly journal article two decades ago.  Wilson lauds the article, and mine is the only Madison book that incorporates its finding that Madison prevaricated in his campaign against the Nullifiers in 1828-33.  Other scholars, but not other Madison biographers, commonly cite the article.

Besides these notable points of divergence from the academic mainstream, my Madison biography is also the only Madison book, indeed the only book other than a scholarly monograph by Yours Truly, ever to demonstrate that the Federalists of the Virginia Ratification Convention sold the U.S. Constitution as allowing state secession.  I would have thought that this finding would be highlighted by Wilson, who ignored it completely.

Reviewing the book in The American Conservative, Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham follows his description of my chapter on the Philadelphia Convention as “brilliant” with exoneration of Madison for his inept performance as war president.  What Ketcham objected to is that my book blasts Madison’s entire foreign-policy program of the 1780’s through the War of 1812 as a dreamy, irresponsible philosopher’s project that was bound to fail.  Here, as elsewhere, I depict Madison as more or less the bookish, philosophical milquetoast that Wilson makes him.

Apparently, the only way that I could have avoided having Dr. Wilson apply the word “worshipful” to my Madison biography would have been to join in denying that my subject ever did anything worthwhile at all.  Of course, that would have been going far too far.  Although he was not the American Solon or Lycurgus, James Madison is an extremely significant figure in American constitutional history.  Still, James Madison and the Making of America is closer to Wilson than to the hagiographical works that dominate the field.

—Kevin R.C. Gutzman

Bethel, CT

Dr. Wilson Replies:

I do not quite see what my friend and one-time sort of unofficial student Dr. Gutzman has to quarrel with.  I said he was one of the best younger historians of the day and praised his work in other ways.

I agree with the point that he most wants to make, that he has demystified Madison considerably and most usefully (though not as much as I would like), or his book would not be considered the new standard.  In the review I thought it worth my while, in the light of the catastrophic distortion that Madison hagiography has inflicted upon the Constitution, to make the point clear for the readers of America’s most original and intelligent journal.