James Madison a Biography by Ralph Ketcham

In August of 2007 I set myself a goal to read at least one biography about each U.S. President. So far I have read the following.

  • His Excellency George Washington by Joseph-Ellis
  • John Adams by David McCullough
  • Thomas Jefferson by R.B. Bernstein

In the blog I wrote about the Jefferson biography I asked if anyone could recommend  the best book to read about James Madison, our fourth President.  I was thrilled to have my question answered by Bernstein, the Jefferson biography author. He said "For Madison, the best large one-volume life is by Ralph Ketcham" I started reading the Madison book in December and just finished it.

Ketcham’s biography of James Madison is a big book
(671 pages) but then Madison’s life was big. When I think of all that happened
during the span of Madison’s life and all he contributed to our country it
inspires me.  Madison lived for 85 years .
He is known as the father of the constitution. He was Secretary of State under
Jefferson and he was the fourth President of the United States serving two
terms from 1809 to 1817. Madison led the country through the war of 1812, the
invasion of Washington and the burning of the White House.

The constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and
state can at least partly be credited to Madison. In reading Ketcham’s
biography I was struck by how important the difference is between religious
toleration and the complete freedom of religion that Madison championed.  As a young man Madison witnessed persecution
and imprisonment of Baptist preachers for preaching without a license. “His
study and the scolding and disputing over the persecutions helped move him from
the condescending idea of toleration to the more liberal concept he was to
implant in the Virginia Bill of Rights in June 1776.” Pg 57-58. Madison believed strongly that government
should have nothing to do with religion. Ketcham says “religious liberty stands out as the one subject upon which
Madison took and extreme, absolute, undeviating position throughout his life.”
Pg 165

Madison believed that we should learn from the past. Prior to the Constitutional Convention of
1787 he extensively and exhaustively studied the history of republican and  federal government throughout history.  Ketcham said that “Madison’s intense study at
Montpelier in 1786, after his sparse breakfasts and before the evening games of
whist for half bits, left him as well informed on the workings of confederate
governments as any man in America”  Madison compiled his notes on “ the facts and lessons about the ancient
and modern confederacies in a booklet of forty-one pocket size pages, easy to
use in debate of writing.” pg 184 I like the idea of compiling notes and studying to
become an expert.  In a small sense that is what I try to do in this

One of Madison’s big
concerns in determining how the federal government should be designed was the
tension between majority rule and the
idea of inalienable rights. “Was there any way to guard against the majority
consenting to a violation of such rights? A positive answer to this question
would, in Madison’s mind, solve the fundamental problem of republican

I found it awe
inspiring to read Ketchum’s description of the Continental Congress and
Madison’s central role in the creation of the constitution.

Ketchum’s descriptions of Madison’s personal life were especially interesting to
me. I was surprised to learn that Madison didn’t marry his wife Dolley until
1794 when he was 43 years old and had already helped create the
constitution. She was a widow seventeen
years his junior. Her first husband and
her infant son died on the same day during the Philadelphia yellow fever
epidemic of 1793. The story of Dolley Madison’s role in Madison’s life and
especially her role as first lady are a big story in and of themselves. It is amazing to realize that
Madison’s life was half over before Dolley even entered his life.

Madison always sought to defend the balance of powers
established in the constitution. He was especially concerned about the power of war and peace. Alexander
Hamilton’s efforts to expand the executive power alarmed Madison.  Madison’s words on this subject seem

“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found
than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the
legislature, and not to the executive department…… It is in war …. that the
laurels are to be gathered; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.
The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast;
ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame are all in
conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”

Madison tried to avoid war with England long after many
people believed that it was  a necessity.
When the US did go to war in 1812 the country was weak and unprepared. The
early part of the war was a disaster of bungling and defeats. Reading about the
British invasion of Washington and the burning of the White House is especially
frustrating when you realize the ineptitude
of the defenders. Ketchum puts it all in
perspective saying “ Madison accepted knowingly the liabilities of his
republican approach, calmly confident that preserving the nation’s free
character was worth some travail and inefficiency. As a result, by 1816 Madison
was for more certain than be could possibly have been twenty years earlier that
the nature of American government was firmly free, united, and republican, and
that the successful conclusion of the war made America’s national independence
unassailable.”(pg 605)



Author: marionvermazen

I am a traveler, hiker, avid reader, Sun alumnus, computer geek, Spanish and French language student, knitter and genealogist. I am retired after working for almost 30 years in the Computer Industry. I live in Reno, Nevada with my husband Duke.

8 thoughts on “James Madison a Biography by Ralph Ketcham”

  1. I know this is an old post, but I am doing the same thing you are! I am finishing ‘His Excellency’ right now, and I have already purchased John Adams by McCullough, and I chose American Sphinx also by Ellis for Jefferson. I found this blog while Google searching ‘Best books about James Madison’. I would love to exchange notes. Are you done? If not, where are you in your reading? Thanks and good luck.
    Colin McGrath
    Phoenix, AZ


  2. I am so excited to find this blog! Since March I have been on the same treck through U.S. presidents as you and Colin above have been on. I have read the same biographies as you so far and found your blog be searching “best James Madison biography.” Thanks so much for the help!


  3. Colin and David,
    Thanks very much for your comments. What books are you on now? I am reading A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W Merry. It is about #11 James Polk. I am enjoying it very much. I’m also toying with the idea of creating a website dedicated to this challenge. What do you think?


  4. I just wanted to add a book to anyone’s list who enjoys reading about the Presidents of the US and US history. John Adams by Page Smith is a 2 volume set about 1100 pages per volume but a gives a great insight, not just into Adams, but everyone involved in the signing and before and after that held a place of notice in the early years of the country. It’s long but extremly well written and explains more than Adams’ political views but everyone else around him as well.


  5. What a coincidence. I, too, am doing this and have already finished the exact two for George Washington and John Adams, and I have your choice for Thomas Jefferson already selected after I finish my detour read of a Benjamin Franklin biography. I found your blog by doing a search for books about James Madison, already thinking about what to choose for him. I would love to get a list of all the ones you’ve read and whether you recommend them. I’ve loved both I’ve finished so far, but after reading such an epic as the McCullough (which I just adored) I sort of wish I would have chosen a more inclusive biography for Washington. Although, I did find Ellis to be an engaging biographer and loved his writing style. Thanks for posting this. It is great to know there are others out there doing the same.


  6. Jennifer,
    I agree that it is hard to decide which bios to read. I too am wishing I had read a more extensive bio of Washington.
    My list of the books I have read so far is here
    I’m reading about James Polk right now – A Country of Vast Designs.
    I’ve been thinking about creating a web site dedicated to reading presidential biographies. It is fun to interact with others who have the same interest.
    Let me know how you are doing.


  7. Hi Marion. Still plugging along with Isaacson’s Franklin. I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. He was a likable character! It is so interesting to get the different vantage points of these formidable forces in our history! After Franklin, I will get to Jefferson and then I might do another detour for Alexander Hamilton. I visited Boston last weekend and went to the Adams’s homes and burial sites. I loved seeing Peacefield so much!! I’d like to plan a trip for each of the biographies I read. Next up, Mt. Vernon!
    I’d love it if you’d create the presidential biography website. I think it’d be great to compare notes!
    Take care!


  8. I have set off on the same journey. I started with Isaacson’s Franklin, which inspired me to read a bio of each American President. I went with Ron Chernow’s book on Washington, McCullough’s John Adams, and am about to start on the Dumas Mallone 6 volume “Jefferson in His Time”. Stumbled across your blog when looking for a recommendation for James Madison.


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