Thursday, March 8, 2012

James Madison and the Making of America - Reviewed

James Madison and the Making of AmericaJames Madison and the Making of America by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received this Advance Reading Copy through Goodreads First Reads program, so I'll refrain from any quoting or commentary on spelling and proofing.

Gutzman has obviously done a tremendous amount of research to put this book together. If what you're looking for is a more textbook telling of James Madison's public life in in-depth detail, this is the book for you. Unfortunately, Madison's public life does not lend itself to a very compelling narrative. Though he was one of the great Founding Fathers, other luminaries such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson are much more interesting reads. This book never really takes the reader from Philadelphia, Virginia, or DC, and we spend most of our time inside convention halls, salons, and newspapers. Perhaps that is the greatest take-away for me from this book: Madison's contributions to our nation's founding were instrumental and demand careful study, but they do not lend themselves to a compelling read.

The other strike against this book is Gutzman's presentation. It is 363 pages (without the end notes), yet it is only divided into eight chapters with no additional breaks in the narrative. It is simply page after page of text, which makes for chewy reading. Fischer's Washington's Crossing in contrast (a book of comparable length) is broken up into 19 chapters and includes a wonderful introduction that orients the reader. Additionally, Washington's Crossing includes 19 maps and many dozens of inset portraits and paintings of the relevant personalities and places involved. These not only serve to further inform the reader, but also break up the text to make it more digestible. Gutzman's organization of the material may be logical (in that it is chronological), but it needs to be served in more concise and smaller portions.

Gutzman's chapters are as follows:
1: From Subject to Citizen
2: Winning the Revolution
3: The Philadelphia Convention
4: Ratifying the Constitution, Part One
5: Ratifying the Constitution, Part Two
6: Inaugurating the Constitution
7: Secretary of State, Then President
8: An Active Retirement

If you want a daily account of the Philadelphia Convention, a summary and analysis of each of the Federalist Papers, and a blow-by-blow of every twist and turn the ratification process, then I suggest this book. If you're looking for a page turner, look elsewhere. Though I can't get enough of this era, I found myself skimming large sections of this book knowing that I would never be able to retain its minutiae. It's a shame, because Madison's public life is worthy of study. But perhaps not in this level of detail.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment