A WATERSHED ACCOUNT OF THE MOST IMPORTANT POLITICAL FRIENDSHIP IN AMERICAN HISTORY
Please join us for a presentation and book signing with esteemed historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg who joined forces to reveal the crucial partnership of two extraordinary founders, creating a superb dual biography that is a thrilling and unprecedented account of early America.
The third and fourth presidents have
long been considered proper and noble gentlemen, with Thomas Jefferson’s
genius overshadowing James Madison’s judgment and common sense. But,
in this revelatory book, both leaders are seen as men of their times,
ruthless and hardboiled operatives in a gritty world of primal politics
where they struggled for supremacy more than fifty years.
Contrary to received wisdom, James Madison was not dull and empty of emotion, and Thomas Jefferson was even more contentious than tradition tells us. Madison lost his temper at the Constitutional Convention, and for most of the years leading to his presidency, the eloquent Jefferson was actually the less consequential political actor in this famous partnership. Together, “Tall Tommy and Little Jemmy,” as one unsympathetic contemporary dubbed the odd couple, fought as political pugilists, leaving their mark first on Revolutionary Virginia and then America.
In our histories, the elder figure, Jefferson, looms larger. Yet Madison is privileged in the title because, as Burstein and Isenberg reveal, he was the senior partner at key moments in the formation of the two-party system. It was Madison who did most to initiate the presidency of George Washington while Jefferson was in France in the role of diplomat. So often described as shy, the Madison of this book is quite assertive. Yet he regularly escapes bad press, while Jefferson’s daring pen gets him assailed by a nearly constant barrage of partisan attacks.
In Madison and Jefferson we see the two as privileged young men in a land marked by tribal identities rather than a united national personality. They were raised to always ask first: “How will this play in Virginia?” Burstein and Isenberg powerfully capture Madison’s secret canny role in Jefferson’s career, acting in effect as a campaign manager. In riveting detail, the authors chart the courses of two very different presidencies: Jefferson’s driven by force of personality, Madison’s sustained by a militancy history has been reluctant to ascribe to him.
The aggressive expansionism of the third and fourth presidents has been underplayed. After the Louisiana Purchase more than doubled U.S. territory, the pair contrived to purchase Cuba and, for years, looked for ways to conquer Canada. What they said in private and wrote anonymously was often more influential than what they signed their names to.Supported by a wealth of original sources—newspapers, letters, diaries, pamphlets—Madison and Jefferson is a stunning new look at a remarkable duo who arguably did more than all the others in their generation to set the course for American political development. It untangles a rich legacy, explaining how history made Jefferson into a national icon, leaving Madison a relative unknown. It tells nasty truths about the conduct of politics when America was young and reintroduces us to colorful personalities, once famous and now obscure, who influenced and were influenced by the two Revolutionary actors around whom the story turns. As an intense narrative of high stakes competition, Madison and Jefferson exposes the beating heart of a rowdy republic in its first fifty years, while giving more than a few clues to why we are a politically divided nation today.
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are Manship Professor of History and professor of history, respectfully, at Louisiana State University. Burstein is the author of six books on early America, including The Passions of Andrew Jackson and Jefferson’s Secrets. Isenberg is the author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America.
For years, James Madison has receded further and further in our popular imaginations. James Madison was a little man. A little, 5 foot 4 inch man with a powdered wig. His letters and correspondence are dull. His personal magnetism nonexistent. While all the other founders are usually drawn in vibrant colors, Madison—though most agree that he was probably the greatest intellect of them all—is time and again depicted as the drab, boring, unlikable one. Perhaps the best you could say for the man was that he married a very lively woman. Indeed the image of Dolley Madison saving silver and valuables and George Washington's portrait from a burning White House is unfortunately what first springs to mind when we think of the Madison presidency.
But Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg—two preeminent scholars of this period —make a startling case in this groundbreaking account of the most important political friendship in American history. James Madison's name comes first in their title because, in Andy and Nancy's hands, modern readers will for the very first time get a fresh perspective on a James Madison untainted by the clichés of too many historians. No, he was not the most charismatic of men. No, he didn't fight duels. But he WAS the canniest and shrewdest politician of all the founders. While the others were often engaged in epic public fights, he quietly played them off each other. And he was a behind-the-scenes force to be reckoned with. It was Madison who did the most to initiate the presidency of George Washington. And it was Madison who orchestrated Jefferson's career. In 1796, it was the then retired Jefferson who was urging Madison, then at the height of his congressional career, to seek the presidency. Rejecting the idea, Madison lured Jefferson away from the quiet of his mountaintop, and set him up to battle John Adams. Madison was in short Jefferson’s campaign manager, long before the term was even coined.
And in today's world of enormous partisan rancor, this book shows us how important it is to go back and re-acquaint ourselves with the spirit of the founding era—a spirit of....enormous partisan rancor. For Madison and Jefferson were country gentlemen who practiced hardball politics in a time of intolerance. These men—and their compatriots Adams, Hamilton, Burr, Patrick Henry among others—were out for blood—sometimes literally. And one of the most bracing lessons MADISON & JEFFERSON teaches us is that political argument and debate—even of the most fearsome kind—is an essential facet of a healthy democracy.
And contrary to reputation, both of these men were aggressive, imperial presidents—as we discover in these pages, after the Louisiana Purchase more than doubled U.S. territory, Jefferson and Madison contrived to purchase Cuba and—yes—even looked for ways to conquer Canada. And you thought your mother-in-law was pushy!!
Now there is a third major character in this book—after Madison and Jefferson—and that character is....the STATE OF VIRGINIA. Because these two men were all about advancing Virginia's interests over those of the country. As this book reminds us, in the earliest days, these states were not always united. Madison and Jefferson did nothing without first asking, “How will this play in Virginia?"
What reassurance Madison and Jefferson obtained as they fought for what they believed in derived, in a very real way, from the trust they eventually came to lodge in one another. Their partnership was one of the few constants either of them knew over their long political life. And after leaving office, they spent their last years polishing and crafting their legacy for history. By rewriting their lives for posterity they left a legacy of elegant deceptions and political spin that historians have only recently begun digging out from under and Andy and Nancy do a brilliant job untangling. Madison & Jefferson is a bold and comprehensive product of this new and vital way of looking afresh at the people and an era we thought we knew.
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are a power team. They have a number of highly acclaimed books to their credit individually and they are joining forces here for the first time. A husband and wife duo, they run the history department at LSU and are endearingly enthusiastic about this subject and master proselytizers for their work. This is a book that will court controversy in the best way, I think. It has fundamentally altered how I perceive our founding era and I'm thrilled to be sharing with you this account of the critical fifty-year-long personal bond that guided the course of American history.