James Madison, who wrote the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution,
sponsored the Bill of Rights, and served as the fifth Secretary of State
and the fourth President, was America’s least fun Founding Father. He
was also the shortest, standing roughly eye-to-eye with George
Washington’s collarbone, and his unadorned black suits were forgettable
next to the great general’s tailored uniforms. Madison went to the
College of New Jersey, now Princeton, rather than to William and
Mary—Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater—because his health was too poor to
withstand the heat and humidity of lowland Virginia. There, his most
daring shenanigan was writing jejune poetry in the school’s “paper wars”
between rival clubs. (“[She] took me to her private room / And
straight an Eunuch out I come.”) Apart from a brief flirtation with a
teen-ager named Kitty—a flirtation guided, if not induced, by Jefferson,
a self-appointed Revolutionary yenta—Madison had an uneventful love
life. Alexander Hamilton had already married and strayed from Elizabeth
Schuyler, in what would become America’s earliest sex
by the time that a forty-three-year-old Madison, with the help of Aaron
Burr, Martha Washington, and a cousin willing to ghostwrite love
letters, wooed Dolley Payne Todd, a widow in her early twenties. Dolley,
who was fond of turbans and rescued George Washington’s portrait before
the British burned down the White House, was definitely the most fun
thing about Madison.

Madison, in other words, is never going to inspire a hit Broadway
musical. But he’s a reliable subject in the genre of “dad history,” the
kind written by David McCullough, purchased by default on Father’s Day,
and dismissed by most as “tomes”—a mark of pride to the “size matters”
demographic who see virtue in page count. That’s the kind of book one
expects upon a first glance at “The Three Lives of James Madison:
Genius, Partisan,
by Noah Feldman. But Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, at
Harvard Law School, has written something else: a palliative for the age
of Trump that never names the current President, as told through the
political evolution of an important weirdo whose constant recalibrations
enabled him, with increasing success, to fight epic battles with his
own, founding-era “haters and

Feldman is at once subtle and candid about the aptness of his narrative.
“To avoid disrupting the story from its proper frame, I mostly refrain
from suggesting parallels or comparisons to contemporary debates or
events,” he writes in the preface. “But they are there in plain sight.”
This, one imagines, may have been a late addition to a nearly
eight-hundred-page book that has happened to land during the first
season of “The Apprentice: Washington.” But the timely message is
actually evergreen: the extreme partisanship that leaves us in varying
states of frustration, alarm, and paranoia has always been a condition
of the American experiment. No one knew that better than Madison, who so
thoroughly abandoned his dream of a nation devoid of permanent political
factions that he ended up institutionalizing them.

In what Feldman characterizes as the future President’s first life—the
“Genius” part—Madison laid the theoretical groundwork for a constitution
for a republic. But, for that vision to be realized, he needed the help
of Hamilton, who would become his greatest frenemy. It is difficult to
imagine their fortuitous partnership forming before the Revolution.
Madison lived with his parents at Montpelier, the plantation he was born
on in 1751, surrounded by enslaved people whom his family owned. He was
firmly of the planter class, an eldest son privately tutored at home
with the expectation that he would carry on the family business, which
included tobacco, vegetable, and grain crops. Feldman’s descriptions of
his movements—riding to Washington’s Mount Vernon from Jefferson’s
Monticello, for instance—sometimes read like perverse historical buddy
comedy: these were privileged gentleman who could leave their properties
for months, even years, while overseers wielding whips made sure that their
pockets remained relatively full. (Later, a ne’er-do-well stepson’s
gambling debts would leave the Madisons impoverished, and Montpelier,
along with the people whom the Madisons owned, would be sold.) Madison’s
success, in other words, was virtually insured. The same couldn’t be
said for Hamilton, who, as everyone these days knows, was a bastard,
orphan, son of a whore and a
. But the War of
Independence brought them together.

Madison, the introvert, the thinking man, the sickly eldest son, served
as a Virginia state assemblyman, while Hamilton, convinced that the war
was his chance for upward mobility, sought glory on the battlefield
before finding it as Washington’s aide-de-camp. It was a frustrating
period for both men. In 1780, Hamilton wrote, “I hate Congress—I hate
the army—I hate the world—I hate myself.” Madison, meanwhile, couldn’t
even drum up enough interest in a convention to revise the Articles of
Confederation. Hamilton stepped in, and, in ten prolific months, with a
small contribution from John Jay, the two carried out the most
successful publicity campaign in American history: the Federalist
Papers. Under the joint pseudonym Publius, one of the aristocrats who
overthrew the Roman monarchy, in 509 B.C., they wrote eighty-five
articles and essays. (Hamilton is believed to have contributed fifty-one
to Madison’s twenty-nine and Jay’s five.) They did this despite
harboring fundamentally different beliefs about government: Hamilton
preferred a monarchic executive, modelled after the British system,
while Madison believed that the greatest threat to the American republic
came from a minority. “For the length of their collaboration, Madison
became more Hamiltonian, and Hamilton more Madisonian,” Feldman
explains. They developed a political friendship that could withstand
debate and difference because, after all, they were both sensible beings
with shared goals, and that’s how Madison believed factionalism would
function in the new republic. Local interests would be secondary to
those of an expanding territory, and elected officials would govern in
the public interest. It was an optimistic approach that worked when
needed, and was quickly revealed to be porous, if not Pollyanna-ish, in

After the Constitution was ratified, in 1788, and effected, in 1789,
Madison was elected to Congress, and Hamilton became Secretary of the
Treasury. Over a private dinner with Jefferson, in 1790, they agreed that
the national government would assume state debts in exchange for a new
capital on the Potomac. After that, their relationship swiftly devolved.
Madison had never envisioned permanent parties, but, when Hamilton
proposed the creation of a national bank, he worked with Jefferson to
establish the Democratic Republican Party, in order to challenge the
Federalists’ agenda. Elected officials had to pick a side. Madison
demonized Hamilton as what today’s pundits would call a puppet of Wall
Street: Hamilton cared only about New York City and all the fat cats who
never left the island, he suggested—that’s why Hamilton wanted to
establish a national bank. What’s more, it was unconstitutional, and
took power away from those who today would be called “real Americans,”
the fine folks in the center of the country, not the capitalists on the
coast, with their big-city values. Those greedy people were corrupt,
they were un-American, and they allowed the country to be, as Madison
put it, “penetrated to its remotest corners with the foreign poison.”

Madison published these thoughts anonymously in the pro-Republican
Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser, one of many partisan
newspapers launched in the seventeen-nineties—print precursors to
Breitbart, which disseminated the most extreme versions of their stories
at the most politically opportune times. Madison was quick to recognize
the power of freedom of speech, and of the press.

His gift for adaptation had an indefensible limitation. Slavery “cast
its shadow over Madison’s entire existence,” as Feldman puts it. In the
book, he illustrates the point by keeping Billey, an enslaved man about
seven years younger than Madison, close to the narrative. Billey was
given to Madison, by his grandmother, when he was an infant. He served
Madison in states where slavery had been partially abolished, which may
have provided an opportunity, however risky, for him to abandon
Madison altogether. Madison, though, seemed less concerned about that
than about the tales of freedom Billey might tell others upon his return to
Montpelier. “I am persuaded his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a
fit companion for fellow slaves in Virginia,” he explained to his
father, in a letter from 1783. Billey was freed after seven years of
indentured servitude in Pennsylvania, and went on to marry and start his
own family. (Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s excellent book “A Slave in the
from 2012, which focusses on Paul Jennings—who was born at Montpelier,
served Madison in Washington, was sold by a cash-poor Dolley to an
insurance agent, and later wrote the first White House
a more detailed look than Feldman manages into the Madison family as

As President, Madison brought the new nation into its first official
war, having abandoned neutrality between the battling superpowers
Britain and France when the former seized American commercial ships.
What ensued was a relatively futile conflict that came to a close two
years later. But, when Madison retired to Montpelier, he left
Washington, D.C., as a winner. Feldman, who consulted on the Iraqi
constitution, regards what followed as the exemplar for “subsequent
American unwillingness to shine harsh light on wars that produced mixed
results.” With an eye toward his legacy and his living, which was
reduced not only by his stepson but also by own negligence as a
plantation owner during his Presidency, Madison would revise his own
papers—including his personal letters and notes from conventions and
Congress—twice, in anticipation of a sale. Meanwhile, the election of
James Monroe, his Republican successor, as the fifth President marked an
end to Hamilton’s Federalists, and ushered in “the Era of Good
Feelings,” a period that, with a single-party government, was most
aligned with Madison’s Constitution.

Within decades, that seeming unity was obliterated by the issue
politicians had avoided since the three-fifths compromise, in 1787.
Abraham Lincoln promised to contain slavery when he was elected
President, in November of 1860, and, less than six months later, the Civil War began.

Few of America’s citizens have believed more fervently or optimistically
in its promise than Madison, and yet he fell prey to the same
divisiveness and petty grievance that have dogged the country and its
stewards since the founding. Such knowledge may sound disheartening, but
on the page the effect is somehow the opposite: if America’s abiding
weaknesses appear steady, so do its strengths. Every generation fears a
President, a war, a financial crisis, or a fundamental shift in society
will usher in the country’s downfall, and yet we’re still here. That
doesn’t make any of these moments less ghastly to live through, or
activism any less necessary. But what Madison’s life suggests is that
crisis is an inevitable, maybe even fundamental part of the
Constitution, and sustaining its ideals has never been easy. We arguably have yet to do so.