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  • Basic Books

James Madison: America's First Politician

Jay Cost

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USA, Biography: historical, political & military, Politics & government, Political science & theory

An intellectual biography of James Madison, arguing that he invented American politics as we know it

How do you solve a problem like James Madison? The fourth president is one of the most confounding figures in early American history -- his political trajectory seems almost intentionally inconsistent. He was both for and against a strong federal government. He wrote about the dangers of political parties in the Federalist papers and then helped to found the Republican party just a few years later. And though he has frequently been celebrated as the "father of the constitution," his contributions to our founding document were subtler than many have supposed. This so-called "Madison problem" has occupied scholars for ages.

Previous biographies have made sense of Madison's mixed record by breaking his life into discrete periods. But this approach falls short. Madison was, of course, a single person -- a brilliant thinker whose life's work was to forge a stronger Union around principles of limited government, individual rights, and above all, justice. As Jay Cost argues in this incisive new biography, we cannot comprehend Madison's legacy without understanding him as a working politician. We tend to focus on his accomplishments as a statesman and theorist -- but the same ideals that guided his thinking in these arenas shaped his practice of politics, where they were arguably more influential. Indeed, Madison was the original American politician. Whereas other founders split their time between politics and other vocations, Madison dedicated himself singularly to the work of politics and ultimately developed it into a distinctly American idiom.

Bringing together the full range of his intellectual life, Cost shows us Madison as we've never seen him before: not as a man with uncertain opinions and inconstant views -- but as a coherent and unified thinker, a skilled strategist, and a key contributor to the ideals that have shaped our history. He was, in short, the first American politician.

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