James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

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Cheney, Lynne Ann. James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. New York, New York: Viking, 2014. Kindle Edition. $13.99

“James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” one of several books penned by former talk show host Lynne Ann Cheney, is the fourth biographical work she has offered her readers. While it is noteworthy Cheney is the wife of former United States Vice President Dick Cheney, it is not her defining characteristic. Cheney, born in Casper, Wyoming on August 14, 1941, does not need to rely on solely being recognised for being the 46th Vice President’s wife. Having written books such as “Executive Privilege” (1979), “Academic Freedom” (1992) and “A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women” (2003), has accomplishments of her own. With a bachelor of arts in English literature from Colorado College, a master of arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Ph.D. in nineteenth century British Literature from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the author has the academic credentials to back up the biographies she has penned.

In addition to myriad of studies pertaining to James Madison and his political thought processes, “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” adds significantly to the continuing conversation revolving around the relationship the fourth president of the United States had with Thomas Jefferson, the position he had on slavery, the ownership of slaves, and the Virginia plantation Monticello. Furthermore, it can be argued, what Cheney has penned adds significantly to the resurging interest in Madisonian scholastic writing.

When reading “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” it almost feels like Cheney has deliberately penned her book with the intention of making her audience feel like it is reading a retrospective study of the life and times of Madison. Cheney embroils her readers in both Madison’s personal and political life as if the reader is literally involved in the happenings of the period. Greatly influencing American politics for more than half a century, Madison lived until he was eighty-five years old. Not forgetting he was born in the British Isles, Madison’s contribution to early American politics should not be viewed lightly.

Research is an aspect of writing biographies every author of note must tackle. It is no small accomplishment Cheney could wade through the voluminous correspondence and writings Madison penned before the arduous task of developing a coherent approach to writing this fourth biography. It is evident from what Cheney has presented her readers, the author has developed an intimate tangible understanding of the persons and events which shaped Madison’s life. Even though the author is adamant she wants her readers to abandon the notion Madison was sickly and bookish, Cheney’s most significant point revolves around Madison having to live with how epilepsy affected his life.

In respect to treating epilepsy, from the point of view of someone living in the eighteenth century, Cheney painstakingly researched the methodology of the period. “Almost every plantation had a manual that advanced some mixture of theory and remedy, wrote Cheney, “In the Madison household, it was Quincy’s Dispensatory, which Frances Madison added to the family library. … Learned physicians under the influence of the Enlightenment were struggling to find scientific explanations of illness, but in everyday life the theories of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen still prevailed. They regarded illness as an imbalance among the four humors—air (blood), earth (black bile), fire (yellow bile), and water (phlegm)—and associated the excess of a humor with certain diseases. Black bile, for example, was associated with epilepsy.”[1]

Whilst Madison’s condition did not have the fourth president convulsing on the floor, he faced the daily possibility of “complex partial seizures.”[2] If experienced, Madison “might have entered a “dreamy state” and engaged in automatic movements, such as plucking at clothes.”[3] Further, Cheney convincingly makes the point, during the eighteenth century, Madison’s epilepsy might have placed the president under a cloud of perpetual shame. Because of biblical superstitions, that conditions such as epilepsy were often associated with demonic possession. Like Madison, Cheney did not allow such “narrow and dispiriting dogma”[4] to influence her. Since Cheney had the fortitude to determine for herself which direction to take her writing, the readers is left free to determine for themselves whether the author has accomplished what she set out to achieve.

Footnotes

[1] Lynne Ann Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, (New York, New York: Viking, 2014), p. 17. Kindle Edition.

[2] Cheney, James Madison, p. 4. Kindle Edition.

[3] Cheney, James Madison, p. 51. Kindle Edition.

[4] Cheney, James Madison, p. 40. Kindle Edition.

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Shain E. Thomas, recently graduated with an M.Sc. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of North Texas, is currently working on an M.Sc. in Library Science. Shain, the senior editor of "Harsh Light," is also the U.S. Correspondent for "The Welshman" and a regular contributor to the "North Texas Daily."