If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason / Edition 1

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"What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

The ever wary James Madison viewed his fellow citizens as anything but angelic. In this radically new interpretation, Richard Matthews portrays a much less optimistic (and yet more liberal) Madison than we've seen before. Neither civic humanist nor democrat, this Madison is a distrusting, calculating, and pragmatic Machiavellian Prince.

Hardly an imposing figure, Madison was barely five-feet-six-inches tall, pale complected, a poor speaker, a perpetual hypochondriac and secret epileptic, pursued by bouts of depression and given to dressing in black. And yet his political achievements and intellectual legacy are monumental. Revered as the "Father of the Constitution," Madison was also architect of the "Virginia plan"; one of the two principal authors of The Federalist; leader of the inaugural House of Representatives; reluctant champion of the Bill of Rights; cofounder of the Republican Party, Washington's ghostwriter; Jefferson's Secretary of State; and president and commander-in-chief during America's second war of Independence.

Nevertheless, Madison's preeminence in the rise of the modern American state has not always been so widely recognized. And, Matthews contends, what has been written about Madison's political thought has been limited in scope and skewed in interpretation.

Unlike previous authors, Matthews goes well beyond Madison's work on the Constitution to reconstruct the complete range of Madison's political thought and intellectual development over the course of his extensive life. In the process, he provides a powerful critique of Madisonian politics. It is possible, he shows, to applaud the energy, design, and intellect that went into Madison's thought and simultaneously challenge the assumptions and values upon which that thought rests.

Matthews's Madison understood the potentially fatal problems of a weak, divided state; saw salvation in a strong central government astride an expanding commercial republic; drafted that government's fundamental charter; ran the infant regime as an advisor to two presidents before becoming president himself; and, in retirement, strove to control and manipulate historical interpretations of these efforts. From "The Legislator" to chief executive to keeper of the past and controller of the future, Madison adjusted his political posture to suit the moment. . . . just as Machiavelli's ideal Prince would have done. Madison's system achieved the stability he desired, but at a price Americans should have refused to pay.

Provocative and controversial, Matthews's study revises our understanding of this central figure in American history. It illuminates his profound impact upon the America imagined by the Framers, his ongoing influence on the nation we have become, and the tragedy of his success in foreclosing the possibility of a radical Jeffersonian America that never was, but might have been.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Matthews (government, Lehigh Univ.) here presents the second of a projected three volumes offering a revisionist interpretation of our Founding Fathers. He writes with gusto and authority, and his conclusions will bring both respect and controversy. With finesse and fairness he delineates how his views contrast with those of other recent authors such as Lance Banning and Forrest McDonald. Matthews argues that Madison was a consistent liberal throughout his career; he placed high value on personal liberties as well as on a strong, rational state. While the author admires the power and integrity of Madison's thought, his evaluation of Matthews is finally negative. He claims that the victory of Madison's views has produced a country that is vulgar, materialistic, and anti-intellectual. Matthews regrets that the early republic did not take the route of Jeffersonian idealism. For general and academic collections.-T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., N.Y.
Drew R. McCoy
Matthews offers more than a systematic portrait of Madison's political thought; his devastating, if respectful, critique of the politics and society it fashioned marks an earnest effort to link the nation's past, present, and future. This learned, engaging, and stimulating book has much to offer a wide range of readers. If Matthews is right—that Madison and Jefferson 'were, from an ideological perspective, worlds apart'—then we must reassess just about everything we think we know about ideology and politics in the early republic.
Journal of American History
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700608072
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 9/28/1997
  • Series: American Political Thought Series
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 7.98 (w) x 7.72 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Table of Contents


Introduction: In Search of the "Great Little Madison"

1. James Madison: Constant Liberal Prince

2. Madison's Worldview: Indolent Humanity, Malthusian Reality, and "the Economy of Nature"

3. Madisonian Humanity: The Timid Individual and Passionate Groups

4. Civil Society: The Politics of Economics and Society

5. Property: Rights and Possessions, Democracy and Despair

6. Madisonian Government: "The greatest of all reflections . . .?"

7. Jefferson's Madison: "Frigid Speculations" or "Generous Spasms of the Heart"

8. The Madisonian Dream: The Illusion of a Future

Selected Bibliography


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