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A Noble Life

James Madison Lynne Cheney

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney (Penguin Books, $18.00, 576 pages)

Every law student begins his or her studies by reading the case of Marbury v. Madison, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invoked its right to strike down governmental actions which violate the law. As James Marshall strongly stated, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” It was a decision that the then-defendant and Secretary of State James Madison – later the fourth president of the U.S. – was to disagree with: “This makes the judiciary department paramount in fact to the legislature, which was never intended and can never be proper”

The average person is not likely familiar with the life and political career of president Madison, something which is remedied by reading James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Cheney’s book builds a fine case for the greatness of the man known as the “Father of the (U.S.) Constitution.”

He had used his remarkable gifts in one of the most important ways a man could, by playing a key role – the key role, one might say – in creating a framework for laws and establishing institutions that would secure liberty and happiness for generations (of Americans) to come.

Madison may not have been as charismatic or attractive a figure as others of his time, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Thomas Jefferson, but he was clearly – along with Jefferson – one of the most intelligent humans alive at the time. Madison was to join with Jefferson in giving birth to a new form of democratic government.

Each was probably the brightest person the other ever knew, and both were well schooled, giving them a vast fund of common learning on which to draw as they talked and planned. Both continued to study throughout life and considered books of mighty importance. Each was known to buy them whether he had ready cash or not.

It was the team of Madison and Jefferson – as Cheney clearly details in her account – that was largely responsible for creating the Constitution of the United States. And Madison, who was initially opposed to the Bill of Rights, was later to play a key role in its enactment. Madison was, as one speaker stated, a man who produced “Power and national glory… without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty.” He was to die as the final living signer of the Declaration of Independence.

There are some fascinating details supplied by Cheney, such as when she describes the secret code that Madison and Jefferson used to communicate with each other. Since mail was often lost or misdelivered in those days, they developed a system in which they assigned telephone number-like digits to each major figure they came in contact with. This meant that if anyone got hold of their correspondence, they would not be able to determine who the writers were referring to when they made less than complimentary remarks about an individual. And Cheney turns the rivalry between Aaron Burr, Jefferson, and Madison on one side and Hamilton on the other into something so dramatic, it reads like one of Gore Vidal’s history-based novels.

A major concern about this nonfiction work never comes into play, the fear that Mrs. Cheney – the wife of Richard (Dick) Cheney, would bring modern day politics into the telling. This is never an issue; there’s not a single instance in which she attempts to analogize between the past and present, or in which she is critical of a modern day political figure. Cheney on occasion does use academic language, such as the term “inquietude” (physical or mental restlessness or disturbance), but this is easily remedied by access to an online dictionary.

For the majority of readers, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered will be James Madison: A Great Life Encountered.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released in a trade paper version on May 5, 2015.

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“Compelling, elegant, original… Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life.” Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage.

This review was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-james-madison-a-life-reconsidered-by-lynne-cheney/

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An Unfocused Journey

The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve, 288 pages, $24.99)

“Outside the prison gates on Fridays, the parking lot is like a carnival.   Vans and RVs and pickup trucks with campers fill the visitor spaces.”

David R. Dow’s strangely titled book is part journal of his legal defense work in death penalty cases, and part memoir of his personal life with his wife and son (he was late to marry).   Unfortunately, it never quite decides what it want to be so it offers a not-so-fascinating look at both aspects of his life.   There also seem to be two characters vying for attention here:  Dow the brass knuckled street fighting gritty attorney and Dow the gentle family man.   The one thing that is obvious is that Dow has an immense ego, something that he quotes his wife as commenting upon.   (Think about the ego is takes for someone to include a quote from a loved one who has said that he has an outsized ego.)

Then there’s the writing style.   Dow admits that he’s not an accomplished writer and the style of Execution might be categorized as without style.   Dow bounces around in a quirky fashion moving from tense legal cases to family matters, and back again, without any apparent map or hint of structure.   The plus side to this stream of consciousness approach is that it does not require a lot of attention from the reader as Dow does not stick to any one topic for very long.

This is an airplane ride book, which offers far less substance on the death penalty debate than a prospective purchaser might expect.  

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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