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Ketcham’s Madison biography and Ellis’ Founding Brothers

In my continued venture into American political history, I have been working my way through Ralph Ketcham’s biography of James Madison.

I have really enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. In particular, I have enjoyed the chapter on the debates over ratification of the Constitution. Not only is it fascinating to see how this discussion played out, but I am finding it a great way to learn about our system of checks and balances and why it works so well. I am once again impressed with how narrowly success (in this case ratification) was achieved.

The book’s main weakness, in my opinion, has to do with readability. While it conveys an impressive amount of information about Madison’s life, it is not governed and organized by an overall interpretation of his importance, so the reader is often left overwhelmed by facts and without a sense of context and flow. One wishes Ketcham paused more frequently to reflect on the significance of the events he is narrating – at the very least, an introductory or concluding chapter, set apart from the chronology of Madison’s life, would have been helpful. The task of a good history book, it seems to me, is not merely to tell the story, but to do so in a way that is interesting and accessible.

I am wondering if, in some cases, a more engaging way to write history is to focus in on key events and offer “snapshots,” rather than to go by strict chronology. A book that does this well is Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis, which I began yesterday. It focuses in on six different events – the Burr-Hamilton duel in 1804, the Jefferson-Adams letter correspondence after they were both retired, Washington’s farewell address, and three others – and shows how these little stories interweave with the larger story of our nation’s birth and infancy. Through this very engaging format, Ellis is able to cover a wide range of topics without losing unity and flow. He shows how our nation was not only legally bound by a formal system of checks and balances in our founding documents, but naturally bound by an informal system of checks and balances in the personalities and ideologies of our diverse founding fathers.

For its brevity, its diverse range of topics, and its well-written prose, I recommend this book as the best place to start in reading early American political history.

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