Synopses & Reviews
Today we hold the Constitution in such high regard that we can hardly imagine how hotly contested was its adoption. In fact, many of the thirteen states saw fierce debate over the document, and ratification was by no means certain. Virginia, the largest and most influential state, approved the Constitution by the barest of margins, and only after an epic political battle between James Madison and Patrick Henry. Now Richard Labunski offers a dramatic account of a time when the entire American experiment hung in the balance, only to be saved by the most unlikely of heroes the diminutive and exceedingly shy Madison.
Here is a vividly written account of not one but several major political struggles which changed the course of American history. Labunski takes us inside the sweltering converted theater in Richmond, where for three grueling weeks, the soft-spoken Madison and the charismatic Patrick Henry fought over whether Virginia should ratify the Constitution. The stakes were enormous. If Virginia voted no, George Washington could not become president, New York might follow suit and reject the Constitution, and the young nation would be thrust into political chaos. But Madison won the day by a handful of votes, mollifying Anti-Federalist fears by promising to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. To do this, Madison would have to win a seat in the First Congress. Labunski shows how the vengeful Henry prevented Madison's appointment to the Senate and then used his political power to ensure that Madison would run against his good friend, Revolutionary War hero James Monroe, in a House district teeming with political enemies. Overcoming great odds, Madison won by a few hundred votes, allowing him to attend the First Congress and sponsor the Bill of Rights.
Packed with colorful details about life in early America, this compelling and important narrative is the first serious book about Madison written in many years. It will return this under-appreciated patriot to his rightful place among the Founding Fathers and shed new light on a key turning point in our nation's history.
"This engaging study views the Bill of Rights as the crowning achievement of America's constitutional architect. Journalism professor Labunski (The First Amendment Under Siege) recounts Madison's exploits in the critical period from 1787 to 1789, as he battled anti-Federalist Patrick Henry to secure Virginia's ratification of the new Constitution, won a hard-fought election to the House of Representatives and shepherded the Bill of Rights through the fledgling Congress. Madison, the author argues, walked a tightrope between Federalists who dismissed a bill of rights as unnecessary, perhaps dangerous, window dressing, and anti-Federalists who clamored for one as a pretext to call a second constitutional convention to undo the first. Linking these events to Madison's biography, Labunski sometimes loses the narrative thread and analytical perspective in the clutter of Madison's existence, like his recurring bouts of diarrhea. Moreover, Labunski's 'indispensable man' historiography downplays Madison's decidedly lukewarm attitude toward a bill of rights until popular pressure and political necessity forced him to embrace it. Still, the author makes it an interesting story, full of sonorous oratory and colorful details of 18th-century politicking. The result is a lively look at the rickety early republic and Madison's great balancing act. 20 b&w illus. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In his thorough coverage of the activities of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Labunski offers intriguing discussions of constitutional debates and provides an understanding of the political and social context of the early constitutional polity." Library Journal
"Watch the wig powder fly as James Madison and Patrick Henry slug it out over the constitutional freedoms we take for granted today." Atlantic Monthly
"This is a hair-raising book. It shows how, at stage after stage, the fight to draft and ratify the Constitution, to draft and pass the Bill of Rights, could have failed. It proves again that the tiny Madison was a giant." Garry Wills, Professor of History Emeritus, Northwestern University
"[A] highly readable historical narrative....Labunski shows that Madison was the indispensable man, the person most responsible for the nation's political survival, as crucial as George Washington had been to its independence. A truly outstanding book and a must read." Philip Bigler, Director, The James Madison Center, James Madison University
"Beautifully written....I have no doubt that his fresh interpretation of the ratification saga will influence the thinking of future scholars of the period." Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and CEO, Virginia Historical Society
"A clear, dramatic, and accessible account....Written with verve and charm." David B. Mattern, Senior Associate Editor, James Madison Papers, University of Virginia
"At the very least, Labunski's book is valuable in describing in close detail that which we today seem so hell-bent on tossing idly away." Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
Labunski offers a dramatic account of a time when the entire American experiment hung in the balance, only to be saved by the most unlikely of heroes--the diminutive and exceedingly shy James Madison.
About the Author
Richard Labunski is a professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. The author of four other books, he previously taught at the University of Washington and Penn State and worked for ten years in radio and television news.