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Wednesday, November 29th, 2006
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James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights (Pivotal Moments in American History)

by Richard Labunski

The Big Important Book of the Year: James Who?

A review by Charles P. Pierce

James Madison has been cheated.

Here we are, our best-seller lists occasionally looking like a catalog for the Founder of the Month Club, with three books on Alexander Hamilton and even that miserable old blatherskite John Adams getting the marble-toga treatment, and yet there doesn't seem to be even a single beam of spotlight left for the clerkish hypochondriac who overthrew the first American government. I chalk it up to his having been not much of a president; when British marines burn the White House on your watch, it plays hell with your legacy. Nevertheless, Madison did more than anyone else to create the American idea, which is to say, to create the American nation.

Richard Labunski's book James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights does not chronicle the Constitutional Convention, which Madison doggedly steered away from the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation and toward a whole new form of representative government. Rather, it describes a monumental example of what today we would cheaply call a flip-flop, in which Madison changed his mind on the necessity of tacking on a Bill of Rights to the new Constitution. Among other things, this required him to get elected to the new Congress over the rabid opposition of no less a figure than Patrick Henry, who backed Madison's friend and fellow future president James Monroe. Once elected, Madison carefully crafted and nurtured the ten amendments that became what we know as the Bill of Rights. 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.

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