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WCSU historian Gutzman weighs Madison's legacy in new biography

Western Connecticut State University historian Dr. Kevin R.C. Gutzman has earned an international reputation as a constitutional scholar unafraid of challenging popular assumptions about the origins and evolution of America’s founding document, and his new biography of James Madison demands a fresh examination of the fourth president’s role in the nation’s birth.

Gutzman’s work, “James Madison and the Making of America,” offers a rich exploration of Madison’s legacy, from his emergence as a young Virginian delegate leading the successful campaign for the commonwealth’s landmark Statute for Religious Freedom to his lasting influence as Federalist Papers author, congressional leader and president in the shaping of the young nation’s political institutions. The biography, which marks the fourth book on American and constitutional history authored by Gutzman, was released by his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, on Feb. 14 and has been chosen as one of the main selections offered by the History Book Club in February.

Gutzman is the author of the New York Times best-seller “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution,” as well as “Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840.” With Thomas Woods Jr., he coauthored “Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to Barack Obama.” He has lectured extensively on constitutional founding principles and contemporary issues, and his commentaries have appeared widely in the national broadcast and print media. He is a professor of history and non-Western cultures at Western, where his classes explore constitutional history and the history of the American Revolution, the early American republic and the American South. 

Pulitizer Prize-winning author Daniel Walker Howe observed that Gutzman’s new book is “deeply rewarding for the serious reader who wants a detailed account of James Madison’s long public career.” Edward Lengel, editor-in-chief of “The Papers of George Washington” at the University of Virginia, remarked, “Gutzman’s beautifully written and insightful account promises to become the standard biography of the great Founding Father.”

After publishing several scholarly journal essays in recent years that went “100 percent contrary to the ‘accepted version’ of Madison,” Gutzman decided to take on the ambitious task of reevaluating the Founding Father’s historical and constitutional legacies in a comprehensive biography.

“What interested me about Madison was the way in which his intellectual and political projects still affect us,” he said. “My interest was not so much in Madison as private citizen, but more in Madison as the architect of mileposts in the development of constitutionalism and thinking about government.”

“James Madison was a highly cerebral man with a towering intellect, an aristocratic politician who devoted his life to the establishment of republican government in America — government by the people, represented by elected officials and legislators responsible to the people who chose them,” the author observed. “In more than 40 years of public service, Madison had a notable effect everywhere he served,” from the constitutional convention to congressional leadership and his presidential administration from 1809 to 1817. “In every public position he held, his presence always made a difference.”

In many ways, Madison was an unlikely giant of the generation who founded the American republic — slight and short in build, reserved by nature, scarcely audible at times in public speaking. Yet at the age of 25 this graduate of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, found himself at center stage in the Virginia constitutional convention that produced the first written constitution for government in the world. He subsequently drafted the “Virginia Plan” submitted to the federal constitutional convention in 1787.

“Madison is often called the ‘father of the Constitution,’ and his Virginia Plan has often been described as a rough draft of the Constitution. But in fact, it was at marked variance with the Constitution we ended up with,” Gutzman observed. Although Madison advanced arguments for ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers and played a central role in drafting the Bill of Rights — in part as a strategic initiative to secure constitutional ratification by his home state of Virginia — he also expressed ambivalence in a letter to his mentor and friend Thomas Jefferson suggesting “the Constitution was so markedly flawed that it would surely fail within a few years. So perhaps,” Gutzman wryly observed, “it would be more accurate to describe him as the ‘unhappy stepfather of the Constitution.’”

On the other hand, Madison often is overshadowed by Jefferson as chief architect of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which inspired the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment that provides the constitutional basis for the separation of church and state. Gutzman noted that it was Madison who led a successful campaign against commonwealth assessments to support churches, and who built on that victory to gain referendum approval of Jefferson’s religious freedom statute in Virginia. “He stood throughout his life for the disengagement of religion from government,” the author said.

Madison’s most enduring legacy remains his work throughout his public life to shape the young nation’s founding ideal of republican government by popular consent, Gutzman observed. “The only reason you have a constitution is to limit the powers of government, and Madison’s whole career is all about defining the proper sphere of government. Madison sought to instruct the nation what it means to say that the people have consented to government. If you reach the point where it doesn’t matter what the people have consented to, ultimately it means we have become a government without popular consent.” 

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