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James and Dolley Madison: America's First Power Couple

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This revealing new portrait of James and Dolley Madison introduces the reader to America’s first power couple. Using recently uncovered troves of letters at the University of Virginia, among other sources, historian Bruce Chadwick has been able to reconstruct the details of the Madisons’ personal and political lives. Chadwick argues that Madison was not a boring, average p This revealing new portrait of James and Dolley Madison introduces the reader to America’s first power couple. Using recently uncovered troves of letters at the University of Virginia, among other sources, historian Bruce Chadwick has been able to reconstruct the details of the Madisons’ personal and political lives. Chadwick argues that Madison was not a boring, average president, as other historians have characterized him, but a vibrant, tough leader—and a very successful commander in chief in the War of 1812. He contends that Madison, the architect of the Constitution, owed much of his success to the political savvy of his charismatic, much younger wife, whose parties and backdoor politicking make for remarkable stories. And Dolley, through her many social skills, created the dynamic role of First Lady that we know today. Despite their glamorous lifestyle, behind the scenes, the Madisons struggled with family drama: James and Dolley’s constant funding of their charming but sociopathic son’s misadventures ultimately led to their own financial ruin. Blending the personal and the political, this is a fascinating profile of a couple whose life together contributed so much to the future course of our nation.


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This revealing new portrait of James and Dolley Madison introduces the reader to America’s first power couple. Using recently uncovered troves of letters at the University of Virginia, among other sources, historian Bruce Chadwick has been able to reconstruct the details of the Madisons’ personal and political lives. Chadwick argues that Madison was not a boring, average p This revealing new portrait of James and Dolley Madison introduces the reader to America’s first power couple. Using recently uncovered troves of letters at the University of Virginia, among other sources, historian Bruce Chadwick has been able to reconstruct the details of the Madisons’ personal and political lives. Chadwick argues that Madison was not a boring, average president, as other historians have characterized him, but a vibrant, tough leader—and a very successful commander in chief in the War of 1812. He contends that Madison, the architect of the Constitution, owed much of his success to the political savvy of his charismatic, much younger wife, whose parties and backdoor politicking make for remarkable stories. And Dolley, through her many social skills, created the dynamic role of First Lady that we know today. Despite their glamorous lifestyle, behind the scenes, the Madisons struggled with family drama: James and Dolley’s constant funding of their charming but sociopathic son’s misadventures ultimately led to their own financial ruin. Blending the personal and the political, this is a fascinating profile of a couple whose life together contributed so much to the future course of our nation.

30 review for James and Dolley Madison: America's First Power Couple

  1. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth S

    "To make this book easier to read, I have taken some liberties with titles... It would be difficult to continually refer to his residence as the President's Mansion or the Executive Mansion, as it was known when Madison was president. So I simply called it the White House." (From the Author's Note) The book itself hadn't even begun, and we were already off to a bad start. If you think your readers are so incompetent they can't possibly comprehend the fact that you're referring to the White House "To make this book easier to read, I have taken some liberties with titles... It would be difficult to continually refer to his residence as the President's Mansion or the Executive Mansion, as it was known when Madison was president. So I simply called it the White House." (From the Author's Note) The book itself hadn't even begun, and we were already off to a bad start. If you think your readers are so incompetent they can't possibly comprehend the fact that you're referring to the White House when you instead use two other historically accurate and widely known terms for it, then maybe you shouldn't be writing a history book in the first place. After all, who is the intended audience now? Three-year-olds? Readers with such short term memories they can't remember the sentence they just read? I very much respect introducing alternate titles at the beginning of a book to give your readers context and understanding. For instance, Chadwick also notes in his (potentially condescending) author's note that the First Lady wasn't referred to as such during Mrs. Madison's tenure. But instead of telling us what she would have been called and thus setting the stage for his future use of such terms, he tells us what she would have been called and then says he settled on just using First Lady, anyway. Does he think if he mentions the Executive Mansion on a later page his readers are just going to stop the book because they'll be so confounded as to what that could possibly mean since today we use the term White House instead? As you can see, I was exhausted from the very start. Unfortunately, the rest of the book continued with this same, overly-simplified tone. It honestly felt a little insulting. Let me say that I already know a lot about James Madison. He's potentially my favorite Founding Father, and I was glad to find a book about him and Mrs. Madison because I don't know a ton about her, and I feel he often gets somewhat overlooked in favor of his peers (Washington, Jefferson, Adams, now Hamilton a bit, etc.). Nonetheless, I wasn't expecting a deep dive into his life in such a short biographical work. Yet I felt like even someone with a very basic knowledge of the 4th president would know most of what this book contained. It seems like Chadwick wrote this book thanks to letters that became available more recently thanks to the University of Virginia, but I suspect the letters hold a lot more nuanced info than this work does. There are so many great books out there on historical figures such as Madison that I absolutely cannot recommend this one. I'm sure there are plenty of better ones either about Dolley or that at least mention her extensively. James and Dolley Madison: America's First Power Couple paints both figures in a rather silly light at times. If you're looking for a great love comparable to that of John and Abigail Adams, this book will leave you thinking the Madison basically just hung out and went to parties now and then, schmoozing with some other important people. This is hardly the comprehensive and meaningful look at the couple they - and history lovers reading - deserve. Chadwick says James Madison called Dolley "the greatest blessing of my life," but you only feel that to a light extent here. Like you may sort of get that image, but it's more because the author is telling you that than because he's providing you with great examples. On top of that, we learn ...[Henry] Clay said that 'Jefferson had the most genius,' but that 'Madison most judgment and common sense.' ...Then Clay added that Madison was, 'after Washington, our greatest statesman.'" All of that is well and good (and arguably very true), but you never get much of a sense of who James Madison is as a person or what shaped him into possessing these qualities we're now hearing about toward the end of the book. Then again, if we're not intelligent enough to keep track of what the President's Mansion is, I guess it makes perfect sense we wouldn't be able to follow such deep personal development.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Eliz

    If you knew nothing about this couple, reading this book would lead you to believe all they ever did, achieved or were about is partying. If that is the point, this deserved a short essay not 300 plus pages. Not only was it repetitive but the same quotes were even repeated as if the author forgot he already used them. Odd bits are dropped in like afterthoughts. How you can write a book about the man who wrote the constitution and make it seem like a small bit he did while young amazes me. Nothin If you knew nothing about this couple, reading this book would lead you to believe all they ever did, achieved or were about is partying. If that is the point, this deserved a short essay not 300 plus pages. Not only was it repetitive but the same quotes were even repeated as if the author forgot he already used them. Odd bits are dropped in like afterthoughts. How you can write a book about the man who wrote the constitution and make it seem like a small bit he did while young amazes me. Nothing about before they met, how did he get to 43 and be single still? You won't know reading this book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jeri

    Interesting enough, but the writing style seemed a bit amateurish for such an accomplished biographer. Weak, repetitive analysis, and confusing to follow at points. At one point, someone died, and two pages later Chadwick was talking about him as if he were still alive.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Linda Mcritchie

    Repetitive at times and nothing about his early life with 11 brothers and sisters. You won't get to know the real James Madison from this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Pvt. Ambrose

    I found that every complaint about Chadwick's lack of literary grace turned out to be true upon cantering through this book; with dense composition on every page and repetitive analyses from time to time, it often felt as though the author wanted to bolster the wealth of information between James and Dolley Madison by inserting filler to increase the page count. Either the editor was in a hurry or dead, because the entire novel was laced with intermittent grammatical and spelling errors (how man I found that every complaint about Chadwick's lack of literary grace turned out to be true upon cantering through this book; with dense composition on every page and repetitive analyses from time to time, it often felt as though the author wanted to bolster the wealth of information between James and Dolley Madison by inserting filler to increase the page count. Either the editor was in a hurry or dead, because the entire novel was laced with intermittent grammatical and spelling errors (how many times Chadiwck flipped between spelling it "Dolley" and "Dolly" was incalculable); not to make like Chadwick and repeat my complaint of repetition. The author's elucidations of certain details occasionally had me questioning his credibility. This is the fourth book in a row that I've read about James Madison and I found, to my surprise, that there were several inaccuracies; if I came across an unfamiliar fact or anecdote, I was consequently questioning whether or not Chadwick was correct and I'm not liable to cite very many things from this book as a result. If the potential reader privies a demonstration, one of the first that comes to mind is the mention, of some point, of James Madison returning to Montpelier while his father "was in his eighties"...James Madison, Sr., died when he was seventy-eight years old. Another section of the book talked at length about James Madison's insistence on federal subsidization of roads and canals when every other biographer would claim to the contrary that Madison, hidebound, refused to allocate the federal government with power to fund any sort of internal improvement except for postage. Toward the end, there was mention of slave Sukey inquiring of Madison what the matter was when the latter couldn't swallow, while it was actually a niece of Madison's that had asked this question; while some of these errs are trivial details, it's a wonder that a writer who desires to capture the lives of two very important historical and political figures in American history would somehow manage to be so unthorough as to make mistakes that casual studiers of history would not. Another thing, Chadwick kept saying that Madison's eyes were hazel; I myself have heard conflicting records of his eye color (although his portraits usually show a dull blue or grey) but Chadwick didn't show any cognizance of this conflict, which ordinarily I wouldn't have batted an eyelash at, except he also included a contemporary description from Edward Coles who had described Madison's eyes as blue. It's not that tiny detail itself so much that bothers me, but more that it's a representation of the inconsistencies and misinformation found for the entire duration of the book. The chapter dedicated to chastising (no really, Chadwick sounded like a disappointed parent) Madison for his inattention to slavery was the most mind-numbing because, with no exception to the ongoing theme of redundancy, it was injected so superfluously with the author's own voice that it actually managed to invoke some anger from me. Ordinarily I appreciate it when somehow an author is able to separate himself from whatever partiality he owns toward his subject to give him a "fair," so to speak, treatment on any issue that may deserve painfully honest censure. But Chadwick took it to such a far extent that it's almost as if he were phobic toward any perception that he owned an iota of personal attachment to his subject. The vehemence thereof led to these sweeping generalizations, misbegotten conclusions, and unexplained contradictions; to many, Madison's inattention, governmentally at least, to the issue of slavery is indeed unforgivable, but I've never read such flippant and poorly constructed criticism to that end. It sounded like something a bitter washed-up Federalist might have written, minus the archaic nineteenth century rhetoric. Over and over again, Chadwick flipped back and forth to briefly alluding to Madison's insistence of his hatred of slavery and his activism toward it, including his personal calculations of what he conceived to be workable solutions for it, and yet still somehow asserting that he did next to absolutely nothing. ("Let's conveniently forget that he was president of the American Colonization Society for a minute here whilst I slander Madison to prove that I'm not a fanboy.") He even--and this is the first time I've ever heard a biographer declare this outright, heck, even Abraham Lincoln would challenge Chadwick on this point--proclaimed that Madison and other Republicans didn't want slavery to ever end; that they simply hoped that the anti-slavery cause would die out and that they resisted legislation for this reason. There was no consideration toward the idea that perhaps Madison resisted publicly opposing slavery despite his seemingly strong emotions against it because he feared bolstering the possibility of disunion, which he had to deal directly with during his administration because of the crotchety New Englanders. There was no regard for the proposal that Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and others presumed or at least hoped that slavery would one day expire. Chadwick made it painfully black and white for no foreseeable reason to no creditable conclusion. I've never heard a thesis more ridiculous and unfounded than that which proposes that the Democratic-Republican accomplishments made by the Madisonians were all somehow construed to the insistence of preserving slave labor; it is unsubstantiated by even the most effusive leaders such as Jefferson himself. And yet, we like to use the idea to lift the abandoned Federalists, to reverse the paradigm of admiration toward Jefferson and others, or, in Chadwick's cause I presume, to disprove partiality. Honestly, a Madison biography is the last place I would have expected to witness such sacrilege; a Fleming book, maybe. On this, I've spoken far too long. I am not to say that the book doesn't reserve its merits; it was rarely a chore to read, mostly because it was one of the better books I've picked up by way of characterizing its subjects as humans not merely as politicians. It had some of the most abundant contemporary descriptions, many of which I felt I should have ought to have heard before, and an occasional flourish of storytelling prose (which would soon be tainted by the repetitive sentence structure, but nonetheless, the moment is cherishable), and it had one of the better accounts of the War of 1812. His thesis that Madison was a strong, tough executive despite the legend of his poor administration and characteristic timidity wasn't overly mishandled; actually, the author managed to make a relatively good point of it, albeit with a few generalizations. All that being said, its lacking in other areas isn't salvaged greatly by these aspects and I wouldn't recommend it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    M

    This book has a lot of historical mistakes including dates, names and relationships. They need a better editor.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Heidi

    I don't think this manuscript was ever seen by an editor or proofreader. The author repeats himself frequently, needs to review comma usage, and it is full of what I hope are typographical errors. I did learn some interesting information about the Madisons, but the length of the book could probably be cut in half. The author also insists on injecting his personal opinions, and he makes a lot of assumptions. For instance, regarding a letter that Dolley wrote to her son, Payne: "Payne's reaction? I don't think this manuscript was ever seen by an editor or proofreader. The author repeats himself frequently, needs to review comma usage, and it is full of what I hope are typographical errors. I did learn some interesting information about the Madisons, but the length of the book could probably be cut in half. The author also insists on injecting his personal opinions, and he makes a lot of assumptions. For instance, regarding a letter that Dolley wrote to her son, Payne: "Payne's reaction? He read the letter at Toddsberth, shrugged, and never wrote back." Really?? Exactly how would the author know this? There are several other instances in which he stated what someone thought, or how they reacted.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    An entertaining, gossipy read by prolific author and professor Bruce Chadwick. The author has an obvious admiration for his subjects, but also discusses some of their human shortcomings, such as their ownership of slaves. Gives a good account of how Dolley shaped the role of "First Lady" and her husband the role of "Commander in Chief." War (although these terms were not used until later). The text has some editorial issues -- might have benefited from a red pencil in some spots. I wouldn't go o An entertaining, gossipy read by prolific author and professor Bruce Chadwick. The author has an obvious admiration for his subjects, but also discusses some of their human shortcomings, such as their ownership of slaves. Gives a good account of how Dolley shaped the role of "First Lady" and her husband the role of "Commander in Chief." War (although these terms were not used until later). The text has some editorial issues -- might have benefited from a red pencil in some spots. I wouldn't go out and pay full price for this book, but worth a read if it's at your local library or bargain bookstore.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Macke

    found myself saying "who knew?" throughout the entire read; madison was a stud: though sickly he persevered into his 8os, he wrote the constitution, he road at the head of the army in the war of 1812, he was an enlightened statesman and farmer and perhaps the most underrated founding father ... dolly was a wonder, a brilliant woman who is a true patriot, plus she was at the forefront of showing off cleavage ... if you aren't a goodreads snob, you could learn a lot from this book; it's a worthwhi found myself saying "who knew?" throughout the entire read; madison was a stud: though sickly he persevered into his 8os, he wrote the constitution, he road at the head of the army in the war of 1812, he was an enlightened statesman and farmer and perhaps the most underrated founding father ... dolly was a wonder, a brilliant woman who is a true patriot, plus she was at the forefront of showing off cleavage ... if you aren't a goodreads snob, you could learn a lot from this book; it's a worthwhile read ... who knew

  10. 4 out of 5

    Grandmajohns

    Would not recommend this book as I think there are better books written about James and Dolly Madison. I did not finish.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    This book could be better, but the most irritating thing is the amount of errors in this book. My favorite comes from page 254. "Clay and Dolley, both rambunctious pubic personalities, were united by more than snuff boxes." Other than the large number of errors, Dolley seemed like a character!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Toby Murphy

    A bit disappointing. The book couldn't seem to find it's focus. While labeled as a book about a couple, the author seemed to switch between them as separate people and went in great detail of others. While it is rather accessible, it doesn't give the portrait I was hoping for.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Linda Rakes

    On and Off Interesting The book is repetitive of itself throughout. Additionally, the author suddenly is writing about a situation/s that occurred some time earlier but had not been referred to in his presentation of the timeline of events.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    Fascinating look and the power of the First Lady

  15. 4 out of 5

    YoungTroubadour

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lenny

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ed

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michele Marie Moyna

  20. 4 out of 5

    Matt Parry

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rho

  22. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  23. 5 out of 5

    George Moriarty

  24. 4 out of 5

    Linda Underwood

  25. 5 out of 5

    Elisa George

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bargain Sleuth Book Reviews

  30. 4 out of 5

    Linda

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