Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1367

Fritz says, "James Madison was a small, pale, sickly boy with a weak voice." Although five feet six inches tall, his slight build and weak voice made him seem smaller; in fact, "people were forever remarking on his littleness." Furthermore, "All his life he suffered from fever, bilious attacks (liver...

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Fritz says, "James Madison was a small, pale, sickly boy with a weak voice." Although five feet six inches tall, his slight build and weak voice made him seem smaller; in fact, "people were forever remarking on his littleness." Furthermore, "All his life he suffered from fever, bilious attacks (liver upsets), and from occasional seizures in which for a few moments he would stiffen and lose control of his mind." These seizures were probably caused by epilepsy. A weak voice, slight stature, and chronic illnesses make Madison seem to be a very unlikely choice for political leadership, yet he would eventually be elected president of the United States.

Disturbing in his early years was his treatment of Americans who opposed the revolution against England. In 1774, he and his father were elected members of the local Committee of Safety, which oversaw the tarring and feathering and other despicable punishments of Tories, the term applied to those people who wanted to remain English subjects. This behavior seems inconsistent for the man who would eventually become a staunch advocate of civil liberties and who would tolerate even the cruelest attacks on himself by political opponents for the sake of freedom of the press.

But the account is unvarnished; Fritz offers the good and the bad about Madison, although she leans in favors of the good. Most of her book is devoted to explaining the complexity of Madison, who had other contradictions to his character. For instance, he hated slavery, yet he owned slaves and even had a slave manservant named Billey traveling with him as he worked out some of the fundamentals of American liberty. "James Madison said that prolonging the slave trade was 'dishonorable to the American character,'" notes Fritz. By this, he meant the practice of buying slaves in Africa and transporting them to the Americas, not the established slavery within the borders of the United States. Even so, he knew slavery to be wrong but hesitated to do the honorable thing, which was to free the ones he inherited as part of his estate at Montpelier.

Fritz develops the theme of union throughout The Great Little Madison and uses it to offer some insight into why Madison sometimes contradicted his own ideals: "James might be a Virginian, but first and foremost he was and always would be an American pushing for a genuine union of the states." This idea of holding together the union of the states as his first priority may explain why he did not push for the end to slavery in the United States; some slave states might have rebelled (as they would in 1861 over anti-slavery during the term of President Abraham Lincoln).

There seem to be many ways in which to live a great life. In Madison's case, his greatness was achieved through the power of the mind and the persuasion of words. Sickly and weak, Madison would have been poorly suited to military service and may have joined the thousands who died of disease rather than battle wounds during the Revolutionary War. However, he was notable for articulating the ideals for which Americans fought and too often died. After the war, when the Articles of Confederation proved to be a failure, then during the Constitutional Convention, he came to be known for his leadership as "the Great Little Madison." According to Fritz, the fractious delegates would quiet themselves and move near Madison when he spoke.

Because Madison's thinking not only influenced the Constitution but the direction American politics would take for the next forty years, The Great Little Madison is a story about the growth of Madison's thought. He was one of the co-writers of The Federalist Papers (along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay), which sought to explain to Americans what the constitutional government was about and why they should support it. It seems very much to have been Madison's preference to persuade with reasoned logic than to bully or harangue. In fact, Fritz says that Madison hated bullies. This may be one reason why, after thinking it unimportant, he chose to change his mind and support a Bill of Rights that would establish personal freedoms for American citizens. Fritz states that "Madison had become convinced that a Bill of rights was a good idea, not only because it would make people feel safer but because it would help the courts. If certain basic rights were specifically guaranteed (such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion), the courts would find it easier to protect minorities when they were oppressed by larger, more powerful groups." It was part of Madison's vision for the United States government that it would be limited in how much it could interfere in individual civil liberties and that it would be put in the position of protecting those liberties against a tyrannous majority.

When he became president, Madison tried to run the country according to his ideals, weathering both political and personal attacks without taking action to limit the rights of people to say and publish what they wanted. He disliked the idea of maintaining a standing army because he feared that a standing army would give the government too much power over its citizenry, which meant that the War of 1812 was especially painful for him. He had used his persuasive skills to try to settle disputes with England peacefully, but ultimately, the British government's violation of treaties with the United States became intolerable and he asked Congress to declare war, a power given to Congress by the Constitution Madison had helped to write.

Fortunately for Madison, he had someone close to him to buoy his spirits. Having devoted nearly all his life to public service, Madison had not cultivated much of a social life. Fritz states that he seemed withdrawn and even unfriendly to people. But near his home there lived a young widow, Dolley Payne Todd. Men were said to station themselves along her customary walking routes just to see her. Fritz writes that if Madison had been one of those men, "he would have seen a striking twenty-fiveyear- old with blue eyes and black hair, dressed in the plain clothes worn by Quakers. She was the same height as James and had such a friendly air about her that James would not have been intimidated." In fact, "Dolley was a warm person with a natural gift for making people feel at ease," traits that would help Madison's gatherings with dignitaries and would help others feel at ease with "the Great Little Madison."

Fritz describes Dolley Madison's passion for the arts, entertaining, and clothes, lightening her narrative in The Great Little Madison. For example, she describes what Mrs. Madison typically wore while living with her husband in Washington: "For the morning Dolley would wear a long-trained dress of fine white cotton (she would always wear white on state occasions) and on her head she would have a white plumed bonnet. In the evening her gown would be plain buff-colored velvet, but her turban would be a confection of velvet and satin topped with the waving feathers of a bird of paradise." Apparently, Dolley especially loved turbans and wore many different ones at different occasions. Fritz says that Dolley Madison was sometimes called a "queen," but out of affection not rancor. Her passion for shopping and her good taste resulted in a presidential residence (not yet the White House as it is known today) that was attractive and enjoyable.

As far as Fritz is concerned, Dolley Madison had a positive effect on her husband. She took his mind off his troubles, she brought pleasure into his life, and he was heartened by her presence even when he was working. She even helped him exercise. Fritz notes that even late in life she and James would race on their front porch, remarking, "Even when she reached sixty Dolley was a fast runner and proud of it." Thus The Great Little Madison evolves from a story about a slight frail man's influence on American life to a probing portrait of the man's spirit, which depicts his happy love affair with his wife Dolley in order to reveal the fullness of the man's character.

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