Madisonian Rhetoric

I came across a fascinating description of America’s fourth president, James Madison.

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House, 2000), pp. 53-53.

“In 1790, in short, Madison was at the peak of his powers and, after George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (who died that year), was generally regarded as the most influential political leader in the new nation.

He did not look the part. At five feet six and less than 140 pounds “little Jemmy Madison” had the frail and discernibly fragile appearance of a career librarian or schoolmaster, forever lingering on the edge of some fatal ailment, overmatched by the daily demands of ordinary life. When he left his father’s modest-sized plantation at Montpelier in Virginia to attend Princeton in 1769—Aaron Burr was a classmate—the youthful Madison had confessed to intimations of imminent mortality, somewhat morbidly predicting his early death. (As it turned out, he survived longer than all the leaders of the revolutionary generation, observing near the end, “Having outlived so many of my contemporaries, I out not to forget that I may be thought to have outlived myself.”) Not only did he look like the epitome of insignificance—diminutive, colorless, sickly—he was also paralyzingly shy, the kind of guest at a party who instinctively searched out the corners of the room.

Appearances, in Madison’s case, were not just massively deceptive; they actually helped to produces his prowess. Amid the flamboyant orators of the Virginia dynasty, he was practically invisible and wholly unthreatening, but therefore the acknowledged master of the inoffensive argument that just happened, time after time, to prove decisive. He seemed to lack a personal agenda because he seemed to lack a personality, yet when the votes were counted, his side almost always won. His diffidence in debate was disarming in several ways: He was so obviously gentle and so eager to give credit to others, especially his opponents, that it was impossible to unleash one’s full fury against him without seeming a belligerent fool; he was so reserved that he conveyed the off-putting impression of someone with an infinite reservoir of additional information, all hidden away, the speaker not wishing to burden you with excessively conspicuous erudition; but, if you gave permission, fully prepared to go on for several more hours; or until your side voluntarily surrendered. His physical deficiencies meant that a Madisonian argument lacked all the usual emotional affectations and struck with the force of pure, unencumbered thought. Or as one observer put it later, “Never have I seen so much mind in so little matter.” His style, in effect, was not to have one.”


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