Monday, February 16, 2015

Q&A with David O. Stewart

David O. Stewart is the author of the new book Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, a biography of James Madison. His other books include a novel, The Lincoln Deception, and several works of history. He is the president of the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Q: You write of James Madison at the end of the Revolutionary War, "For the next three decades, Madison's contributions to his country would be incomparable." Why are his contributions during that period incomparable?

A: Let’s make a list: 
1/Madison was central to the campaign to have a Constitutional Convention to remake the crumbling American government in the 1780s.
2/He was a pivotal figure at the Constitutional Convention.
3/He was co-author of the Federalist Papers, the best political theory ever written by Americans.
4/He was co-architect of the ratification strategy to get the Constitution adopted by the states.
5/He served as George Washington’s principal adviser in the early days of the new government and leader of the First Congress, often called Washington’s “prime minister.”
6/He was author and principal strategist behind the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
7/He co-founded America’s first political party.
8/He was political strategist behind the Republican electoral victory of 1800, which Jefferson called a “revolution” in government.
9/He was the secretary of state who directed the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country.
10/He was our fourth president and America’s first wartime president, leading the nation into and through the War of 1812 without adopting measures that suppressed speech or personal liberties.
11/Madison may be the only two-term president of the United States who had a better second term than his first term.
That’s enough for me!

Q: You note, "Students of America's early years often neglect Madison..." Why do you think that is the case?

A: Many of his contemporaries were more charismatic (Washington, Jefferson) or simply noisier (Hamilton, Adams). Madison, it seems to me, was the fellow in the back room getting the real work done, not so often the one out front getting the credit. 

Indeed, Madison was comfortable with not being out front and actually followed a conscious strategy of partnering with complementary personalities. As one longtime Madison friend noted, he was “ever mindful of what was due from him to others”:  that’s not a dominant quality in most political leaders, who trend to the narcissism end of the personality spectrum.   

I decided that the whole notion of partnership was central to Madison’s personality and his career. He liked working with others and was adept at it. He was not a total “alpha male” narcissist, which I think makes him even more interesting at a time when American leaders are having a hard time working together.

Q: The book looks at Madison's partnerships with five important figures: Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Dolley Madison. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

A: That structure provides insights into Madison’s character. Rather than catalog everything he did, I wanted to examine how he achieved so much, emphasizing his human side and his relationships with these powerful people with whom he partnered. 

It was lucky that the five partnerships could be organized into a rough chronology that followed his very long professional life, up until his death at 85.

Q: You write, "Yet slavery did not merely suffuse and confuse James's private life. It also permeated his public career for forty years." How did Madison's attitudes toward slavery compare with those of other Founding Fathers who also owned slaves?

A: All of the Founders understood that slavery was completely unjustifiable and inconsistent with their professed dedication to human liberty. 

Northerners who were not linked economically to slavery – Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, John Adams – joined antislavery societies and be vocal about their dismay over slavery. 

Southerners like Madison and Washington and Jefferson, who depended on slave labor for their position and comfort, reached a miserable and uncomfortable accommodation between their professed beliefs and the reality of how they lived. 

As a young man, Madison dreamt of moving to upstate New York and never relying on the labor of slaves, though he never did it. In retirement, he was haunted by slavery and greatly feared it would tear the nation apart. 

He spent years worrying about slavery and trying to design a scheme to end it in the South, but never came up with a plan that made any sense at all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In the fall, Kensington Books will publish The Wilson Deception, the sequel to my historical mystery, The Lincoln Deception

The Wilson book reprises the principal characters from the first book, which occurs in 1900, but picks them up 19 years later when their paths cross at the Paris Peace Conference to settle the carnage of World War I. 

That months-long negotiation included an amazing cast of characters like Woodrow Wilson, French Premier Georges Clemenceau (who was almost assassinated during the conference), T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), economist John Maynard Keynes, and the two young Dulles brothers, future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and future CIA Director Allen Dulles. 

It was a hugely pivotal moment in world history and was great fun to explore through the eyes of my characters.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Washington Independent Review of Books,, which I helped found and still labor over, still publishes great reviews and feature pieces every day. Your readers should check it out!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with David O. Stewart, please click here.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the interview; I'll be posting it on FB!

  2. Thanks so much for commenting--it is definitely a fascinating book! And thanks for sharing on FB!

  3. This is the line that hooked me: "Many of his contemporaries were more charismatic (Washington, Jefferson) or simply noisier (Hamilton, Adams). Madison, it seems to me, was the fellow in the back room getting the real work done, not so often the one out front getting the credit."

    Now that is my kind of President. A behind-the-scenes worker who doesn't crave attention.