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Book Review: Founding Rivals

Earlier this week I finished reading Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation, the first historical work written by author Chris DeRose. In the book he tells the story of the long-lasting friendship between fellow Virginians and future Presidents James Madison and James Monroe and how that friendship remained intact even when the two men were on opposite sides of political issues.

He begins with a background of the two friends, sketching out their early days. Madison, slightly older, short and unhealthy at times, follows the path of a thinker and a public servant. Monroe, the younger of the two, tall and athletic, has responsibility thrust upon him early in life following the death of his father Spencer. He leaves university to fight in the Revolutionary War where he is wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. Both men are respected by their fellow citizens and both strike up a friendship and a correspondence that continues even when they are on opposite sides of issues. The two men are sterling examples of how to disagree agreeably. They personify civility and are role models that modern politicians could learn much from.

Founding Rivals

The book follows the two men through their early political careers, with Madison being the more successful of the two, while Monroe reluctantly pursues a career in law. The author describes how Madison tackles the problem of unifying a collection of states that have competing interests and where there is mistrust, knowing that unity is a necessary element of continued security. His research and recounting of what took place at the constitutional convention, including the debates and contrasting positions of the states and their representatives, is exceptional. He takes us through the process of how the constitution was ratified in the states, especially in Virginia where Madison was strongly opposed by the eloquent Patrick Henry. DeRose, who is an attorney and a political consultant, shows us how the art of political spin was alive and well in the late 18th century and he displays a keen insight for the political strategies at work in the various campaigns of the time.

The book reaches its crescendo as it describes the first congressional election in 1789 between the book's two central subjects: Madison the Federalist and Monroe the Anti-Federalist. The author describes how both are men of strong character, how both display mutual respect for one another and for the process and how their arguments attack one another's position, but never one other.

Initially the district looks very favorable to Monroe, but Madison rejects the idea of running in a district that is not his home. DeRose regales us with tales of the two men traveling together for local meetings and debates and how this experience strengthened their friendship. He also points out the strategy used by Madison to overcome his political disadvantages by meeting the arguments of his opponent head on. For example, his opponents preach fear of the threat of rampant taxation by a Federal government with too much power. But Madison strongly argues that without this power, the nation's enemies will exploit the weakness of an inability to finance a national defence. Madison uses an awareness of the various regional and religious interests to his political advantage.

The author then takes us through Madison's first term in congress and shows how his advocacy skills were able to bring about the Bill of Rights. DeRose also points out the portions of the Bill that Madison was unsuccessful in convincing the nation to adopt and explains why that was probably a good thing. The book concludes in an epilogue that follows the two men to their ends in which considerable achievement and a valued friendship are both appreciated.

Portions of this book can be slow reading at times, particularly the minutiae of the arguments at the various conventions and political meetings. The author does a nice job of tying all of this up into a wonderful picture of the journey from the unorganized chaos at the end of the Revolutionary War into the formation of a nation with a strong constitution. Those looking for a work of historical substance to read will find it in this book.

Madison Monroe

DeRose concludes his assessment of these two men at page 274 as follows:

"Through the choices they made, the hardships they endured and their tireless struggles, these men won an improbable Revolution, threw off the bonds of the weak and worthless Articles of Confederation, and established the most ingenious form of government ever devised, to which they added a promise of fundamental liberties that was and is the envy of the world.

"It falls to the living to protect this legacy - to strive for these principles as the first generation did. Even when circumstances appeared hopeless, when setbacks tried the fortitude of the most patient men, they saw it as their duty to persevere.

"And when we confront the challenges that test every generation, when we fight to expand the blessings of liberty and fulfill the best ideals of James Madison and James Monroe, we honor their memory more than any work of marble.


Next up on my reading list: 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America by David Pietrusza.


Jun. 4th, 2012 05:03 pm (UTC)
Excellent review. Must say I'm disappointed that their presidencies aren't covered in more detail (apparently), but this review has convinced me to put this next on my reading list.

Jun. 4th, 2012 05:50 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately there's very little about their Presidencies. I think the author really just wanted to tell the story of how the Bill of Rights came about and uses these men as the vehicle to try and tell both sides of that story. I think you'll like it.
Jun. 6th, 2012 11:56 am (UTC)
That is unfortunate. Both men had tremendously influential (and intersecting) careers for the next several decades, not to mention that Monroe was the Quid faction's candidate for POTUS *against* Madison in 1808! I wonder if DeRose might plan a second volume?
Jun. 6th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
My guess is that DeRose won't write a follow up. Subsequent to my review, I discovered that a journalism professor from the University of Kentucky named Richard Labrunski has accused DeRose of using Labrunski's research (without credit) and claiming it as original research. Labrunski states his case in this blog on the History News Network website.

All of this has made me curious about Labrunski's book (which can be found on Amazon here.)

Edited at 2012-06-06 06:52 pm (UTC)


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