James Madison's Books and Reading



We need not imagine James Madison, the future President and Father of the Constitution, growing up on a frontier farm bereft of learning and civilizing graces. His grandfather, Ambrose Madison, at his death in 1732, owned 28 books on religion, practical medicine, and handbooks on agriculture, building, horses, hunting, and fishing. James Madison Sr., father of the President, could read, took an interest in current events, and wrote skillfully in a neat, well-trained hand. He had a sophisticated understanding of the economic, religious, and political life of Virginia. Two years before the birth of his eldest son he ordered a four-volume commentary on the Epistles of Saint Paul, two volumes of The Guardian, and an eight-volume set of the leading literary journal of the day, The Spectator. James Madison Jr.'s paternal grandmother and mother were literate women, each capable of educating children in the basics.  James, early recognized as a precocious child, was probably designated as the family member to receive a higher education and then to carry the family tradition of taking a role in county and state public affairs.

At eleven the young Madison went off for college preparatory studies for five years at the boarding school of the Rev. Donald Robertson, among the many well-educated Scots who had come to the colonies to preach, teach, and spread the flourishing “Scottish Enlightenment” learning. James Madison Sr. chose the Latin emphasis for his son, the necessary route for college-bound youth. The records show as well that the pupil borrowed from his teacher books by Horace, Justinian, Ovid, Terence, and Sallust. In Greek, he learned to read The New Testament, Homer, Xenophon, and Demosthenes. In fulfilling the basic curriculum of Robertson’s school, Madison absorbed the profound classical understanding that “man is a political animal,” and that the state existed “not merely for life alone, but for the good life,” maxims Madison would implant twenty years later in the Constitution. Among Robertson’s books were some of the best of more modern European learning, including:  Smollett’s History of England, Montaigne’s Essays, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and many others. The young pupil was already firmly on his path to becoming the “learned and profound” person so many of his later colleagues in statecraft would find him to be.

Madison’s next important step in preparation for his future calling found him on the way to the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Along with work in “science, geography, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics,” Madison studied moral philosophy, and “improved” parts of the Greek and Latin classics and the Hebrew Bible. His most favored ancient authors were Cicero, Demosthenes, and Livy, while Shakespeare, Milton, and Addison were the most admired modern English writers. Often the students took part in and listened to debates, orations, and forensic contests in the chapel, all “critically examined with respect to the correctness of the language.”

Madison was lucky in sating his large appetite to find at Princeton two remarkable book collections. In 1755 Governor Jonathan Belcher had left volumes of all the “standard authors from the Greeks and Romans” to the great moderns: Bunyan, Dryden, Tillotson, Locke, Newton, Milton, Watts, Defoe, Montaigne, Bacon, Shakespeare, Montesquieu Addison, Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters, Pope, and Samuel Johnson. Histories of virtually every country and region of the world as well as several “universal histories” were included, in addition to such “heretical” works, as Princeton orthodoxy would have asserted, as Wollaston’s Religion of Nature, Butler’s Hudibras, and Pope’s Essay on Man.

The college President, John Witherspoon, also brought with him from Scotland perhaps eight hundred volumes largely of the “Scottish Enlightenment” thinkers, among them Robertson, Smollett, Hume, Kames, Adam Smith, Ferguson, and Hutcheson. He believed that wrong ideas, bad as they were, needed not to be surpressed, but vigorously combated. Thus he condemned “the infidel Hume” for his absurd “natural ethics,” blasted Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees for its ridicule of “industry, sobriety, and public spirit,” and faulted Dr. Johnson for his “hard words … [that] were the worst pattern for young persons that can be named.” Altogether Madison had in Witherspoon a teacher who could not only introduce him to the “great books” of the day, but also schooled the pupil in open-minded yet deeply critical ways of dealing with them.

Madison’s next absorbing encounter with books came during the four years, 1772-1776, where, back in Orange, he was able to discuss and seek books from his closest college friend, William Bradford, whose family ran perhaps the best printing and book shop in Philadelphia. As Madison thus gathered books and focused his study habits, he was confirming his life’s vocation: he would be a public-spirited revolutionist and then a nation-builder forming the Union “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal” that his reading and life experience had prepared him to understand.

During Madison’s years in Williamsburg in the state legislature and on the Governor’s Council, 1776-1779, he boarded with another James Madison, his second cousin, who was then President of the College of William and Mary.  Bishop Madison was a fervent Enlightenment intellectual who often wrote and talked about politics, science, and philosophy.  The two men doubtless shared and discussed books in “the President’s house,” still standing on the W&M campus.   Their conversations likely included Thomas Jefferson who became Governor of Virginia while Madison was in Williamsburg. This began the half-century long, most important and fruitful, and deeply learned conversation about books ever between two American statesmen.

Madison and Jefferson had their most comprehensive and revealing encounter with books, though, when Madison served in 1783 as chairman of a committee of the Continental Congress to prepare a list of books for the use of Congress. When Jefferson joined Madison at his Philadelphia boarding house later that year, he brought with him the catalogue of his own fast-growing library and a list of books he intended to acquire on his impending diplomatic journey to Europe. The two book-loving friends happily looked over the lists, picking out both the volumes likely to best meet the needs of Congress, and those they had found most pertinent and deeply learned from their own studies. Then they formed the selected books into eleven broad groups: Law of Nature and Nations, General History, Chronology, Geography, Particular History (18 countries), Politics, Law, War, Marine, Languages, and a final section of 100 entries about “America”, including voyages of discovery and travel, 20 volumes of international treaties, 60 volumes of the constitutions and laws of the 13 states, and 25 volumes of treaties “entered into with the natives of N. America,” making perhaps 1400 volumes in all under 307 titles. The list included the “great books” of the political education of the two men including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hooker, Bacon, Montesquieu, Grotius, Sydney, Harrington, Coke, and Blackstone, as well as a many books by living, more path-breaking, Enlightenment authors: Bayle, Voltaire, Gibbon, Barbeyrac, Mably, Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith, Price, Tucker, and Priestley. In the great intellectual division of the day, Madison and Jefferson thus respected both the “Ancients” who thought wisdom could be found in the books of the past, and “Moderns” who thought it could be discovered in research and analysis of the present. Congress “negatived” Madison’s report for budgetary reasons.

Madison and Jefferson had another marvelous exchange about books when Madison frequently asked Jefferson in Paris for books he needed to prepare for his coming efforts to draft and ratify a constitution for the Union. Jefferson sent back boxes of the latest books on history, politics, science, and economics he gathered from the bookstalls of Paris. Madison gratefully received the “literary cargo” from Europe, telling Jefferson the books were entirely suited to his needs. With the books shelved and stacked about him in his library at Montpelier overlooking the Blue Ridge, Madison produced his signal papers; “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” and the “Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” prepared from official papers Madison had gathered in Philadelphia and with the help of the “literary cargo” sent from Paris. Though not published in his life-time, the papers were basic to Madison’s role in 1787-1788 drafting the constitution, writing his contributions to The Federalist, and speaking at the Virginia Ratifying Convention.

As he steadily built up his own library, books went regularly the thirty miles between Montpelier and Monticello. “Take up your pen,” Jefferson often pleaded, as Madison’s views were needed to state the Republican cause in Philadelphia newspapers. Madison resorted again to his growing library to draft the 1800 “Report on the Resolutions” of the Virginia legislature condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts as gross violations of the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Though while in legislative or executive office Madison often worked at a desk in Philadelphia, Richmond, or Washington, his preference, especially for longer works requiring access to his cherished collection of books, was for his library at Montpelier. In his retirement as books and pamphlets came to Montpelier in a steady stream, the tables and shelves of the “Old Library” in the center room of the second floor of the mansion, became over-crowded. The aging and less mobile Madison did more reading and work with new books and papers in the new room on the north wing added to the mansion in 1809. He also worked in “Mr. Madison’s room” often confined to his bed. At the end of his life with his books around him, as they had been all his life, he too, as Jefferson had put it, “could not live without books.”



Ralph Ketcham, Ph.D.