Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Colleen Sheehan, *The Mind of James Madison*

Sheehan, Colleen A. The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xvii + 275 pages. Ordering links for hardback and paperback.

(I read this for a project I was working on and decided it deserved a review.)

During the period 1791-2, during his time in the House of Representatives and before his tenure as Secretary of State and his Presidency, James Madison, the philosopher of the American Revolution, drew up a series of notes on his philosophy of governance, which survive in a handwritten notebook. No-one is quite sure what his intention was for these, whether they were just written for his own edification or whether he intended ultimately to edit them into a book. In any event, he did not do so.
In The Mind of James Madison, Villanova professor Colleen A. Sheehan has published a transcription of these notes and written a commentary on them. The book is divided into two parts: Sheehan’s commentary on the notes and a transcription of the handwritten notes themselves, with extensive quotes from Madison’s own citations. The transcription and quotes alone are a valuable service to scholarship. The commentary is valuable for a modern scholar who does not wish to dig through the primary source material.
The commentary is written for an academic audience. She assumes a knowledge of the period and the major works authors of the period would have read; there are few concessions to a lay reader. After an establishing chapter on the context of the notes, she follows Madison’s order, with chapters titled “Circumstantial influences on government,” “The power of public opinion,” and “The federal republican polity.”
As a lay reader, I am not equipped to judge the work; it seems (for an academic work) straightforward enough and I have relied on Sheehan’s commentary as a secondary source. She is, however, a deeply conservative academic and, like anyone, will be apt to see views most congenial to her own in works she studies. In any event, I believe the book is an important one and recommend it to anyone who is seriously interested in the thinking of the founders of the United States of America.

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