Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation, by Chris DeRose

Four stars

While by no means an expert on the Founding Fathers or the creation of the United States Constitution, I chose to tackle this book to further flesh out the story surrounding the founding of America and the entrenched rules by which it would run. DeRose examines the lives of the two Virginia Jameses, Madison and Monroe, as well as the influential roles they played in the early stages of American independence. This book examines their clashes, teamwork, and the efforts both put into creating what would be the US Constitution during the late 18th century. While they were able to work together to shape the latter years of colonial North America, where Monroe could play a key role in the Continental Congress, it was the formal election of 1789 that shaped America, with Monroe and Madison running against one another. Madison was the firm constitutionalist and was, like Alexander Hamilton, well-versed in the nuances of the legal language surrounding the rules of the state. DeRose argues that the aforementioned election was a major turning point in the state and American history, since Madison won and went on to Congress to present amendments to the constitutional document, eventually called the Bill of Rights. Without these changes, America would have easily been sunk into a quagmire and civil unrest would surely have led to a war within the states, with the ink still wet on the new U.S. Constitution. DeRose effectively shows how it was Madison’s openness to freedoms and the hands-off approach when it came to religion that kept the thirteen colonies sated and permitted the eventually expansion of the Union. Had Monroe claimed victory, none of that would have come to pass, leaving Washington that the likely sole president of the offshoot Union, which might have collapsed in on itself. A powerful set of arguments surrounding these key moments in early American history, the only time two men who would be future presidents squared off in a congressional election, leaves the reader to learn much from DeRose’s research.

Over the last number of months I have immersed myself in biographies and academic pieces on the founding of America and the constitutional infancy of the country. While it has been a pleasurable experience, I did learn a thing or two along the way, which DeRose presents well throughout; none of this was easy or quick to occur. The development of a new state, especially as it tosses off the shackles of its colonial oppressor, comes with great difficulty and requires the strength of men dedicated to forging fundamental paths to ensure a positive end-result. DeRose uses a wonderful cross-section of research and presents it in such a way that the layperson is not lost in the argument or the narrative. While there are sure to be sections of the larger story that can get dense, DeRose does his best to keep things move effectively. While a piece of non-fiction would rarely get comments on the characters involved, I would be remiss if I did not mention how lively Madison and Monroe appear throughout, which goes to the author’s ability to pull biographical pieces together that will both entertain and educate the curious reader. The narrative and chapter breaks allow the story to flow as seamlessly as possible, building things up at a decent pace while not over-indulging in minutiae. A wonderful effort to tell the most important of constitutional stories to Americans, in such a way that any reader could understand the significance of events and these two actors in the larger historical stage.
Kudos, Mr. DeRose for this great piece. You highlighted the best and worst parts of these two men, giving the reader just enough to form their own conclusions.