Saturday, January 10, 2009


Drew R. McCoy's The Last of the Fathers includes a superb meditation on James Madison and slavery. It blinks none of the shortcomings, contradictions and absurdities in Madison's words and deeds concerning the subject, while at the same time allowing the reader to understand and appreciate why and how a man so essentially good and decent as Madison could find himself trapped and impotent to deal with what appeared to be an intractable problem.

Among other things, the chapter -- appropriately titled "Despair" -- discusses at length how such a person could come to embrace so patently absurd a solution as colonization -- and, indeed, to cling desperately to it despite the overwhelming evidence of its unworkability.

Professor McCoy again presents Harriet Martineau as an unusually acute observer of Madison and the dilemma that he and his country faced:
Thirty years later, during the American Civil War, an elderly Harriet Martineau had occasion to reflect once again on her pilgrimage to Montpelier in the winter of 1835. She remembered that despair had not come easy to a man of such "cheerful and sanguine temper" as Madison. Yet slavery had in fact pushed him to the very brink of despair, and by his own admission only the Colonization Society now stood between him and the loss of all hope. "Rather than admit to himself that the South must be laid waste by a servile war, or the whole country by a civil war," Martineau observed to her readers in 1862, "he strove to believe that millions of negroes could be carried to Africa, and so got rid of." It was hardly necessary, she added, to comment on "the weakness of such a hope."


Now, in 1862, as the killing went on, Martineau well remembered her own feelings on that pleasant winter day almost thirty years before. "It was as painful as it was strange," she recalled, "to listen to the cheerful old man, as he proved that there was no chance for his country, except from a scheme which he, as its President, found unmanageable."

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