Madison’s Mysterious Malady

While noting that Lynne Cheney’s new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, is the hagiographic treatment of his life and thought you’d expect from her, Kevin R.C. Gutzman acknowledges that Cheney does convince him on one disputed point of scholarship – she “goes far toward proving that he suffered epilepsy itself,” a diagnosis previously left in vaguer terms. Gutzman also finds the illness might have played a role in the evolution of Madison’s religious life:

She has consulted leading experts, perused the relevant portions of medical texts purchased by 640px-James_madison-Age82-Edit1Madison’s parents early in his life and read by Madison himself, and carefully compared the accounts of his recurrent bouts with the problem, and she leaves me persuaded. She also ingeniously relates Madison’s illness to the apparent change of heart he experienced at Princeton as a youth, when he seems to have abandoned Anglican Christianity. Faced with Western Christianity’s tradition of calling epilepsy demonic, Cheney avers, Madison rejected basic elements of Virginia’s traditional religion. Alas, there is no evidence directly on point, but her cogitations are valuable. They will need to be borne in mind by future scholars.

Cheney’s attention to her hero’s health as he climbs to the very highest offices in American government likely owes to her own life story. After all, her husband, Vice President Richard Cheney, not only served two terms as an influential vice president at the culmination of a career that found him in various other important leadership positions, but also suffers from a severe heart ailment. We do not know the private details of his suffering, but there is a special poignancy in Lynne Cheney’s sympathetic descriptions of Dolley Madison’s ministrations to James. One supposes, too, that Cheney family travails recently much in the news may have prompted the author to think about the relationship between traditional Christian descriptions of urges and afflictions as “demonic” and the evident waning, or at least metamorphosis, of whatever faith young man James Madison once had.

(Image: Portrait of Madison at age 82 via Wikimedia Commons)