Was Madison the “Father of the Constitution?” Did he set out to create an overarching, time-transcending American political philosophy at the Constitutional Convention? Many an American history student might answer yes to both of those questions. However, Woods correctly reminds us that the idealized Madison we have learned about since elementary school is not a particularly accurate representation of the real Madison. In questioning whether two sets of philosophies and policies mean two different politicians, Woods brings up one of the fundamental problems of historical study: interpretation. “Thus, in our efforts to relate his very time-bound thinking to our present predicaments, we run the risk of seriously distorting the world and what he was trying to do.” Before you can consider a historical question as Woods does, you first separate fact from interpretation. As he shows with many quotations from Madison’s writing, the man we consider the philosophically most important Founder has become distorted by time and interpretation. “As these studies by political scientists and political theorists become more and more refined and precious, they seem to drift farther and farther away from Madison’s eighteenth-century reality.” One particular problem he points out is a desire “to treat as America’s foremost political philosopher.” Clearly, this difficulty is not limited to Madison but probably applies to most historical figures and events. The more a historical subject is interpreted and “repackaged” for the author’s own purpose, the farther it becomes from reality.
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