Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Review - Banning’s Sacred Fire of Liberty

Lance Banning. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1995. Pp. x, 543. $35.00

In The Sacred Fire of Liberty, Lance Banning presents the unassuming yet capable James Madison as a uniting figure presiding over the Congressional delegation wrought in debate over ratification of a proposed Constitution penned for the United States and continues with an analysis of Madison’s subsequent political career after his landmark contribution. The author primarily argues that Madison's position for establishing a sense of national security rested upon the laurels of the Revolution yet hinged between success and failure due to the weakened nature of the Articles of Confederation following the rise of discord during the era of the Early Republic. Banning’s main point appears to attempt to shed light on the politician’s often misunderstood rationale subsisting of his view on the proper role of government and how the essence of liberty intertwines.

The Sacred Fire of Liberty masterfully chronicles Madison’s efforts and vocational progression, however, most impressively, Banning articulately surveys Madison’s belief in a compound form of republican government which he expected to preserve individual liberties while enabling a strong federal system that would function within its appropriate realm. Banning ought to have delved deeper into the reasons for Madison’s assumptions toward this end, however assurances issuing from his proposed idea of a tripartite limitation of national power may give recourse for his assumptive stance on how future statesmen would function. Yet in the same vein, Cathy Matson notes how Madison "clung to classical republican beliefs in the need for a virtuous citizenry and reputable political leadership...[consecrated on the] ideal of self-government grounded on republican dignity and virtue,"[1] forces which may indeed explain Madison’s frequently misinterpreted political vantage point in light of clamoring for a more distinctive form of democratic republicanism.

 Appreciatively, Robert A. Becker provides insight into a slight flaw of Banning's throughout his publication, that being repetitiveness and the potential glorification of Madison in lieu of his reputation's tarnishing at the hands of modern historiography. Yet the redeeming virtue of Sacred Fire is Banning’s insistence on respectfully illuminating the error within a majority of scholarly reviews of the man. Banning suggests that "numerous interpretative difficulties" over Madison's concern of potential authoritative overreach while yet desiring an effective centralized government "can produce an image bearing little resemblance to Madison himself."[2] Complimentary to the author’s thesis, Becker's persuasive observation of Banning's intention to project Madison as a "revolutionary republican and a kind of states' rights nationalist [instead of the politician who has been] persistently misread in order to force Madison into the mold of an anti-republican nationalist"[3] is thoroughly agreeable.

Additionally, as suggested by Vincent McGuire, Banning aims to reveal that, however contradictory, Madison's "overriding concern was maintaining the Spirit of Revolution"[4] in its purest form. Similarly, with Matson’s aforementioned discernment of Madison’s ethical stance, Banning utilizes Madison's "own words woven unobtrusively into the narrative"[5] to feature how Madison poses not as a fickle public servant but rather one of principled character and consistency in his approach to sociopolitical theory and revivalist change.

Through approaching the realm of America’s hallowed pantheon to dissect one of its members in an honest and justifiable manner, Banning provides an insightful and fair analysis of the humble man bearing the weighty mantle as the Father of the Constitution. Though refraining from considering himself a nationalist, Banning skillfully indicates through his work how Madison emerged from a defender of state rights’ to jointly favoring federal policy, namely through the institution of implied Congressional powers due to the necessity of reform he recognized the budding nation required if the idealized vision for the “grand American experiment” could be sustained.


Lance Banning, A Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1995).

Scholarly Reviews Consulted:

Becker, Robert A. The American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (1997): 1562-563.

Matson, Cathy. The Journal of Southern History 63, no. 1 (1997): 151-53.

McGuire, Vincent. The American Political Science Review 90, no. 4 (1996): 884.

[1] Cathy Matson, The Journal of Southern History 63, no. 1 (1997): 152.
[2] Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1995): 165.
[3] Robert A. Becker, The American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (1997): 1563.
[4] Vincent McGuire, The American Political Science Review 90, no. 4 (1996): 884.
[5] Cathy Matson, 151.

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