About This Book

My first book, Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies, was about the profound importance of constitutionalism—a political culture of civic republican values—to protecting democracies from the historic threat of predatory mass leaders.

After the publication of Demagogue, I found myself thinking more about the top-down problem of a healthy democracy—about leadership—than about the bottom-up problem that drove Demagogue.   And in that vein, I was drawn more than ever to the story of James Madison.

I had been fascinated by Madison ever since I studied political theory as an undergraduate at Princeton University, which Madison also attended.

How could someone who never came out of the “academy”—who never even wrote a book—have achieved such renown as a political theorist?

How could someone so deeply involved in practical politics also do such profound work advancing political ideas?

And why was Madison so ignored today?

I decided to begin looking into the Papers of James Madison, a many-volume set.   As I read through some of his early letters and learned more about his unlikely triumph at the convention to ratify the Constitution in Richmond in 1788, I formulated a hypothesis.   The man who had single-handedly shaped the nation simply must have been more passionate, more driven, more charismatic, more tenacious, and more fascinating than we give him credit for.

With that thesis in hand, I plowed through more of the letters, and found more evidence not only that Madison was not dry and calculating, but that he was quite the opposite: so sensitive, so driven, so passionate that he was often overcome by the intensity of his emotions.

And I found the story of a man who repeatedly achieved political success by that most unlikely of endeavors—by challenging Americans to rise above the lowest common denominator.

Together, what I found in the papers of Madison was a case study in statesmanship lost, and a portrait of a man—and a set of lessons about democratic politics—that we desperately need in today’s America.

Becoming Madison is an intellectual and psychological biography that takes a fresh look at the life of the United States’ fourth president, focusing on Madison before age 36, when he did his most enduring work—learning at the elbow of the great iconoclast and revolutionary cleric John Witherspoon, battling with Patrick Henry over religious freedom; introducing his framework for a robust and resilient central government; becoming the intellectual godfather of the Constitution’s brilliant checks and balances; and working to ratify the Constitution at Virginia’s convention in 1788.

I reintroduce readers to a brilliant, improbably charismatic, powerfully driven, and exquisitely sensitive young man, who was uncomfortable on the public stage but whose passionate concern to shape a great and enduring nation compelled him onto it.

Readers will be surprised to learn the nine-part “Method” by which tiny, deeply reserved man defeated the anti-Federalists and saved the Constitution.   They will read about the crippling anxiety attacks that plagued Madison through his life, including during the ratification convention in Richmond.   They will discover the dramatic precedents for Madison’s triumph in the Constitution, including his battles for legal reform, religious freedom, and macroeconomic policy.   They’re read about the eerie parallels of Madison’s battle against his former mentor Patrick Henry with current struggles with “Tea Party” forces in American politics.   And they’ll delve   into Madison’s profound intellectual relationship with his mentor and professor John Witherspoon.

In all, young James Madison’s reluctant but firm decision to hurl himself into the ring, again and again, for the common good prove that leadership is possible in a democracy, and that ideas can make a difference. His story shows how much democracy depends on leaders like Madison.

The stunning story of his victories is simply incomprehensible without understanding the passion, charisma, energy, humor, and fierceness of Madison the actual man.

Reviews

“[A]s lively as a thrilling mystery, as enlightening as a full college semester and as pleasing as a frosty bowl of Southern punch.”

Lincoln Journal-Star

“If George Washington stands as America’s indispensable Founder, then James Madison stands among colleagues who played essential roles in the creation of a new nation. Although recognized as the father of the Constitution, Madison seems to receive less popular attention than Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and other peers. The tide could be turning. Recent months have seen the publication of several books about Madison. One of the best is Michael Signer’s “Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father.” Signer explains how Madison came to believe the principles he translated not only into a constitutional framework but also into a legislative agenda. This is intellectual history at its finest. Signer’s deft hand demonstrates that the life of the mind can prove as exciting as a life of physical action. Madison’s thoughts make readers think. Madison dealt with practical politics as well as lofty ideals. Signer’s description of Madison’s defeat of Patrick Henry’s proposal for state support for churches teaches lessons regarding effective legislating. John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi ought to consult Madisonian precedents. Madison personified the statesman, a concept that has become archaic. A resident of Charlottesville, Signer has been involved in the commonwealth’s Democratic politics. He knows Madison’s turf. “Becoming Madison” is an essential biography of an essential Founder.”

Editorial Page, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“In Becoming Madison Michael Signer spends a lot of time on the ratification struggle…. Signer is best however on Madison’s youth, and the medical mystery of his life. The future founding father had problems with his own father. James Madison Sr. gave his son a fine education—schools and tutors, followed by Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). He paid his son’s bills: James Jr. had no profession, and no jobs apart from public service. What James Sr. gave with one hand, however, he withheld with the other: Signer characterizes one of the father’s letters as showing “strong, but suppressed, emotion,” and he argues that Madison’s relations with his strong, suppressed parent caused the seizures that plagued him throughout his life—palpitations and choking, followed by fainting. Biographers have wondered whether Madison had epilepsy. Signer says the fits were anxiety attacks. Madison’s failure to become a militiaman was such an attack: He collapsed during a musket drill, as his father, a senior officer, looked on. “Madison,” writes Signer, “loved his father but felt controlled by him.” He “may have felt deep anger at his father … and his anxiety could have resulted from the conflict between that anger and his inability to express it.” It’s hard to diagnose someone two centuries after the fact, but this strikes me as a bull’s-eye.

Richard Brookhiser, The Daily Beast

“Sound and revealing. . . . On the subject of slavery in particular, Mr. Signer explores a revealing incident. Mr. Stewart mentions that a slave poisoned Madison’s grandfather, causing his death, and that Madison was well aware of the evils of slavery—even if in the end, like Jefferson, he held slaves himself and did nothing to abolish the institution. Mr. Signer goes much further, giving an account of Madison’s grandfather that clearly reveals him to be not only a cruel slave master but also a “grasping and acquisitive and ruthless” plantation owner who could not get along with his own kind. Thus Mr. Signer’s account suggests that Madison knew—or ought to have known—that slavery promulgated a way of life inimical to black and white alike.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Several aspects distinguish this work from others on James Madison (1751–1836). Political theorist Signer (Demagogue) covers his subject’s first 37 years, focusing on the evolution and unification of the political and personal principles that formed Madison into a political authority, persuasive writer, expert debater, and, above all, a preeminent leader and extraordinary statesman. The author argues that with a systematic “method” of employing intellect, rationality, preparation, and controlled passion, Madison successfully defended liberty and promoted the Constitution. In tracing his underlying vision, Signer emphasizes the profound influence of Madison’s mentor, John Witherspoon; Madison’s assiduous study of government; and the application of his knowledge and earnestness during the Constitutional Convention, in the “Federalist Papers,” and in exchanges with Patrick Henry and other anti-Federalists during Virginia’s ratification debates. The author contends that Madison’s struggle with humiliating and incapacitating anxiety attacks influenced his character and philosophy. VERDICT This is less of a biography than an important study of the intellectual and psychological development of a young Madison who believed that leaders should forsake self-interest in promoting the common good. Signer urges contemporary politicians to emulate him. For readers interested in Constitutional history and in understanding the political philosophy of the Father of the Constitution and Fourth president of the United States.”

Library Journal

“Though he’s the principal architect of our constitutional form of government, James Madison (1751-1836) remains, for most Americans, the least distinct of all the Founders, better known as Hamilton’s and Jay’s co-author, as Jefferson’s lieutenant, as the beguiling Dolley’s husband. In this highly readable and often insightful treatment, Signer (Demagogue: The Fight to Save America from Its Worst Enemies, 2009, etc.) colors in the portrait, finding the essential Madison in the young man as he charts the diminutive Virginian’s “evolving character and his emerging ideas.” A remarkably intense, indefatigably hardworking youth, Madison mastered self-control in part to mask his raw sensitivity and frail health. Signer convincingly diagnoses his infirmity—contra Madison biographer Lynne Cheney—as “severe anxiety-driven panic attacks that made him ill.” Despite this weakness, he consciously set out to become a statesman, regularly asserting himself in the public, rough-and-tumble world of politics, using, oftentimes anonymously, the power of his ideas and the elegance of his pen to shape the debate. With a character influenced by his father, his tutor, and especially his college president, the Presbyterian cleric John Witherspoon, Madison drew ideas from his voluminous reading and all-encompassing scholarship. Finding the Socratic method distasteful and inadequate, he fashioned his own search for truth and developed it into a singular political strategy. Signer describes Madison’s method as an “interlocking set of nine tactics” that primarily emphasized ideas, preparation, timing, and, most of all, the quelling of passion in oneself and one’s opponent. The author offers some dramatic set pieces demonstrating Madison’s method in action—the 1784 fight against religious assessments in Virginia, the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia ratification battle, etc.—illustrating its effectiveness against more conventional tactics and politicians. He’s particularly good at showing how Madison’s discipline, relentless logic and faith in reason allowed him to triumph over his in-state antagonist, Patrick Henry.  A perfect introduction to a deeply private and immensely important man.”

Kirkus

Becoming Madison is superb. The history is lively and engaging. But Michael Signer’s greatest contribution is to turn a biography of Madison into a manual on leadership that is as relevant and valuable today as it was 200 years ago.”
– Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011 and President and CEO, New America Foundation

“For centuries James Madison has been overshadowed by the more striking and charismatic members of America’s founding generation. And Madison’s youth has been even less well known than his maturity. Michael Signer goes far toward filling this historical gap with an engaging, insightful account of how the unassuming young Madison became the hero of the Constitution.“
– H. W. Brands, University of Texas at Austin, author of Andrew Jackson, His Life and Times and The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.”

“Michael Signer’s Becoming Madison offers a gripping portrait of the emergence and development of the leadership of one of our country’s great architects. We are wonderfully reminded of the power of a single person’s passion, humility, and statesmanship in shaping a nation’s destiny.”
Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

“This engagingly written, carefully researched book is the fullest account we have of the development of Madison’s thought and statesmanship through the promotion and drafting of the Constitution to the greatest triumph of his life, the ratification of the Constitution in the Virginia Convention of 1788. Signer shows how there, in face-to-face debate with Patrick Henry, Madison proved what John Marshall termed Madison’s unmatched ability to convince could overcome Henry’s supreme power to persuade. This capacity characterized Madison’s style and career in a way that allowed him to become the master philosopher and practitioner of Lincoln’s Union, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all . . . are created equal.” Signer also shows brilliantly how Madison’s studies at Princeton under President John Witherspoon began an influential and revealing partnership in public-spirited citizenship for good democratic government. Altogether the book places us closer to understanding how Madison became able to be, all things considered, the father of the Constitution.”
– Ralph Ketcham, Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, Author, James Madison: A Biography

“Michael Signer’s Becoming Madison: The Making of an American Statesman adds a whole new dimension to the least likely of our Founding Fathers, and to the epochal debates in the birthing of our nation.  Though Madison was diminutive in stature, and somewhat fragile physically, Signer helps us better understand how his towering intellect and unquenchable passion for the principled tenets necessary to create a lasting republic forged his character, and how he related to the other, better known, giants of his time, particularly to Patrick Henry. The way Signer captures the palpable tension, vitriol, and passion in their war of words is masterful.   The reader can’t help but wonder, if it hadn’t been for the tenacity of Madison, would we have truly become the UNITED States of America?  Would that his commitment to attacking ideas rather that individuals commanded a similar adherence in today’s politics.”
– Charles S. Robb, former Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator

“James Madison would be called a “flip-flopper” in today’s political climate.  Thank God he changed his mind and concluded that adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution was not just good politics but necessary policy.  This is just one of the wonderful aspects of James Madison’s life that Michael Signer captures so well in this important biography.  Our nation owes huge debts to Madison, and today’s civic leaders owe a huge debt to Signer for reminding us why.”
– Tim Kaine, former Virginia Governor and current U.S. Senator