I just finished reading Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father, by author/scholar/politician Mike Signer (former Democratic Lt. Governor candidate; recently elected to the Charlottesville City Council). I’ve got a few thoughts, but first here’s what current U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and former U.S. Senator Chuck Robb (D-VA) have to say about the book.
Tim Kaine: “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.”
Chuck Robb: “One of the great contributions of Michael Signer’s Becoming Madison is the relevance of Madison’s role in the epochal debates surrounding the birth of our nation to the issues we face today, especially Madison’s commitment to attacking ideas rather than individuals. The way Signer captures the palpable tension, vitriol, and passion in Madison’s war of words and ideas with Henry is masterful.”
Let me just start by admitting that I knew VERY little about James Madison before reading this book, and now that I know a lot more about this truly great man, I’m embarrassed about that. Why? Because, as Mike Signer portrays Madison, this anxiety-ridden-but-briliant man was arguably the most important figure in ensuring that the United States of America as we know it ever came into being in the first place. As one Amazon.com reviewer puts it:
Signer’s book is full of exciting revelations, and I think an alternate subtitle could have been: What They Never Taught You In High School History Class. I never knew, for instance, that, in those few short weeks of the Constitutional Convention, Madison changed the course of American history. Had he lost the debates against Henry, it is quite possible that the United States as we know it today would never have come into being, and that I may have been born in a country called Virginia. I never knew that Patrick Henry, that famous firebrand and author of the immortal words “Give me liberty or give me death!” could be petty, self-serving, manipulative, and dangerous for democracy. I never knew of the close friendships between Madison and people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. It was fun to get to know the founding fathers through their private correspondence and conversations they held while visiting one another in their homes. Thanks to Signer’s book, the Founding Fathers became much more real to me.
I also came away from this book with a much deeper appreciation of just how messy and fragile and beautiful American democracy is. No matter whose side you are on in the Constitutional Convention debates Signer powerfully narrates, you sense that Madison and Henry and their respective supporters were fighting for big and important things. They were fighting for the fate of democracy itself, and they knew it in their bones. How different this is from the petty self-interests, private agendas, finger-pointing, and general vacuity of so much contemporary political debate. The way Signer tells the tale, Madison and the other founding fathers can inspire us in our own time to strive for a higher level of political discourse, and to become our best selves as Americans and as human beings. Therein lies the lasting legacy of James Madison, and of Signer’s wonderful book.
I agree with all that, and would just add a few more points that jumped out at me.
1. The importance of Madison’s “method” (“Find passion in your conscience. Focus on the idea, not the man. Develop multiple and independent lines of attack. Embrace impatience. Establish a competitive advantage through preparation. Conquer bad ideas by dividing them. Master your opponent as you master yourself. Push the state to the highest version of itself. Govern the passions.”), which he employed to tremendous impact on several occasions, including the climactic debate with proto-Tea Partier and raging demagogue Patrick Henry in the Virginia constitutional ratification convention.
2. How certain people I knew little about, but had generally thought about in positive terms, turned out to be villains or at least fools in Signer’s account. First off, Patrick Henry reminds us all of everything wrong in American politics today, with his ad hominem attacks, demagoguery, fear mongering, wild-eyed negativity and recklessness calling to mind the Tea Party, as well as current political figures ranging from Ted Cruz to Ken Cuccinelli to Donald Trump. Then there’s George Mason, who I had always thought of positively, but most certainly don’t anymore after reading this book and his opposition to the U.S. constitution. Same thing with James Monroe, except that I had never thought particularly highly of him anyway.
2. The book should remind us all that American politics was just as vicious – if not more so – back in the early days than it is today, and dispel the notion that things are more “poisonous” today than they ever were. On the other hand, today we have wildly irresponsible/sensationalistic/shallow mass media, the troll-ridden intertubes, money in politics run amoke (and hidious SCOTUS rulings like “Citizens United” making matters worse), and other problems we didn’t have back then. Still, it was far from genteel back in the late 1700s – nor was there any absence of partisanship, pettiness, division, disunity, etc. – and anyone who thinks it was some kind of utopian period where the great Founding Fathers brought the 10 Commandments down from Mt. Sinai is simply ignorant, if not utterly delusional.
3. The issue of slavery was the “elephant in the room,” causing even great men like James Madison to contort himself into logical and moral pretzels trying to square circles that were un-square-able. Also, the seeds of the Civil War were clearly drawn in those early days, although how on earthy Madison et al. could have avoided that, while still getting the U.S. government up and running, is beyond us today, just as it was beyond them then.
4. It’s interesting that Thomas Jefferson, idolized in Virginia today (although I am not a big fan) was largely absent – and out of the loop – for the debate on the U.S. constitution, as he was busy serving in Paris as minister to France.
5. It’s fascinating to see the tough-and-go Virginia ratification debate and narrow vote come down, in some ways, to a highly parochial, narrow issue of commercial navigation rights for property owners on the Mississippi River by “the men of Virginia’s Kentucky region.” As is often the case, politics can be extremly “hyper-local,” even as the overall debate attempts to “think globally.”
6. James Madison was a hero not just for what he accomplished, but for what he had to fight through – crippling anxiety attacks, insecurities, etc. – that literally had him hiding under the covers in his room for days/weeks on end. Yet somehow, Madison managed to gather himself when he was most needed, conquer his anxieties and perform at the highest level, both in writing and in speech. To me, that might be the most impressive thing of all about Madison, who after all was not a god or even a demigod, but a real, flesh-and-blood human being, just like the rest of the men (and they were basically all white men – women and African Americans were not welcome, barely even recognized as fully human at the time) who founded this country.
7. Finally, great job by Mike Signer pulling all this together, doing all the research, and so skillfully bringing this all to life. This book is a must-read, and also an important public service in and of itself, as this story is both important in and of itself but also HIGHLY relevant to U.S. politics today. I haven’t talked to Mike about the book, but I would for instance be interested in hearing more about what parallels (and differences) he sees between today’s anti-government Teapublicans and the anti-Federalists of the country’s earliest years.