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An Unlikely Founding Father — Michael Signer’s Biography of James Madison

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Michael Signer discusses his new book, "Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father," as part of the Books and Beyond lecture series, December 6, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Michael Signer discusses his new book, “Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father,” as part of the Books and Beyond lecture series, December 6, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

On Tuesday, December 6, the Law Library of Congress and the Center for the Book hosted a book talk with Michael Signer. Signer is an author, political theorist, attorney, and the mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia. He discussed his book, Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father (Public Affairs, 2015). Signer said he wanted “to craft his biography of Madison in a different way by focusing on the fourth president’s youth.” He characterized the book as “an intellectual and psychological biography of a young Madison before age 36.”

Signer described Madison as “hypersensitive, shy, and hypochondriacal.” At only 5’4″ and 100 pounds, Madison became one of the “most powerful and influential men of his time and modern history,” he said.  Signer shared that he was most fascinated by Madison’s ability to wield political influence and bring about change–despite his modest personality and diminutive stature.

According to Signer, who spent five years writing the book, Thomas Jefferson’s legacy overshadows Madison. Signer contends that Madison was a great thinker who had the acute ability to “marry the hopeful and aspirational side of human beings to the worst and more pessimistic side of human beings, which gave him a great understanding of idealism and realism.” Signer also characterized Madison as the “key architect of the statesman,” who believed that “leaders should seek to educate and challenge the public to embrace long-term complex policies.” Signer remarked that he himself is troubled by the lack of discussion of statesmanship today.

Signer mentioned that Madison had a fascinating rivalry with Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry, which he explores in his book. In fact, he concludes the book at Virginia’s ratifying convention in Richmond, where Madison engaged in a heated debate with Henry over the United States Constitution.

Additionally, Signer highlighted the connections between his biography of Madison and his first book, Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). The latter surveys political thinkers such as Plato, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom worked to defend democracy.

Signer described how both books emphasize “the pathology of democracy or what happens when democracy becomes ill.”  Becoming Madison, he said models “democracy from the top down, that is, what happens when leadership gives up on their leadership role.” Demagogue, on the other hand, examines more of “a bottom up view that explores what happens when people turn against the system and give up their freedoms to dangerous impulses and reject basic ethical norms and checks and balances.” Signer intimated how these two pathologies can occur today, and noted the challenges of the rise of demagogues in democratic societies.

In closing, Signer remarked on Madison’s optimism and belief in statesmanship. He mentioned how mentors such as John Witherspoon shaped Madison’s belief in public virtue and how the Socratic method influenced his political advocacy. He noted how Madison employed many different arguments, rather than “one silver bullet.” According to Signer, despite misconceptions, Madison was not a passionless or cold person. Signer described Madison as someone who bested his opponents in preparation and realized that it was far more effective to challenge ideas instead of attacking personalities. When it came to democracy, Madison believed that “the people were the highest authority.”

Update: Event video added below.




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