Meeting the Real James Madison

Feb 8, 2016

If you sometimes get depressed about the state of politics and government in America, cheer up.  A new biography, Becoming Madison,  suggests government has long been a messy business in this country.  Sandy Hausman has that story.

Author and political theorist Michael Signer was inspired to write about James Madison after visiting the grave of Thomas Jefferson and comparing it to Madison’s final resting place at Montpelier in Orange County.

“I’ve been there many times now, and it’s always very quiet and a little stark," he says. "That’s in contrast with Monticello, where it feels like you’re at an American temple – manicured gardens, and there are usually thousands of people around.”

One reason, he believes, is that Madison was unlike the other founding fathers, who shaped the spirit and ambition of a new nation.  He was short -- weighed about 100 pounds, was painfully shy, hated public speaking and according to Signer suffered from debilitating panic attacks.   What’s more, his message was serious and cerebral.

“I think what he was telling us to do in our Democracy was more steady and statesmanlike, and it was almost resolutely unsexy," Signer explains. "How do you make government better, more noble, more refined?”

For example, in his first run for public office, Madison refused to honor a long-time tradition – buying booze for the voters.

“He decided that that conduct was beneath him and beneath Virginia, and he was running against -- among others -- a tavern keeper, and he lost."

Madison learned from that experience, and when the opportunity arrived, he paid the bar tab, and got himself a seat in Congress. Almost immediately he could see that the nation needed statesmen.

“Congress at that time, in the early 1780’s, was kind of famous for being packed with low quality public leaders to put it politely.  George Washington was writing letters back to Virginia. He didn’t use the word clowns but he might as well have.”

So Madison set out to become a great statesman – guided a systematic plan of attack.

“Getting his own conviction and conscience in order, knowing his fact, understanding the other side, dominating the other side, figuring out a series of arguments.  It was kind of a form of intellectual combat but for the common good.”

While other lawmakers caroused in Philadelphia, Madison stayed home to study one of the country’s biggest problems – a lack of stable currency.  Several forms of payment were in circulation, and their value fell along with public confidence in government.  Madison concluded we needed a single currency, issued by a strong federal government, supported – financially – by the states.  He tried to sell others on the idea, but could not persuade one of Virginia’s most influential politicians.

“Patrick Henry was Madison’s opposite in every respect.  He was tall, he was robust, he had a silver tongue, he was a revolutionary hero remembered for the lines, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.  If this be treason, make the most of it.’” 

He and Madison had once been friends.  Now, Henry pulled out all the stops to fight Madison’s constitution and his future political ambitions.

“Henry turned against the idea of the constitution.  He turned against the idea of a strong federal government.  A lot of tea party language today that is about Washington or about government itself is very familiar if you look at Patrick Henry’s language.”

In the end, of course, Madison prevailed, but Signer says he wasn’t perfect.  Early in his life he freed his personal servant – a slave named Billy, but many more slaves were needed to run Montpelier, and Madison would refuse to free them, even after his death.  Still, in his book Signer portrays a smart, disciplined statesman driven by a quiet passion, and as the newly elected mayor of Charlottesville, the author says he will try to apply the lessons he learned from studying and writing about Madison. 

To hear Sandy Hausman's full interview with author Michael Signer, click here: