Keynote Speech from Michael Signer, Ph.D, at James Madison's 263rd Birthday Celebration
I first want to thank Kat Imhoff, Colonel Maxwell, and the hard-working staff at Montepelier who work every day to make sure that Madison is remembered in the right way—including Sean O’Brien, Doug Smith, and Meg Kennedy.
One of the nice things about spending four years writing a book about James Madison is that once in a very great while you get invited to an event just like this: a captive audience of James Madison fans who have no choice but to nod in agreement with almost everything you say.
But despite the strong odds of consensus here, I still want to try and introduce you to a different James Madison than the one whom you have gotten to know in the past.
You are all, no doubt, familiar with Madison the brilliant prodigy, Madison the deep studier who composed the “Vices of the Political System of the United States” memorandum in advance of the Constitutional Convention; Madison the calculating genius who designed the Virginia Plan and rammed it through the Constitutional Convention; Madison the erudite writer who authored the eloquent and compelling Federalist Papers—particularly #10 and #51—that helped sway an uncertain and volatile public to support the ratification of the Constitution.
I have puzzled many hours about why, despite these extraordinary contributions, Madison seems so much less celebrated than many other Founding Fathers. Whether the right word is “famous” or “exciting” or “likeable” or even “sexy,” we seem to think that so many of the other Framers—whether cosmopolitan, eloquent Thomas Jefferson; avuncular, lecherous Ben Franklin; towering, fascinating Washington; mercurial, aristocratic Hamilton; even arrogant, brilliant John Adams—have what Madison does not.
Instead, the picture—the caricature—many have in mind of Madison is captured in the title of a recent book: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason.
This discrepancy is nowhere more blatant than in our physical memorials. The fine people here at Montpelier have done yeoman’s work over the last couple of decades to reclaim this, Madison’s home, from the dustbin of history—and look at the fine work they have done. Madison is beginning to emerge from the mists. But still—just contrast our physical legacies to Jefferson, and you will see how far we have to come not only in embracing Madison but in embracing the accomplishments and sort of statesmanship Madison stood for. The National Park Service recorded 2,313,163 visitors to the Greco-Roman, iconic Jefferson Memorial in 2012. By contrast, the nation’s official memorial to James Madison is the Madison Building, the Library of Congress’s third building, which was opened on May 28, 1980, to scarce fanfare.
You are hereby forgiven for not knowing where, or even what, this is.
The problem with Madison is not only that we misremember him. It is that we misunderstand the sort of leader he was.
I approached the research for my book that will be released next year, titled Becoming Madison: The Making of an American Statesman, with a hypothesis: Madison simply must have been more interesting than we give him credit for. More feisty. More passionate. More angry. More charismatic. And even, yes, more sexy.
I decided to focus my book on the young Madison—the years leading up to his victory, at the age of 37, over his former boss and anti-Federalist, Patrick Henry, at Virginia’s ratifying convention. In researching this period of Madison’s life, I followed, like any good political scientist or historian, where the research led me. And what I discovered was this:
Madison was a reluctant but profoundly effective fighter. He was a self-doubting but ruthless pugilist. He was a rough-and-tumble battler for ideas, who would throw himself against the gears of a machine, again and again, even if the last thing he wanted to do was fight—even if he made himself sick in the process.
He did these things not to become famous or to become wealthy. He did them because he was a patriot and an American and because he thought the common good required it.
But because he sought to remove himself as the main figure in his own drama, and because he was focused on the state above all else, we ignore his legacy in favor of more romantic figures. And in that sense, Madison’s story is not only about him, but the leadership our country has also neglected.
Let’s start in June 1788.
James Madison had just finished writing his share of the Federalist Papers, the elaborate campaign of op-eds in the New York newspapers supporting ratification of the Constitution. Eight states had ratified the Constitution. One more among Virginia, New York, and New Hampshire was required. New York was very much in doubt, as was New Hampshire. From everything Madison knew, the fate of the new Constitution will fall to Virginia.
Before arriving at the New Academy in Shockoe Bottom in Richmond on Monday, June 2, Madison had prepared a battle plan to deal with Patrick Henry, who had declared, years earlier, “Give me liberty or give me death!” In his early years, Madison had idealized Henry the revolutionary; when Henry was elected Governor, Madison even went to work for him as a Governor’s Councilor. But as American matured from Revolution to Constitution, Henry’s style of politics and his political philosophy became out of date.
Henry believed in a different America. He worried that Virginia would lose her sovereignty and stature to a new federal government with potentially unlimited powers. He had commercial interests on the Mississippi River and thought the country could lose navigation rights with the new government. A self-fashioned man of the people, he despised the well-educated elites who had convened in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution.
In other words, he was fighting for self-interest, for a smaller federal government, and a cultural war—all at the same time.
For his part, Madison was fighting for what he called “coercion”—for the federal government to be able not only to require the states to do its will but to be able to force them to comply. His deepest disappointment about the Constitutional Convention, in fact, was that the document failed to achieve this overarching goal. But over the months, he came to believe that the accomplishment of reconciling so many opposing viewpoints in Philadelphia had been graced by divine providence.
Going into the ratifying convention, Madison faced not only Patrick Henry has an obstacle, but himself. Since youth, Madison had been afflicted by hypochondria, which seemed to swarm up at him just when he was most anxious and self-conscious.
As the convention began, Henry did not disappoint. He ridiculed Madison’s Constitution as “your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances.” Henry attempted to convince the crowd that the Confederation had been working fine—that Madison was exaggerating the problems to enhance his own power. Madison burst out “What is the situation of this country at this moment? Is it not rapidly approaching anarchy?”
Again and again over those three weeks, Madison challenged his audience. He appealed to reason and to facts. He consciously avoided the lowest common denominator, the appeal to passion, fear, and ignorance.
Henry did the opposite. He was pompous, grandiose. He painted a pastoral past imperiled by the young men’s adventure. “Here, sir, no dangers, no insurrection or tumult, has happened—every thing has been calm and tranquil.” A “wrong step made now,” he resonated, “will plunge us into misery, and our republic will be lost.” At one point, he even taunted the Federalists by telling the slaveholders in the crowd, “They’ll free your N-words!”
At least twice, Madison had to leave the auditorium, overcome by fits of anxiety that left him with debilitating stomach aches. He wrote friends from his boarding house that he thought the Federalists would lose the debate. But he always hauled himself back to the fight.
On the last day of debate, a vicious thunderstorm hit Richmond just as Henry was making his final speech attacking the Constitution. A Federalist described Henry standing as if he was “rising on the wings of the tempest” and “seizing on the artillery of Heaven.” Eventually, the “put the house in such disorder” that Henry could not go on.
Then a man named Zachariah Johnson rose. We know very little about Johnson, but on this crucial day of decision, he stood and decried “the strained construction which has been put, by the gentlemen on the other side, on every word and syllable, in endeavouring to prove oppressions which can never possibly happen.” Johnson announced “[M]y judgment is convinced of the safety and propriety of this system,” and said he would vote for ratification, “And in so doing, I will satisfy my conscience.”
And with that heartfelt statement, it was clear to the entire assembly that Madison would defeat Henry.
He repeated this pattern on at least four other occasions in these younger years: his fight against inflation when first entering Congress in 1780; his fight for the federal impost in 1783, his fight against Patrick Henry’s Religious Assessment in 1784; and his fight for the “Virginia Plan” in the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
In 1784, for example, Patrick Henry introduced a bill to tax all taxable property to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Madison viewed the bill with horror. The assessment, he wrote Jefferson, was “obnoxious” for its “dishonorable principle and dangerous tendency.”
The next year, Madison rose on the floor of Virginia’s General Assembly to deliver what would become known to the Western world as his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.” His act of defiance included fifteen separate attacks against Henry’s bill, again deploying logic, fact, conviction, principle, and history. His first argument was that religion belonged to the realm of conscience, not government. Religion should therefore be unreachable by politics, by the state, and by the instruments of human power. That was what the Declaration meant by the term “unalienable.” The state could not support religion, because whether or not religion was strong belonged to men’s minds, to their reason, and to their consciences. Henry and his supporters believed religion was under attack and the state had a logical role to play. In this crafty argument, Madison shifted the very ground beneath their feet, proving not only that their position was implausible, but that it could not work.
He then laid out fourteen more arguments. He attacked the assessment for violating the principle of equality. He excoriated the “arrogant pretension” that the civil magistrate could be a “competent Judge of Religious Truth.” He argued that fifteen centuries of the legal establishment of Christianity had only generated “Pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
But he concluded on hope rather than fear. His last argument informed the men that their freedom of religion was actually a “gift of nature.” If the bill passed, then the legislature could just as easily “swallow up” the executive and judiciary branches, as well as all the individual freedoms. If, on the other hand, Virginians met their “duty bound” to the “Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe,” they could “establish more firmly the liberties, the prosperity and the happiness of the Commonwealth.”
And he never took credit. He insisted on keeping the authorship of the Remonstrance anonymous.
Word of his Remonstrance spread quickly. Initially, thirteen separate petitions to support Madison’s Remonstrance gathered 1,552 signatures. On July 7, George Nicholas wrote Madison from Orange County to tell him that he had copied the petition and gotten 150 of “our most respectable freeholders” to sign it—in a single day. In the end, over 10,000 Virginians signed some sort of an anti-assessment petition.
The effect was just as Madison intended. In November of 1785, the delegates sent the bill to a legislative “pigeonhole,” where it was left to die.
Aristotle divided political regimes into what he called the “perverted.” In true regimes, leaders were truly motivated by the common good. In perverted regimes, on the other hand, leaders instead pursued private or special interests.
What is remarkable to me about James Madison was how hard he fought to keep America a true political system, in Aristotle’s terms—a system where the common good would prevail.
What you see in the stories I have told is what I describe in my book as Madison’s “Method.” He devised the Method by necessity. Remember that Madison was a hundred pounds and five foot four, hypersensitive, painfully shy, and soft-spoken. Madison’s Method was perhaps the only way for someone like him to win the battles he needed to win. Madison’s Method had nine key elements:
First, find passion in your conscience. From his lessons at the elbows of his fierce Scottish mentors, Donald Robertson and John Witherspoon, Madison never wavered from the gravitational pull of his conscience. The almost physical impulse of his sense of right and wrong drove his political decisions as a magnet pulls a compass’s needle. By a conscience inspired by general matters of right and wrong, he brought tremendous conviction to his arguments about policy, at the same time illuminating the motives of politicians as selfish and short-sighted.
Second, focus on the idea, not the man. As powerful as politicians and citizens were, Madison recognized that ideas were the primary danger. A powerful idea could structure a vision of a future, spark men’s passions, and overpower political alliances. He knew that if he destroyed the idea, the man behind it would not matter. And so he concentrated on demolishing destructive ideas and elevating good ones. While this approach deprived him of the drama and the emotion customary to interpersonal political conflict, it lent his arguments a purity and force that was vastly more compelling to an observer.
Third, develop multiple and independent lines of attack. He appreciated clean, elegant, simple ideas, such as the singularity of religious freedom or the need to balance factions. But he also believed that killing a noxious idea required diverse and overwhelming force, not conceptual or tactical parsimony. As a political matter, then, Madison knew to deploy a wide range of differentiated attacks, whether historical, logical, moral, or emotional, any one of which was persuasive in its own right, but which altogether comprised a devastating assault.
Fourth, embrace impatience. Many forces conspire, in politics, to favor the patient. Legislation moves slowly; coalitions take time and steadiness to build and bond; public opinion must be shifted; and, perhaps most importantly, leaders who are too restless, who resist the proven benefits of steady pressure, will burn out. Yet time and again, Madison wanted to defy those proven patterns and instead embrace the profound impact of impatience.
Fifth, establish a competitive advantage through preparation. Because he lacked the rhetorical skills and the emotional magnitude of more theatrically impressive enemies, Madison developed his advantage on different grounds—through information and through preparation. With greater depth than his competitors, he could defeat their arguments on substantive grounds. By designing his battle plans ahead of time, he could anticipate and destroy his enemy.
Sixth, conquer bad ideas by dividing them. Madison developed a habit of isolating a question into two—and only two—options. By making his audience consider only two options, he gave himself profound control over their own consideration of his problem, leading them down an intellectual path where their landscape narrowed, step by step, increasingly within Madison’s own control.
Seventh, conquer your opponent as you conquer yourself. Madison developed, over the years, habits of mind and patterns of discipline in responding to his own sensitivity. His durability, tenacity, and precision were strikingly similar to the instruments he used to address the country’s own weaknesses. He subordinated the complaints of his mind and body to political necessity, to forge ahead.
Eighth, push the state to the highest version of itself. Madison was always focused on the state—over personality, over culture, over region, even over family. It was the achievement of the state—the form of the government of the country, the respective federal and state monopolies on violence, the men who would take positions of power within government, and the actions government would take—that concerned him. And he was generally unwilling to compromise on the primary point: that in all of these respects, the government should achieve its greatest potential.
Ninth and finally, govern the passions. The greatest danger Madison saw for America lay within the body politic itself. His project since youth had been to modulate, discipline, tame—and channel—the passions. Statesmanship was essential to that project. Plato envisioned the passions as the “lower” part of the soul, ideally governable by the “rational” self. The checks and balances of Madison’s Constitution would altogether help contain the passions. But to channel and govern them would require leaders—individuals with the mission of transforming the raw appetites into policies.
To an adversary, Madison’s Method was maddening at best and infuriating at worst. He always knew more than you. He had anticipated most of your moves and seemed to have planned out everything he would say. He dragged his audience through a series of choices they had no option but to make, toward conclusions they had no choice but to accept. It was a Socratic dialogue without the question marks—a symphony of precision, preparation, discipline, and control. If you responded to one point, there were always countless others to deal with as well. As slight and he was, physically, he seemed indefatigable, almost to burn with an inner resourcefulness. Every attempt you made to bait him—to trick him or play to his ego—would be avoided by a return to the plan. And—most importantly—if you ever revealed yourself to be combating for any selfish or “special” interest, that fact would become garish and exposed, in contrast to his self-evident conscience, in contrast to the fact that he really did seem to have the best interests of the public at heart.
What does all this mean for today?
We have many bad ideas. We also have many good ones. They will not succeed without help. Without a champion. Without a leader.
The dangerous thing about the nation’s leadership dilemmas today is not only the vociferousness and funding of the special interests, the dispiriting echo chamber of the 24 hour news cycle, and the fact that many Congressmen don’t know or trust each other personally. It is cynicism about leadership itself. Last October, one poll showed that Congress is less popular than it ever has been. Only 8% of voters approve of the job Congress is doing, compared to 86% who disapprove. The poll found that hemorrhoids, toenail fungus, dog poop, and cockroaches all were more popular than Congress. Congress is, however, still more popular than serial killers and Miley Cyrus. Meanwhile, in an increasingly hyperlinked world, where political phenomena from the Arab Spring to the Obama campaign seem to be more horizontal than vertical, “leadership” starts seeming not only traditional, but old-fashioned.
Well, this is an old-fashioned cry for leadership, especially on the challenges we face today. So many of the political battles occurring today, from the debt ceiling to global warming to the President’s birth certificate, are the products of a nihilism that has blossomed in the wasteland of sustained, challenging ideas about the nation’s past and future, and the lack of political character that seeks to elevate debate rather than debase it. Returning Madison’s Method to politics could do much to conquer not only many bad ideas, but to help us believe again in leadership itself.
When he first arrived in Congress, Madison wrote Jefferson that the reason inflation couldn’t be solved was because of a “Defect of adequate statesmanship.” That was so controversial it was edited out of his letters for years. We think of statesmen today as dead and dull, as stony and lifeless as the columns and edifices of our Greco-Roman memorials. Yet what Madison shows is they are flesh and blood fighters. Even if it’s old-fashioned, we need to return to that spirit once again—to honor and celebrate and elevate leaders—statesmen—who fight with their heart and spirit for the common good.