The author doesn’t say so in so many words, and I’m not astute enough to know whether it was his intent or not, but it’s next to impossible not to read Becoming Madison / The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father as a reflection on the conflict between government and the equivalent of the modern-day Tea Party. Any reading of American political history quickly identifies the theme that has connected the epochs of our history from the very beginning – the battle between state sovereignty and federal authority. In his early and mid career, as this book emphasizes, Madison was a hearty advocate for a strong federal role, recognizing that without it, the concept of a nation of the United States was doomed – with the impotent union under the Articles of Confederation as Exhibit A.
In a fluid and well-researched narrative, Signer sets up the central, almost constant, conflict between Madison and his one-time mentor Patrick Henry. He describes the ironic hardships of Madison’s youth, having to constantly beg his wealthy, self-important father for money and living like a pauper even as one of the most ardent and vital leaders in the Virginia colonial legislature. Becoming Madison is not an intricate, paragraph-by-paraphrase description of the birth of the Constitution, thankfully. It is actually a more interesting examination of the psychology of Madison and Patrick Henry and the intellectual tug-of-war over public sentiment for a strong federal constitution.
Madison won that skirmish, and many others like it, including some against another mentor and friend, Thomas Jefferson. The focus on Patrick Henry in this telling is particularly interesting because Henry so closely reflects much of the modern-day anti-federalist movement – deep-seated hatred of taxes, bombastic if sometimes eloquent rhetoric, shallow populism, refusal to surrender any point, a tendency to demonize those who disagree. Signer repeatedly shows how Madison refused to succumb to such tactics, particularly focusing his arguments on the issue not individuals and overcoming his adversaries simply by out-working and out-thinking them.
The book also reinforced impressions of both Madison and, especially, Henry that I had in reading another Revolutionary-era history earlier this year, The Quartet, by Joseph J. Ellis. Ellis includes Madison as one of the four primary figures in the development of the U.S. Constitution and our federal government (the others being George Washington, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.) Henry, though, plays an important role as a foil to Madison. As someone who is moderately well-read but not well-studied in the period, it was valuable to find such similar descriptions of the character (or in Henry’s case, lack of it) of the two political adversaries. It also is valuable to recognize in all such readings that our modern tendency to want to worship some unified vision of America’s Founding Fathers is based on a fallacy. The vision was far from unified, and heroes of one moment could very well be the villains of another.
I’m sure there are deeper and more authoritative biographies of Madison available, but the pointed and consistent focus of this one makes it uniquely engaging and especially timely. Would that we had a Madison today to provide a more reasoned perspective in the face of the emotional current of anti-government outrage that runs through so much of contemporary conservative politics.