Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father
Articles,  Blog

Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC.>>Pam Jackson: Hi, I’m Pam Jackson. I’m Director of the Center for
the Book her eat the Library of Congress, and I’d like to
welcome you to this afternoon’s talk with the Books and Beyond
program that we have. We are very excited to have
today’s conversation and thrilled that you’re here with us. As some of you may know, the Center
for the Book is a unit that is in the National and International
Outreach Unit of the Library of Congress, and it’s our mission — the Library’s mission is to
provide the American people with a very rich, diverse, and
enduring source of knowledge, one that can be relied upon to
support people in their creative and intellectual endeavors. So we’re glad for you
to join us as part of today’s intellectual endeavor. At the Center for the Book, which
includes the Young Readers’ Center and the Poetry and Literature
Center, we promote books and reading, literacy and
libraries, poetry and literature, knowing that they are the best
tools to create, and sustain, for form societies,
and the best weapons against ignorance and intolerance. And our mission is carried out
through a national affiliation with several groups
of organizations. There is a Center for the Book
in every state in the country, and the District of Colombia,
and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And we also have a partnership of
reading and literacy promotion, organizations throughout both
the country and the world, in part because the Center for
the Book administers the Library of Congress Literacy Awards
program that annually awards more than $250,000 to organizations
around the country and the world in support of their endeavors
to advance the cause of literacy in a variety of ways, both
innovative, sustainable, replicable. Now today we’re here for
a particular kind of talk that does promote the
Library’s mission and focus on literacy and literature. But before we get started, and
to avoid unnecessary distraction, I do want to ask that you
take a moment to make sure that your electronic
devices are silent. Also, we are recording today’s
event, and if you ask a question, you should know that you’ll
become a part of our webcast. The Books and Beyond talks are — and all of our webcasts
and live events — are available online at We do have more than 250 talks
from authors of all kinds of genres and experiences available for
your viewing pleasure there. We should mention today also that
the author’s book is available for sale at the entrance
to this room, and following the presentation
there will be a book signing. And you’ll have a little more chance
to talk with our author today. The chief criterion for deciding
which books to feature in the Books and Beyond series is that there
must be a strong connection to the Library of Congress. Either the books are about
the Library of Congress, or the author did research
here and used one of our many reading rooms research
facilities and resources available. So we encourage that,
and we celebrate that. And today is another
example of that. And we also have the special
pleasure of partnering with the Law Library as our
cosponsor for today’s event, which is actually where our
author did much of his research. The Law Librarian of
Congress is Roberta Shaffer. And as Law Librarian,
Roberta oversees the largest of legal materials — collection
of legal materials in the world. She was the driving force behind the
successful Magna Carta exhibition just of last year in 2015. And just to mention, Roberta has a
very long and successful career here at the Library, including
being Associate Librarian for Library Services, where
she managed 53 division and over 2000 employees. I — you know, I count
you as my friend. I honor you and celebrate you for
your contribution to the library, for your expertise, and
your extraordinary knowledge and commitment. And I’d like to bring forth Roberta
to introduce our — today’s author. Thank you.>>Roberta Shaffer: Well, thank
you so much for that, Pam. So totally unexpected,
and particularly today when we’re honoring such
accomplished people, our author and the subject of his book. And so we in the Law Library
really enjoy these collaborations with the Center for the Book. We recently did one
on poetry in law, and we hope you’ll
look at that video. Sorry if you missed it. We’re celebrating — we were celebrating James Madison’s
exact 265th birthday on March 16th. And Michael was supposed to
join a panel at that time. But you may or may not remember that that was the day Metro
unexpectedly decided to close down for something like 72 hours. And we all could not envision
what traffic would be like driving from Charlottesville that morning. So we thought we would continue
with the other two panelists, Mary Sarah Bilder and
David O. Stewart, and that we would save
Michael for a later date. And in doing that, we decided that that would mean we would
continue celebrating James Madison’s birthday. We weren’t really sure if
James Madison would approve, but according to what David told
us that day about Dolly Madison, a real party girl, she
would be fine with the fact that we’ve now celebrated for 10 months the 265th
birthday of James Madison. But actually, at the Library
of Congress, and indeed, specifically the Law
Library that lives in the James Madison Memorial
Building, we should be — and I hope we are — celebrating
James Madison every day of the year, whether it’s his birthday
or not, because he set so many important precedents for us
in terms of our own legal system. But he reflected in many
ways some of the values that the Law Library holds today. On the very basic level,
he was an amazing linguist. I recently — in studying on
Sunday night for Michael’s talk — learned that he was entirely
fluent in both Latin and Hebrew. And of course, you know he
served as Secretary of State and had an immense interest both in
the development of the United States as its own nation-state, but in our
relationships with foreign nations. And of course, that is a key
aspect of the Law Library’s mission and function within the
Library of Congress. But looking at James Madison
a little bit in more detail, and then getting to know
Michael at least on paper in a little more detail, I
realize that there are a number of similarities between them. And so I’ll just point out the
ones that I could easily glean without really knowing Michael,
and of course, only knowing Madison through his legacy
and not personally. And the first one that I
would like to point out is that they both were married to — or are in one case —
extraordinary women. So we, of course, know all about
Dolly Madison and her many, many attributes that
sort of set the standard for first ladies going forward. But we have Emily Blout
on the Michael side, and she is an accomplished
scholar in her own right. I think she could be in the room. If you are, Emily, would you mind
just giving us the Queen’s wave? She might not be, but she will be
here in and out during the morning. And she is an accomplished
scholar and professor in the Communications School
at American University. Her area of expertise is
in Middle East Relations. Both Michael and James
Madison grew up in Virginia. I can’t say the Commonwealth
in the case of James Madison, but I can say that in
the case of Michael. They both are graduates
of Princeton. Now James Madison, as you all know,
went to the College of New Jersey. It didn’t become Princeton
until a little bit later. Both extremely scholarly. Michael Signer has
a PhD from Berkeley. And I think because
we assume from history that James Madison did read all
the books that Jefferson sent him from Paris, boxes and boxes of them, that he at least would have
qualified for his oral exam under any PhD committee today. Both have strong connections
to the University of Virginia. Michael is a graduate
of its Law School. Madison was very involved
in the founding of it, and then ultimately too a very
strong leadership role in — at the University of Virginia. Both were and are active
in politics on the state, national, and local levels. Michael is the current
Mayor of Charlottesville. Both — and both actually — and
this is plug or buying the book — both depend, or depended, in some
way on revenues from their writings. Madison, of course, as you know, near the end of his life faced
some financial challenges and hoped that he would be leaving
some money for his stepson and Dolly by selling his writings. I think Michael just wants
to share his knowledge and inspire conversation,
but it will not hurt today if you buy the book [laughter]. So they share that. But to stop being glib and to
say that they’ve both proved in their writings — many writings
in newspapers in the case of both of them, but in Michael’s case
very interesting book not only on Madison, but on
demagogues and democracy, that they are very deep
thinkers about the country and about the future of the country, and that they are also
great patriots. And so with that, I would
love to welcome Michael Signer to the podium [applause].>>Michael Signer: Well, thank you
so much, the Library of Congress. Thank you, Roberta for that very — I mean, we could just
stop now [laughter]. I think that for most authors
this really would be — this is kind of a pinnacle. It’s a real honor to be here. And you all do provide a critical
national resource for scholars, for people working on, you
know, off parts of our history. My father, who is a retired
journalist, Bob Signer, has been working at the Library of
Congress of years on the history of the New York World newspaper,
so comes here regularly. And you all provide that
sort of resource for scholars and practitioners around
the country. And so we really — I
really appreciate it. So I was going to do a kind of
conventional book talk today, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do a — more of a talk
that connects both of my books — this is on request — and
some current challenges that we have as a country. So I think that that
— we’re in Washington. We’re at a really unique
moment in our history, and I would like to
kind of go for the — go for something a little
deeper with this talk. So — and I’m really appreciative
to the Library of Congress for creating that opportunity. So thank you very much. All right, why write a book
about Madison for five years? There’s other books out there. This particular book to me beckoned
for a couple different reasons. The first was I do feel,
being in Charlottesville, that Jefferson overshadow
Madison to our peril. We do have a section of the
Virginia code, which requires us to quote Thomas Jefferson anytime we
start speaking in public [laughter]. I throw people in jail for it
all the time if they don’t. No, I’m just kidding. But Madison is overshadowed,
to our peril. There are significant parts
about his legacy and his thinking that do get overshadowed. So in writing the book I wanted
to sort of crack his legacy in a different way, and that was
one of the reasons for focusing on his youth in a more empathetic
narrative structure of the book. The second one is he, just as a
thinker and as a person of note in our history, had a way
of marrying both the hope and the aspirational potential of
human beings with a very realistic and almost pessimistic
take on our worst sides. And the marriage of hope
and pessimism, of idealism and realism is, I think, unmatched
with our founding characters. And I think it helps explain a
lot of why we lasted to today. So the book tries to get at that. Another reason was we really are in
a crisis today in thinking about, much less realizing, statesmanship. And this book really is about
Madison as the key architect of a statesmanship
ethos in our country. Another reason for
writing the book was sort of in noodling on those big ideas. I tripped into what I think is
one of the great untold stories of our founding period, which is
this incredible rivalry he had with Patrick Henry where they
had this — they were very close, then they were knock-down-drag-out
enemies. And they had this battle royale
over the future of the country when they had a fight about passing
the Constitution in Richmond. And that’s the climax of the book. Finally, there was this kind
of puzzle about how somebody who was 5’4″, and 100 pounds,
and incredibly hypersensitive, and hypochondriacal, and very shy,
how could he become so dominant? It’s just kind of in interesting
puzzle about what was it about him that allowed him to overcome so many
obstacles and become so powerful and influential, not
just in his time, but over the course of
modern human history. And then the last reason
was I needed a sequel to my first book [laughter],
which is called, “Demagogue.” So with your indulgence, I’m
going to talk a little bit about “Demagogue” here, and that’s
at the request of some people. It’s been a lot in
the news recently. I’ve written pieces for the
Washington Post, and “Time,” and VOX, and New Republic, and a few
other places sort of linking up some of the arguments with
the time that we’re in. And it is relevant in,
and it does connect to the book “Becoming Madison.” So this was “Demagogue, the Fight to Save Democracy from
Its Worst Enemies.” It came out in 2009. I would be the first to admit it
had a fallow period as a book. But “Demagogue” presents
six instances of great political
thinkers confronting in very different ways
what I describe as the demagogue problem
in democracy. Plato, who after Socrates,
his mentor, was murdered by a democratic
mob, sought to crush and control democracy through his
various writings and thinking. Aristotle, Plato’s student — and rebellious student who
saw demagogues as pernicious, but as controllable
through an educated and responsible middle class. Thomas Jefferson who sought
to inculcate what I described as a constitutional
conscience among the electorate, including through institutions
like the University of Virginia that would educate kind of citizen
statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, who thought that American-style
democratic mores or a culture about these values could help
prevent democracy in its second trip through Europe — the first
one ended up in the guillotine, and Robespierre and Napoleon — could help prevent
democracy from turning, and slipping, and becoming tyranny. Hannah Arendt, who thought a
heightened constitutional awareness that began in the founding
period was central to understanding American
democracy success. And Leo Strauss, the sort of
founder of neoconservative thinking, who saw democracy as
structural, self-fulfilling. He thought it should be run
by sort of a lead gentleman and whose neocon adherence created
on those premises, a very ruinous and fragile democracy in Iraq,
vulnerable to demagogues. So this book that I’m speaking about
mostly today, “Becoming Madison,” is a sequel to “Demagogue.” “Becoming Madison” tracks
both the political thought and the political action of James
Madison in the years leading up to the ratification
of the Constitution. The book has a narrative structure
that concentrates on the rivalry between Madison and his former
friend and boss Patrick Henry. But in my mind it is
through and through — I trained as a political theorist
and a political scientist, not primarily as a historian. And there is a book by Hannah
Arendt called “Rahel Varnhagen.” This will be somewhat obscure but
she focuses basically an entire book as a biography on the
life and thought of a prolific German Jewish
woman and hostess in Berlin in — before the Nazi period. And it was sort of a deep dive
through the life of one woman into the thought and thinking of civilization before
nihilism took over in Germany. So it’s sort of a lens
into a deeper world. And in “Becoming Madison,”
similarly I wanted to go into basically what is a case
study of the normative ethos of statesmanship that is
core to — I don’t know — successful American democracy, and
where leaders seem to challenge and educate the public and to
embrace long-term complex policy, and above all, to govern
the passions. In both respects, “Demagogue”
and “Becoming Madison” are about pathologies of democracy,
when democracy becomes ill or unhealthy in some respect. “Demagogue” is about
a bottom-up problem, which is when democracy’s masses,
or the large groups of people, begin turning against
the system itself, begin giving over their
freedom to dangerous impulses that could turn against the system. “Becoming Madison” is about another
pathology, which is top-down, which is the sickness of when a
democracy’s leadership classes give up on their leadership role. Both of these are, of course,
intensely relevant in this time when we’ve seen high levels of dysfunction among our leadership
classes here in this very town, and when we’ve seen a lot of
people among the regular ranks of regular Americans giving up on what we have always thought
are the basic norms and ethic of democratic citizenship,
and checks and balances. With those notes, let me go
a little bit more into each of the ideas on each work. The word demagogue has
always fascinated people. In 1649 the poet John Milton
called it a goblin word. The term is often deployed
as a blunt instrument, and it’s lost a lot of its power
through repetition and through kind of deployment as an attack. But it would surprise a lot of
people that the original word of — use of the word in the
Oxford English Dictionary is actually positive. That shocks people,
but it makes sense when you examine objectively
how demagogues work. So in my book I employ a four-part
definition, which is drawn in part from an 1838 essay by James Fenimore
Cooper called “On Demagogues.” First the demagogue presents
himself as a mirror of the masses, usually in the process
attacking elites. So kind of being a regular person,
and avatar of regular folks. Demagogues, for that
reason, are often vulgar. They often attack the upper
classes intentionally. Second, the demagogue triggers
great waves of emotion, usually through charisma,
flattery, propaganda, any combination of those. They use that third emotion
for political benefit, which distinguishes them
from an entertainment, or religious, or commercial figure. And finally, and this is the
most important they threaten or break established
rules of governance. When you put those four elements
together, you get a political figure who essentially creates
a state within a state that is accountable
to him or her alone. And that’s why demagogues
can pose an existential to democracies themselves. Aristotle wrote that
the most dangerous form of democracy is the one
in which not the law but the multitude have
the supreme power and supersede the law
by their decrees. This is the state of affairs
brought on by demagogues. The ancients saw demagogues
as the central trigger in what they called
the cycled regimes. In the “Republic,” Plato described,
“Democracy’s insatiable desire for what it defines as the
good is also what destroys it.” This happens through the
demagogue who he said was, quote, “The ruler who behaves
like a subject.” Two centuries later, Polybius
in Rome described the cycle of constitutional revolutions where rule disintegrates
into its base forms. So this idea that demagogues
will convert democracy into tyranny is grounded
in a kind of pessimism about the human condition itself. Polybius described the
lawless ferocity of democracy as like a natural dissolvent which rotted democracy
from within, inevitably. It turned on the demagogue
who Polybius said needed to be sufficiently ambitious
and daring to serve as, quote, both a master and a
despot of the people. The cycle of regimes played out
most vividly in the last century in Weimar, Germany where a very
hopeful constitutional democracy was taken over from within
by Adolf Hitler. But we’ve seen many other
examples, including in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez rising from
within a fairly healthy Venezuelan democracy converted it into more of an autocratic system
through demagogic means. The entire American experiment
sought to arrest the cycle of regimes through a new sort of
constitutional democracy premised on the self-salvation of the people,
by the people, through an agency and choice which was
enabled by democracy itself. “The Federalist Papers” begin with
Alexander Hamilton worrying about, quote, “The military despotism
of a victorious demagogue.” The question we face in a democracy
is what to do about demagogues. History is littered with
frustrations about them. Some of our best writing about
demagogues in ancient Athens came from the playwright Aristophanes who
squared off with a man named Cleon, who was the general who deposed
Pericles, the great statesman, on trumped-up charges of
corruption and later went on to propose mass slaughter
in the Mytilenian Debate. Aristophanes brutally mocked
Cleon as a plunder and a flatterer in a series of very public plays
where thousands of people attended. But the satire had no effect. It only empowered Cleon to go on to become more powerful
and more dangerous. Based on examples like that,
I’ve long believed that satire is of limited use when
confronting a demagogue. If the demagogue depends on
the passions for his rise, satire that amplifies the passions
in any direction perversely can end up increasing the demagogue’s
centrality and power in ways that can only confirm rather than
deny their appeal among the people. Demagogues also, because of that, can storm across formal
checks and balances. We saw that with Joseph McCarthy
using an obscure Senate subcommittee as the mechanism to create
an entirely new power center. We saw it with Huey Long exploiting
radio to become what FDR called “the most dangerous man in America.” The key site from Athens
thinking about this and confronting demagogues
was the agency of the masses. There is an underlying problem here
that goes through democracy itself, which is are the collective
people individually responsible for the choices they make
in selecting demagogues? Or put another way, is there
a counterfactual scenario where the people — where
demagogues do not succeed? And if there is, can you,
therefore, blame large groups of people collectively
for the demagogue’s rise? That back and forth between agency
and determinism is at the heart of many studies of demagogues. In “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” Daniel Goldhagen blamed individual
Germans acting as a group for their agency, for their
choices in enabling Hitler’s rise. He placed moral weight, and
therefore, blame on them, meaning that they chose immorally. Whereas in Hannah Arendt’s
“The Origins of Totalitarianism” there is
a much more mixed picture. She assigns plenty
of agency to Nazis, but when she describes why the
German people chose the Nazis, she focuses more on structural
variables, alienation, and loneliness that operated
like a wave rushing through them. And that means that demagogues
— and I’m getting to Madison — raise a fundamental
question of optimism and of the arc of history itself. It’s not overstating things to
say that the demagogue is a proxy for the very question of
humans’ ability to decide to save themselves from themselves. The answer that unites agency and what I believe is
an optimistic model of history is constitutionalism. Alexis de Tocqueville
wrote, “I am convinced that the happiest situation and the best laws cannot maintain
a constitution, despite mores. Whereas the latter turn even
the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws to good account.” Mores were our habits,
our attitudes, our values, our culture about the
democratic system itself and our responsibilities within it. De Tocqueville said that our
goal was “to instruct democracy to purify its mores, to substitute
little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience.” Jefferson wrote — here’s my
Jefferson quote, even though I’m not in Virginia — “Where is our
republicanism to be found? Where is our republicanism
to be found? Not in the constitution, but merely
in the spirit of the people.” And in Federalist 57, James Madison
said, “If it be asked what is to restrain the House of Representatives making
legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class
of society, I answer the genius of the whole system, the nature
of just and constitutional laws, and above all, the vigilant
and manly spirit” — it’s gendered language — “the vigilant and manly spirit which
actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom
and in return is nourished by it.” In other words, this is on us. That observation brings
me to “Becoming Madison.” Formally, “Becoming
Madison” is an intellectual and psychological biography
of young James Madison. But Nietzsche observed that, “Philosophy is often the
personal confession of its author, and a kind of involuntary
and unconscious memoir.” And in this case, as
you so persuasively saw, that is certainly the case for me. I have been deeply troubled both
as a scholar and as a practitioner. I am the Mayor of Charlottesville
so, you know, shifting gears can sometime
be a little sudden for me. Last night I was just dealing with
whether we change a natural — whether we allow mountain biking
in a natural area that we have, which it was an hour-and-a-half
long hearing in our city council
meeting last night. So I’m working on very
practical issues at the local level all the time. Both in my scholarly and my
practical life, I am deeply troubled by the state of thought in
contemporary American democracy about leadership itself
and the vacuum around statesmanship,
whatever that is. If we even talk about statesmanship
anymore, which we don’t very often. The root of this book began
in a conversation I had with my friend Tom Perriello,
who’s a former Congressman from the Charlottesville area. Soon after he arrived in Congress, where he frequently observed what
he described as an abandonment of responsibility by the
nation’s leadership classes over our most fundamental problems. We have seen this in recent
scholarship about a Congress that seems beyond broken. In the scholarly thinking about
leadership there’s more focus on horizontal, or leaderless, or
quote, unquote cellular movements, whether the Occupy
movement or the Tea Party. And in the collapse of
traditional vertical leadership under a great deal of very
harsh skepticism about what used to be called the great
man theory of leadership. James Madison, it might
surprise folks, faced a similar set of issues. In the late 1770s,
after the Revolution, when he was in Richmond
working as a senior advisor to Governor Patrick Henry, in
his mid-20s, Philadelphia — which was where the Confederated
States we meeting — was broken. George Washington was
writing letters back to people in Virginia describing the,
quote, “idleness, dissipation, and extravagance” in the capital
city, how men were infected by what he said was “an
insatiable thirst for riches.” The delegates were distracted by
the indulgences of the capital city, the decadence did not, quote,
“only take men off from acting in, but even from thinking of
the business before them. Party disputes and personal
squirrels — quarrels,” he said, “had become the great
business of the day.” Sounds familiar.>>Amen.>>Michael Signer: The custom
was for congressmen to leave for Philadelphia after their
election before the winter to avoid the roads. In 1779 when Madison was elected to
Congress, he could have done that. But he instead chose to stay home on
Orange County, where he was living with his parents, and to spend
the winter on a private project which was analyzing the
nation’s hyperinflation problem. At this point you had several
different kinds of currency. They were — all of the states
were printing their own currency. The federal government had
a couple different kinds. They were seeking to replace
their old currency with a new one. But it was — none of it was
working, and there are records of him getting to Congress and
spending thousands of dollars on haircuts, for instance. It was — so you had a
galloping inflation problem. So Madison stayed at home and
wrote this kind of private essay. He didn’t publish it
for over a decade later, but he analyzed the problem that the
country was experiencing as not one about the money supply itself, but
about the confidence that people had in the entity that would
redeem the money — basically the federal government. That seems obvious now, but
when you have 13 separate states that were just figuring out their
life together, it was not obvious. So it was sort of the first
lightbulb that clicked on when he stared understanding
that he was going to need to be the prime driver
under the effort for a — what he described as a
coercive federal government. So Madison wrote this essay,
stayed back, came back to — came to Philadelphia after
the roads had improved, and kind of had his
mission and his blueprint for what he was going to work on. After arriving in Philadelphia,
he took a look around him — at the folks around him, and he
saw the same lack of leadership that Washington had observed. And the first letter Madison
wrote back after writing to his father was to Jefferson. And he said, “Whereas the country
required,” quote, “the most mature and systematic measures.” Instead they were getting hasty and
half-baked ideas like exchanging 40 of the old dollars for one of
the new money called specie. And here is what he wrote,
“Congress from a defect of adequate statesmen,”
word for word, “was, quote, more likely to fall
into wrong measures and of less weight to
enforce right ones.” That was so controversial that he
would describe his peers that way that that language was
omitted from his — from both the 1840
and the 1900 versions of Madison’s official papers. And what’s amazing to me about it
was if you actually look at these, he wasn’t even saying we
needed extraordinary statesmen. Adequate [laughter] would be fine. And that gets us into the question
of what statesmen were to Madison. What was he talking about? We tend to use that word today
in a narrow sense to think about state-on-state
diplomats, foreign policymakers, people traveling to
foreign capitals, statesmen. But he was talking about
going to the nation’s capital, and dealing with domestic issues, and just being an adequate
statesman. So what was he talking about? The great theme of Madison’s
political theory was platonic. It was drawn from a very
old strain of thinking about governing the passions
that we still see today. We are still laboring
under a misunderstanding that Madison himself
was passionless, and cold, and calculating. One book a number of years
ago was titled, “James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason.” To give you a sense of where I’m
coming from, the original title of this book before my wife
convinced me otherwise was, “The Passions of James Madison,”
which is not a bad title. But “Becoming Madison” was better. That was Emily’s insight. In his dialogue “Phaedrus,”
Plato described the passions as two steeds, as these
mighty horses. One was good, and one was bad. The horse that was the follower
of true glory he described as this beautiful and
dignified grand horse. The other one was surly, and it
had this blood-red complexion. This is a very vivid dialogue. And when the passions take control, he said that the dark steed
would suddenly gallop away from the charioteer. And he said that we can only control
the dark steed by yanking at his bit so violently that it
wrenches from his mouth, and then forcing these dark passions to the ground, and
then whipping them. It’s an extremely violent
and intense dialogue to read. Only then, Plato said,
would the passions be tamed. But he described an alternative. He said, “When opinion by the help
of reason leads us to the best, we could conquer the steed
through temperance instead, through a habit of
governing ourselves. In other words, the violence
could be avoided by training that dark steed not to bolt away
through moderation, through reason, and through politics,
through political habits. So Madison built a country that was
meant to be governed and supported by population committed
to mastering the passions for the sake of the common good. A clue lies in a lecture delivered
just before the American Revolution in 1775 by — and I — one
of the major characters in the book is John Witherspoon
who is this magnificent character in the founding of America,
very larger-than-life, sardonic, dark kind of — just
a big personality. He was described as
having more presence than anybody else in
the founding period. He became the President of Princeton
University, a mentor to Madison, and a cosigner of the major
documents they served together in the Congress. Witherspoon was a Scottish-born
cleric, President of Princeton. He delivered a sermon in 1775 — it was the first political time
that he ever decided to be political in front of his congregation —
titled “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.” And in that he called for a
revolution against Great Britain that would at once
be morally inspired, deeply conscientious, and humble. He said, “Every good man
should take a deep concern in promoting public virtue and
bearing down on impiety advice. He described the new
democracy that was coming after the revolution would require
certain classes of me who would be under peculiar obligations
to discharge that duty. He said those certain classes would
include magistrates, ministers, parents, heads of families,
commanding military officers, and those whom age has
rendered venerable. In colonial America
those groups shared the following characteristics. They were educated. They held the leadership roles in
crucial spheres of American society, family, the church, military, towns. And they often had relationships
at least with those in power. And all those played into their
capacity or their requirement to discharge their duty
to promote pubic virtue. Madison was taught by this man. This is through and through his
own action, and his own thought, and what he did in the country. And he believed that there should be
a structural social role for people who would challenge the system
to live up to its better angels. When Madison was a teenager he first
wrote about the Socratic Method — are there any lawyers here? Couple, okay. It’s incredible insight. In the book I spend a lot of time — one of the luxuries of kind
of slowing down and focusing on his youth was I could focus in
more detail and slower on passages from when he was younger. And this is when he’s a
teenager and in boarding school. And he’s taking notes
on the Socratic Method. And he comes up with an insight into
it that is more profound than a lot of people who spend
their life studying this. Socrates was murdered by a mob under
these trumped-up charges, as I said, which frustrated Plato
for the rest of his life. He said — the Socratic Method was
basically when you led somebody down the garden path where you
know the answer, and they don’t And Socrates would
do it all the time. And Madison describes it as very
— this is his words, 14 years old, about, “Very captitious [sic]
and insidious,” and said, “It probably helped to kindle and
blow up that hatred against Socrates which helped put a violent
period to his life.” So I believe that Madison developed
what I describe in the book as a different, quote,
unquote, method — I call it Madison’s Method — that he used to confront differing
opinions and to challenge, to become a statesman, to create
an entirely different politics around reason, around governing the
passions that he actually embodied and that he used to great effect. And that helps explain
why this 5’4″, 100-pound weakling
could be some dominant. I come up with nine instances
when he employed this way of being in public dealing with the
nation’s inflation crisis right after arriving in Congress,
arguing for the federal impost which was a requirement that the
states fund the federal government beginning in 1783, confronting
Patrick Henry’s proposed religious assessment which was a tax to fund Christian churches
beginning in 1785. This was what led to Madison’s very
famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,”
which was this lecture that he delivered,
and later a petition; when arguing for the Virginia Plan
in the Constitutional Convention in 1787; and finally, when he fought to ratify the Constitution
itself in 1788. It had nine key elements. First, find passion
in your conscience. Conscience comes up everywhere, in
Madison’s thought, in the thought of the people around him. And it was not abstract. It was not even Jiminy Cricket. It was something that he believed — these folks believed that you had
a voice in you that was part of you that could be educated or that could
be ignored, but you needed to pray and derive counsel
from your conscience. And if you did, other
people would trust that you were operating
in the right vein. They might disagree with you,
but this is where the idea of conscientious objectors,
conscientious this, that, and the other thing. It’s a different ground for
coming into public life with. Second, focus on the
idea, not the man. Madison would go to
pains never to engage in ad hominem debate or attack. He always was focused on the idea
behind individual personalities, and that wasn’t because
he was afraid of conflict. It’s because he knew that that was a
much more powerful grounds to engage in changing the country on. Third develop multiple
and independent lines of engagement and of attack. We are very stuck on coming up with a silver-bullet
argument or a good idea. Madison, when you read most of
the times that he would engage, he would have 12 or 15 different
grounds that he was trying to convince you on, and
they were all well-informed. And he wasn’t infatuated with kind
of coming up with a silver bullet. He would employ logic, history,
moral argument, law, anything and everything — if he knew
what he was talking about — to try and win his points
and change the politics. Fourth, embrace impatience. Again, got this character, this
minute sort of shy individual. Not at all. He wanted to be a change
agent eminently when he could affect change. And he did it, and he changed the
country around him as a result. Fifth, establish a competitive
advantage through preparation. Again, how does somebody so — like with his debilities
become so powerful? And it was because he
out-prepared everybody. He knew much more than anybody else
around him, and they knew it, too. Conquer bad ideas by
dividing them, sixth. Very frustrating thing for people
who are married to lawyers, I can say, is that we’re
always dividing things into one or the other. But Madison did that
to the Nth degree. There are but two causes of
faction latent in the nature of man. He was controlling and thinking about how do you split
any policy option, anything that we’re faced
with, into one or the other. And so he was basically
designing and plowing ahead on a path that he had envisioned. And the country ended
up where it did in part because he was so successful
at that. Eighth, push the state to the
highest version of itself. He was pushing a lot of
nihilism about state, the government itself,
just like today. This is 10 generations ago. It’s not a long time ago. So the antifederalist forces
were basically wanting to destroy a new federal
government that would be set up by the conclave in Philadelphia. He was on the other side, fascinated
by how do you refine, and develop, and invent a more accomplished
form of government itself? Government was the art form. Government was statecraft. Ninth, and finally,
govern the passions. And I’ve spoken about that. “To an adversary” — this is
a passage from the book — “Madison’s Method was maddening
at best and infuriating at worst. He always knew more
than his adversaries. He had anticipated most of their
moves and seemed to have planned out everything he would say. He would drag his audience toward — 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 as he was physically, he
seemed indefatigable, almost to burn with an inner resourcefulness and
conscience in 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 combatting for any selfish or special interest,
that fact would become garish in contrast to his self-evident
conscience, in contrast to the fact that he really did have the best
interest of the public at heart. Statesmen who would abjure
the lowest common denominator where demagogues flourish
and who would so challenge and uplift public opinion were
key to his [inaudible] democracy and to the optimism that he felt
would lift this particular brand-new nation, very fragile one, out
from the cycle of regimes. So he did famously observe in Federalist Number 10
that, “Men are not angels.” But he also wrote that, “Human
beings’ basic qualities deserved,” what he said, “Esteem
and confidence.” For him the very goal of the
constitution was to enable leaders with what he said was “the most
wisdom to discern and most virtue to pursue the common
good of the society.” In a memo titled “Vices
of the Political System of the United States,”
which was completed in April just before the
Constitutional Convention, he argued that Americans
should, quote, “certainly extract from the mass of the
society the purest and noblest characters
which it contains.” The climax of this book is the
ratifying convention in 1788 in Richmond where Madison and
Patrick Henry, who he had worked for before, been an aide to,
had this real battle royale for three weeks as the leader
of their respective forces, the Federalists and
the Antifederalists. At the ratifying convention,
Madison sought — and it’s the last 1/3 of
the book, blow for blow — he sought, to borrow a later phrase, to become the change he
wanted to see in the world. He hurled himself into this
ring again and again to take on Henry and the Antifederalists. Over those three weeks he refused
to allow Henry and his blustering, nihilistic attacks against
anything Federal to stand. And he subjected them
through this steady, fierce method to withering
assault by logic and by history. Just as an example, one day the
topic was the congressional power to appoint federal judges. Madison saw a window to deliver
his vision of republicanism. He began by conceding
that many gentlemen around him supposed the new Congress
would do every mischief they possibly could. While he admitted that he did not
expect the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue from the
men in the new government, he proudly declared his faith in what he said was this
great republican principle, that the people — the people
would have, quote, “virtue and intelligence” to select
men of virtue and wisdom. And he challenged the
Antifederalists and Henry, who opposed the constitution
on those grounds. He said, “Is there
no virtue among us? Without virtue,” he said, “we
are in a retched situation.” No theoretical checks
could save the country. Without, quote, “virtue
in the people,” even liberty itself
would be, what he said, “a chimerical idea,” a fiction. He believed that the Antifederalists
were not only weakening the new nation’s politics and economics,
they were actually hastening defeat. He reminded them that the
Constitution required confidence for Americans, and then
he proceeded to use that word four times
in four sentences. “Confidence,” he said, “was better
than the circulation of money. Confidence produces the
best effects in justice.” It would even raise
the value of property. He was talking about confidence
in the federal government and in statesmen themselves. That was the constitution. Patrick Henry then rose
to attack the notion that federal representatives
would mend every deed. Of the idea that the nation could
rely on the wisdom and virtue of our rulers, he snapped, quote,
“I can find no consolation in it.” But Madison won. Optimism and the people’s
self-salvation became the basis of the Constitution. At the end of the convention a
man named Zachariah Johnson — one of the cool things about
doing this research and spending so much time was getting
to know these characters. He’s not written really
about anywhere else. He was a soldier who was
quiet otherwise during the ratifying convention. He rose to praise Madison’s Method. He criticized the Antifederalists
and Henry for, quote, “The strained construction which has
been put on every word and syllable, and for endeavoring
to prove oppressions which can never possibly happen.” And he said that he would
vote for the Constitution. In the end it was thousands of
Zachariah Johnsons who stood with Madison, who were persuaded
by conviction, by fact, by history, by reason itself to cast their
lot with a radical new plan for the country rather than
prejudices, and political attacks, and the fear of the unknown. And victories like that, I
believe, give us empirical grounds for the aspirational optimism and
the statesman ethos that is woven into and is essential to the
American democracy working as planned and as designed
by Madison. In closing, Madison wrote
to the United States that, “The people who are the authors of this blessing must
also be its guardians.” In other words, the ultimate checks and balances are not
the institutions, but the people themselves, who Madison called “the
highest authority.” Those are my thoughts from the book. That’s where the book ends. I will say that recent
events have shaken my faith in this optimism being
self-fulfilling. My book “Demagogue” has as its root and its branch a very
factual argument that American democracy always
ultimately repudiates and rises above the demagogues
who have challenged us. We are right now in the
thick of a profound test. I’ve written many places,
so there’s no secret that I do believe Donald Trump,
our President-Elect right now — although that term
has no legal meaning because the Electoral
College has not met — is — has chosen to be a demagogue in very
strict conformance with that term and what demagogues have done. That’s a choice that he’s made. He has done a lot of other — has
created a lot of other threats to our norms, and our values,
and our checks and balances, and this fabric that I’ve spoken
about, and has taken advantage of a faltering and a lack of
confidence in both the lower and the upper parts of this
healthy constitutional democracy. It’s a dangerous moment. It’s a threatening moment. It’s going to fall
to these people — that’s why I went through
the Witherspoon quote. It’s going to all to all of us,
anybody who cares very deeply about what the country
actually, factually is built on. So these stories, I think, have
become more crucial than ever. But they’re not stories. They are the fabric, and
the ethos, and the ethic, and they are something that
we live every day in our lives as citizens of this republic. So thank you very much. [ Applause ] We can do questions? Of course. Yeah, we can do questions
for as long as we’re allowed. Yes, ma’am?>>You said something about
satire and demagogues, that it actually helps
— that it helps –>>Michael Signer: Yeah.>>– the demagogue. So I think about “Saturday
Night Live.” So you’re telling me that that
[inaudible] help Donald Trump?>>Michael Signer: Do
you think it’s hurt him?>>I don’t –>>Michael Signer:
I’ll tell you what, I would rather have
one Walter Cronkite or Tim Russert do a 45-minute
long informed, tough, unrelenting confrontation at
some point early in the campaign with this particular candidate — if
I could choose, I’d rather have that and watch that than have
“The New Yorker” print — you know, there’s one issue
where they had 45 cartoons of Donald Trump, or the
“Saturday Night Live.” I think on two levels, I think
one, it does what I said. It highlights the passions
in this character. These are entertainment figures
who are operating on the plane of what they used to
call the appetites. This is Trump’s comfort zone. So it doesn’t distract. It only adds to that
fundamental gut connection. It doubles it. It triples it. And the other thing
is, it distracts people who might otherwise be very
capable, serious critics, from the work that they need to do if they think that’s
actually doing the work of confrontation, which it’s not. So it’s distracting. So I don’t have any — I’m not — I don’t have any problem
with people doing satire. I just think that it can actually
backfire and be distracting.>>Thank you.>>Michael Signer: Yeah?>>How is your research and your
study of [inaudible] figures changed or impacted your [inaudible]
your job as Mayor –>>Michael Signer: well, you know, these are very practical
questions for me. Last night we had a very difficult
situation in Charlottesville where we — the Vice
Mayor of the city had — about a week and a
half ago there were — he’s done hundreds
of thousands tweets. He’s a 30-year-old guy. There were tweets, several dozen
of them, from up to four years ago that are highly offensive, that
include, you know, a lot of race, and gender, and misogynistic
speak, and upset a lot of people. He resigned from the
State Board of Education. There were — there’s a lot of — there were some Alt-Right
kind of white, racists who were doing
a lot of attacks on him. And last night we had a city council
meeting where there was — there — at the beginning there was almost
some physical altercations. It was a very challenging
— after being Mayor, this is probably the most
challenging governance thing I’ve had in terms of an actual
thing in front of me. How do you run the meeting? I don’t think it’s a stretch to
say that all these principles about prioritizing order,
deliberation, fairness, equity, calming things down. I did a talk at the beginning
about how we needed to be — we could disagree without
being disagreeable. We needed to have civil
and civic debate. I had everybody look around
at people next to them. We’re all human beings,
and we all have frailties. We’ve all made mistakes. This was me as a human being
trying to figure out how with this particular very tumultuous
thing in front of me, how do I try and convert this into a process
where we’re actually going to hear from people in our matters by
the public and just order it? And I believe it was successful. It took a lot of thought beforehand. It — there was no altercations. I got a bunch of, you know,
comments afterward and emails from people saying, “That
was a very well-run meeting in a very difficult situation.” I had to — I had to
advert to our rules. I had to — several times
people were interrupting. They’re not allowed to interrupt
without being recognized by the chair of the meeting. It was myself under our rules. I had to say, “I’m going to shut the
meeting down if you all can’t stop, if you all can’t let this proceed.” But you know, as an example, I
think that it was a very good — I don’t know about Madisonian
— but I think that he — you know, there’s a back and
forth in the ratifying convention where Henry just — they had
agreed on a plan of debate of the provisions of the
Constitution, and Henry — this was true-to-form for
him, very Donald Trump-like. He just said, “I’m
going to ignore it.” And he just started rampaging
through the topics, as opposed — and it made everybody — but
they couldn’t control him. Madison succeeded in getting
the convention to agree that the rule was you had to
go topic, by topic, by topic. You didn’t just set — throw
grenades and set fires. So running meetings, and the
order, and the deliberate nature of a public — and the
person running the meeting, the leader I think
matters an immense amount. I think that it gives
people confidence, and it allows you to
get to conclusions. That’s just — I could come
up with many other examples. But I don’t think I would have
had that opinion and that approach to running this meeting last
night if I hadn’t worked on this book for five years. I really don’t. Yeah?>>I want you to say
something about how Madison in the broadest sense
understood [inaudible] the role of the Electoral College.>>Michael Signer: Well, okay. So I’ve been — Madison — Madison initially favored
popular election of the President. So the Electoral College,
there’s not a tremendous amount of evidence during the
debates in Philadelphia — there’s not a huge amount. There’s some. There are the notes
that Madison was taking. So I haven’t — I’ve
been writing a lot about the Electoral
College recently — that’s actually the last 15 minutes
of this talk that I chose to — but I can condense
it into a minute now. The best information on
the Electoral College comes from Hamilton who wrote Federalist
Paper 78, I believe it was, where he described the purpose
of the Electoral College. The Electoral College, I mean,
it’s kind of the marriage of the two parts of this talk. It was put in place
to stop the danger of a demagogue from
becoming President. The electors were supposed to
be in this statesman-like vein. They were really supposed
to be prominent people who had thought about their role. The — this Federalist 68
actually it is, it talks in great, specific detail about how
the electors were supposed to stop before an interference
in our councils. They were supposed to stop a
candidate who was practiced in what they — what he said
was the low arts of popularity. There — who might promise
tumult and disorder. The — so it — and it’s a —
it’s kind of a lock-shut case. A lot of people have said,
“Well, the 12th Amendment in the Constitution was passed in
1804, and that changed the process from the original Electoral
College to now the — it was a different setup
for how the President and Vice President were nominated, because prior to that you
didn’t have political parties.” But it didn’t alter the fact that these were human
beings who have this role. Why do they have this role? They get together on December 19th. What are they supposed to do? Why are they not automatically
machines? Now 29 states have passed
laws because of the danger of so-called faithless electors. Twenty-nine states have passed laws
that require the electors to vote for the winner of the
popular vote in that state. There was a Supreme
Court case saying that those electors can be
required to sign a pledge, but there’s no enforceability. You can’t coerce that
person to sign the pledge. You can just give them a
500 or $1000 fine afterward. And to me and to a
lot of other scholars, we have now in this moment faced
the first real test in our country of somebody who — I don’t think
the demagogue is a matter of opinion or — I think it’s a
fairly objective test. But even setting that aside, you
have absolutely a foreign government who attempted to interfere
and influence the result of this campaign, Russia. And you have at least a set of
facts that electors should be able to investigate and deliberate. In Federalist 68, it’s very clear
that electors should be able to investigate these
questions as they chose. And I think that means that these
electors — there’s two weeks left. They ought to be able, under court
order, to ask for tax returns, for instance, which would show
if there are entanglements. The Emoluments Clause
is a whole other thing. We saw yesterday in the New York
Times the first Republican elector to publicly say that he was not
going to side with Donald Trump. And he cited this line of thinking. So this is why constitutional
thinking matters. These institutions we have might
get a little dusty over time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t
take a brush and dust them off, and they’re just as
vital as they ever were, because we haven’t really had
this kind of a character come up this far before who has
threatened freedom of religion, and freedom of the press, and
political violence, and you know, a whole host of other — you know,
breaking treaties, and torture, and you know, this
is what we’ve heard. It’s not me making it up. It’s what we’ve heard. So these should be cause for
grave concern for electors as they are designed
very specifically — not me saying it, it’s our
constitutional history saying it. And so that’s what
I’ve been arguing. And I would just —
I would stay tuned. I think there will be a lot
on this in the next two weeks. Yes, sir?>>Yeah, one of the questions that
I have particularly around Madison, in 1812 Madison meets with a
black sea captain [inaudible]. And [inaudible] I’ve been
surprised at the relationship between the war — the period
of the War of 1812 and now. And your talk has really
underlined some of the connections
that I didn’t see. So the question that I have in
terms of Madison, was Madison more in favor of Africans leaving America
to a foreign country, or east — or rather west of the Mississippi? And as we look at the situation
now, as most of the people point to Trump, it’s actually the people
behind him that voted for him. And he also now has or will have
the ability to appoint a judge. And aside from whatever
else [inaudible] say, to me, purely is did Madison have any
questions about vested interests where for a billionaire to be able
to appoint a Supreme Court judge. That on the face of it, to
me, should be enough to be at least controversial if
not disqualify the person.>>All right, let me just take
— it’s a multipart question, and I want to make
sure that I — other — let me just take the
first part — the — about race and what he wanted
to do with African Americans, which I think is a complicated
enough question here. He had — I spend a fair amount
of time in the question of race, and his relationship to African
Americans, and the slavery question. He had an incredibly complicated,
unsatisfying picture on race. And I think that it’s
one — I mean, I — it’s hard to come out of
dealing with any Founding Father with a good feeling, or any
aspect of our history, really — you know, at least in
many parts of the country. And this is one of them. So he — in the 1820s
— he was an abstract — as much as he was a
practical political operative, he was also an abstract
thinker who one of his weaknesses was
he could dream schemes that might not work in practice. Some of the schemes did,
but some of them didn’t. He became the President in the 1820s of the American Colonization
Society, which was the leading national
organization for the establishment of Liberia and for moving
— what became Liberia, and for moving African
Americans back to Africa. In his mind, that was a solution to
this difficult problem for everyone of how do you reckon
with what had happened? He also — it’s an
incredibly frustrating legacy, dealing with Madison on race. On the one hand, he — when he
got to Philadelphia the first time as a Congressman, there
was a slave who he owned — his father had given him —
named Billy who he manumitted. He freed him because — and
he wrote back his father — it was one of his first acts
of defiance against his father who was a very powerful,
controlling man who I talk about a lot in the book. And he said, “He’s
just not fit for this. He doesn’t take to it.” And he said, “I’m going
to defy you and free him.” He needed to go through a process
in Pennsylvania at the time of freeing him, but
he ultimately did. And then they ended up working
with the man as a contractor with the family later on. On the other hand, he refused
to free his slaves in his will. And he had this decade-long
correspondence with a man named Edward Coles
who was a Virginian who felt so powerfully about the slavery
issue that he moved to Illinois with his slaves, freed them, and
became the Governor of Illinois on an abolitionist platform. And he pleaded and pleaded, and he
had been basically his chief aide when he was in the White
House as a younger man — and he pleaded with Madison
over, and over, and over. He said, “You and Ms. Madison,
this should be your legacy. You should free your slaves. You should.” And Madison’s responses are weak,
and technical, and frustrating, and — but they are as human
as him in his worst side. He said, “I don’t think
they would succeed out in the world, out
from Montpelier.” He said, “We can’t afford it,”
which was the most offensive thing, but he was a terrible businessman. I spend a lot of time
in the book talking about his frustrations
of finding a career. He really wasn’t good
at anything else other than being in public life. So you saw all of his frailties
and failures come together in this unbelievably
frustrating part of his career. But he did try and come
up with a solution. Wasn’t the right one. And he saw the Civil War coming. I mean, he had — he saw
every aspect of this. And one of the reasons
that he wanted, you know, coercion was he wanted
the federal government to have a stronger hold
on dissenting states. So that’s a very long-winded way
of getting part of your question. The appointment of judge
is a whole other thing.>>Roberta Shaffer: I wonder
if I could insinuate myself. Unfortunately — this is
a great conversation — but we are on a time limit, and
we do want to have the opportunity to have everyone purchase books. So if you don’t mind stopping
at that moment and that thought, I will give you small gift
from the Law Library –>>Michael Signer: Thank you>>Roberta Shaffer: — which
is our famous gavel pencil. We felt that it was
appropriate for your many roles.>>Michael Signer:
Well, I will use this. I’ll have this up in
the [inaudible] with me. That’s great.>>Roberta Shaffer: It’s a pencil. You know that George
[inaudible] said that [banging gavel] really we
should — the name of this city, because the pen is
mightier than the sword, we should be called Madison,
District of Columbia. But in any event, we thank you
so much for this very, very –>>Michael Signer:
Thank you very much.>>Roberta Shaffer:
— fascinating –>>Michael Signer: Thank you. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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