Sunday, April 5, 2015

Michael Signer's "Becoming Madison"

Michael Signer is an author, advocate, political theorist, and attorney. He holds a PhD in political science from U.C., Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow; a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law; and a BA in politics, magna cum laude, from Princeton University. He has taught political theory, leadership, and governance at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and the University of California. Signer is the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (2009).

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father:
If Becoming Madison were made into a movie, the movie would require a lead actor who could be at once exquisitely vulnerable yet full of inner fire, and I think that Eddie Redmayne (who recently won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) could capture that blend well.

One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I think we need a new model for our political heroes. We don’t need transcendent, larger-than-life figures. We need to reconsider the introverts, the intellectuals, the unattractive—anyone who has the force and focus and intelligence and alliances to help us solve our toughest problems should be given a fighting chance.

Madison weighed a hundred pounds, stood about five foot four, and was deeply shy. My book began with a hypothesis: that we have gotten him wrong. We have an impression of Madison as controlled and calculating and dry, and that’s one reason we ignore him today in favor of more dramatic personalities like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton. But my book explores the idea that he was totally different from that cartoon—that he was, in fact, a cauldron of repressed emotion that bubbled over at the worst times, like in the anxiety attacks that many historians (including Lynne Cheney in her book last year) perceive as epilepsy. Madison was deeply, almost pathologically, sensitive, but he was also warm, charismatic, hilarious, and passionate. His effort to master his own tumultuous inner self mirrored the lessons he taught a vulnerable nation about governing our excesses. Whether reacting to Shays’ rebellion, the antics of the anti-Federalists, or John Calhoun’s nullification crisis, he wanted us, basically, to get ahold of ourselves.

There have been many excellent books on James Madison. What I wanted to add with Becoming Madison is to see the world through Madison’s eyes, to stick with him as he confronts and overcomes obstacles, whether his father’s overbearing qualities, his own anxiety (including a particularly humiliating episode when he collapsed during military exercises), his struggle to find a profession and make a living, his frustrations with his narrow-minded and repressive countrymen, his romantic struggles and his shattered relationship to a 15 year old fiancée, and his battle to find a way to make an impact on his young country.

Madison also had a dry sense of humor that could turn into whimsy, particularly with people he trusted. One time when he was campaigning hard in the winter against his friend James Monroe for a Congressional seat—in a vengeful move for losing to Madison in Virginia’s convention to ratify the Constitution, Patrick Henry had gerrymandered the two friends’ hometowns so they had to compete against each other—Madison stood outside for so long that he got frostbite on one of his ears. Years later, he would wryly describe his damaged ear as one of the “honorable scars he had borne from the battle-field.”

The climax of Becoming Madison was the exhausting and intense three-week convention to ratify the Constitution, where James Madison and Patrick Henry battled against each other day in and day out. Henry sought to appeal to the audience’s prejudices, Madison to rise above them. Their duel was punctuated by brutal thunderstorms and painful ad hominem attacks and Madison collapsed at least twice from panic attacks. But in the end he prevailed, because people saw he cared more for the common good.

In these scenes, I think an actor like Redmayne could, at long last, make us empathize with this uniquely driven and compelling young man. Now I just need to get to work on the screenplay.
Visit Michael Signer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue