If George Washington stands as America’s indispensable Founder, then James Madison stands among colleagues who played essential roles in the creation of a new nation. Although recognized as the father of the Constitution, Madison seems to receive less popular attention than Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and other peers. The tide could be turning.
Recent months have seen the publication of several books about Madison. One of the best is Michael Signer’s “Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father.” Signer explains how Madison came to believe the principles he translated not only into a constitutional framework but also into a legislative agenda.
This is intellectual history at its finest. Signer’s deft hand demonstrates that the life of the mind can prove as exciting as a life of physical action. Madison’s thoughts make readers think.
Madison dealt with practical politics as well as lofty ideals. Signer’s description of Madison’s defeat of Patrick Henry’s proposal for state support for churches teaches lessons regarding effective legislating. John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi ought to consult Madisonian precedents.
Madison personified the statesman, a concept that has become archaic. A resident of Charlottesville, Signer has been involved in the commonwealth’s Democratic politics. He knows Madison’s turf. “Becoming Madison” is an essential biography of an essential Founder.