James Madison was the last surviving Founding Father, dying nearly 60 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He was undoubtedly the Father of the Constitution and - one could reasonably argue - the United States government would bear no resemblance whatsoever to what it has been these last 226 years since George Washington's first inauguration without James Madison. And yet, as author Michael Signer points out, it was not until 1857 that James Madison finally got a monument placed on his grave site. And even that was an ordeal: when the monument arrived, it was too heavy. So, they needed to dig the grave far under the coffin to re-stabilize the foundation. There, grave workers found that the boards of Madison's casket had rotted and the lid was askew. When they resettled the lid they saw the Madison's remains - bones, teeth, shreds of cloth. As Signer puts it, "A more or less random group of strangers peering at the marooned remains was a perfect symbol for the peculiar legacy just beginning for Madison."
Signer's Becoming Madison The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father is a story of Madison's life up to the ratification of the Constitution. It weaves a wonderful tale of how this diminutive, often sickly, brilliant man from Virginia made the unlikely ascent into the pantheon of American leaders.
A key factor in the Madison story as told these last 200+ years is his "poor health". Signer points out that scholars have studied what was "wrong" with Madison for as long as they've been writing about him. Ralph Ketcham unearthed research that indicated that Madison's parents ordered drugs for "an Epilepsy" on October 11, 1753. Lynne Cheney further noted that these medications included two laxatives. Cheney concluded that the drugs had to be for toddler James. But Signer casts doubt about the theory that Madison suffered from epilepsy. For instance, he points out that the medications could have been for another member of the family with unrecorded symptoms of epilepsy. So, while Cheney concluded Madison had epilepsy, Signer says these symptoms could also have been psychosomatic. Indeed, Signer writes, "this is what the evidence suggests: that Madison suffered from severe anxiety-driven panic attacks that made him ill. In other words, his illness was a bodily condition driven by mental problems.... He did not, in other words suffer from classic epilepsy - he suffered from crippling anxiety."
To come to the conclusion that Madison suffered from lifelong anxiety attacks, Signer turned to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5]. Madison regularly experienced more of the symptoms than necessary to be classified as suffering from anxiety attacks. Signer says today Madison would be diagnosed as suffering from "psychogenic non-epileptic seizures." Signer notes, "...a patient's anxiety takes physical form by tensing the smooth muscles that line the intestines and the stomach (leading to cramping and upset stomach) and the blood vessels (creating high blood pressure and headaches." While Signer backtracks a bit with the caveat, "We cannot, of course, know the truth. On sick questions, the historian is like an archaeologist assembling a window from shards of glass...", the argument is well-made that Madison was not epileptic but, in fact, suffered from lifelong, often debilitating, mental anxiety that manifested itself in physical symptoms.
Madison's career in government began in April 1776, when he was elected to serve as one of two delegates from his county to the Virginia Convention assembling to form a new state government. Madison joined that government in October 1776, where one of his early biographers, William Rives, believed he first met Jefferson. His ascent continued in 1778, when he was elected to the position of Counselor to the State, serving in the Administrations of Governor Patrick Henry and then Governor Thomas Jefferson. In late 1779, Madison was elected as one of four new representatives to serve Virginia in Congress in Philadelphia.
All the while, Madison studied government. Signer writes often about Madison's "Method", which he developed over these years of study. According to Signer, the "Method" consisted of nine parts: 1) Find passion in your conscience; 2) Focus on the idea, not the man; 3) Develop multiple and independent lines of attack; 4) Embrace impatience; 5) Establish a competitive advantage through preparation; 6) Conquer bad ideas by dividing them; 7) Master your opponent as you master yourself; 8) Push the state to the highest version of itself; and 9) Govern the passions.
It was clear to Madison [and others] that the Articles of Confederation were simply unworkable as designed. After much study, Madison decided that what was needed was the power of coercion by the federal government over the states. Indeed, in the early 1780s Madison proposed an amendment to the Articles of Confederation that would do just that: if any of the states, "shall refuse or neglect to abide by the determination of the United States in Congress assembled, Congress would be fully authorized to employ the force of the United States to compel each state or states to fulfill their federal engagements". The amendment went nowhere. Madison tried again in January 1783, with a bill calling for a forced contribution from the states, having them pay taxes to the federal government - not for any specific purpose but for revenue in general. Congress took Madison's bill and watered it down to nothing. Signer says that, at this point, Madison realized, "he could not simply send a fragile idea into the jungle of public opinion and hope it would survive. More militant measures were required."
By mid-decade, others were ready to consider those measures as well. On June 22, 1786, Madison left for the Annapolis Convention. Congress had called the gathering together to resolve the catastrophe in commercial disputes among the states. But Annapolis itself was a disaster: although the meeting was taking place in Maryland, that state's delegates - believing the convention was transgressing the powers of Congress - boycotted the event. Connecticut also refused to attend; while South Carolina's and Georgia's delegates argued that the event would be redundant and pointless because prior agreements had also failed, so they did not come either. Then the eastern states' delegates left the gathering abruptly, destroying the required quorum. The only positive was - before adjourning - the group called a follow-up convention, to meet in Philadelphia starting May 2, 1787.
On August 29, 1786 - just before the Annapolis Convention had been scheduled to begin - Shays' Rebellion reconfirmed for Madison and others that something had to be done about the Articles of Confederation. Daniel Shays, a war veteran, led 1,500 men to a courthouse in western Massachusetts to protest judges who were meeting to imprison debtors. Shays delivered a petition demanding the judges shut down the proceedings. The judges shut their doors and Massachusetts soldiers were summoned. They repulsed Shays' protesters, who then regrouped and marched 30 miles to Petersham for another rally. This time, they were overtaken by a small state army and 150 were arrested [although Shays himself escaped].
The issue of Shays' Rebellion was the first - but by no means the last - time that Madison and Jefferson disagreed. Madison thought the rebels should be harshly dealt with; while Jefferson believed they should all be pardoned. Of course Jefferson was in Paris at the time and not observing what Madison was seeing in the country. Singer writes, "The clash between Madison and Jefferson on Shays' Rebellion, though muted by long distances and the passage of time, was revealing. Madison, the control freak, saw disaster in rebellion. Jefferson, the free spirit, saw raw potential instead....that tension has never been resolved in American democracy."
In October 1786, on his way back from Annapolis, Madison stayed with Washington at Mount Vernon for two nights and began a long campaign to get the "Father of His Country" to both publicly support and then attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the following spring. Madison would visit Washington at Mount Vernon in late January 1787, this time using his aforementioned arguments about need for federal coercion of the states in a new constitution.
Madison was worried. He feared that Shays' Rebellion had done irreparable damage to the republican character, perhaps even creating a propensity towards monarchy. He thought long and deeply on the subject and believed he'd hit on something. As Signer writes, "The answer [Madison] said was to expand the republic. The enlargement of the sphere would dissipate individual passions there by controlling the 'Daniel Shays' of the country through modification of sovereignty. The broad new nation, ever-expanding toward the frontier, would have no choice but neutrality between factions preventing majorities from dominating minorities and factions from undermining the nation itself."
Madison now had his main argument in favor of a federal republic.
The Convention began with small planning meetings on May 14, 1787, with groups of delegates meeting in the taverns and guesthouses of Philadelphia to plot strategy. It was during off-hours that Madison worked with Edmund Randolph and George Mason to refine what became known as the "Virginia Plan". The plan included a bicameral legislature, three branches of government, a national judiciary, and the guarantee of a republican government by the United States to each state.
While Randolph and Mason agreed with almost everything Madison proposed, there was a key dissension. So, on May 29 when Randolph stood on the floor of the Convention to read out the 15 elements of the Virginia Plan, Madison was chagrined that Mason and Randolph had both refused to accept Madison's proposal that Congress have total power over the states in all cases whatsoever. Indeed, Signer notes that Madison listened unhappily as Randolph announced the compromise between Randolph and Mason: Congress would have only the power, "to negative all laws passed by several states contravening in the opinion of the national legislature the articles of the union." Madison was furious. Finally on May 31, he rose on the floor and openly confessed his concerns about the dilution of federal power.
For Madison the most significant episode of the Convention occurred when William Paterson rose to deliver what became known as the "New Jersey Plan". The plan rejected almost every aspect of Madison's political philosophy. Instead of a bicameral legislature with the popularly elected House and the statesmanlike Senate, the plan provided for only one Congress with one vote per state. It allowed Congress to collect taxes, but only upon the states' repeated consent. Congress - not the people - would elect the President, and the plan allowed the president to be recalled by a majority of governors. Madison successfully defeated the plan. Then, Hamilton proposed a plan with an interminable six-hour speech, where he proposed scrapping both the Virginia and New Jersey plans for one modeled on the British king and Parliament and courts. He proposed a lifelong Senate chosen by electors, a House of Representatives serving three-year terms, a 12-member Supreme Court with lifelong appointments, and - most significantly - an elective monarch. Madison defeated that as well.
Because of Madison, the Virginia Plan prevailed. Yet, even in triumph with the signing of the Constitution, Madison was troubled by his failure to achieve a clearly coercive power for the new federal government. His pessimism deepened over the coming weeks as he came to realize that the new Constitution would face blistering opposition around the country. He was particularly distressed by the prospects for ratification in Virginia under the attack of an opposition led by Patrick Henry.
Madison, along with Hamilton and John Jay, set out to make the case for the Constitution through published essays which became known as The Federalist Papers. Signer says that there was a familiar refrain in The Federalist Papers: regardless of the topic, at heart each essay was, "an injunction for citizens to defy the passions, to diffuse demagogues, and to join their nation at the frontier of reason and restraint." The first essay, written by Hamilton, was published on October 27, 1787.
It was in Federalist No. #10 [published November 22] that Madison declared his vision for the nation: a larger rather than smaller republic, he declared, would make it more difficult for "unworthy candidates" to be successful in the "vicious arts by which elections are too often carried." The country, Madison argued, should be larger and more federal in order to become more just and more stable. As Signer notes, "extend this through the sphere of the republic, [Madison] told his readers, and you take on a greater variety of parties and interests that would deprive the majority of their common motive to invade the rights of other citizens."
Madison touched on this again in Federalist No. #51 [February 6, 1788]. The idea, Madison write, was to create a society with, "so many separate descriptions of citizens that it would tender an unjust combination of the whole very improbable if not impractical." The extended Republic of America would be, "broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, so many rolling shifting passions, that there would be little danger from interested combinations of the majority."
It had been determined that the Constitution would be considered approved once nine states had ratified it. Delaware was the first state to do so, on December 7, 1787. Pennsylvania followed on December 11. New Jersey ratified it on December 18. Georgia ratified the Constitution on January 2, 1788, and Connecticut followed suit on January 9. Soon, Massachusetts became the sixth state to do so. Maryland [April 28] and South Carolina [May 3] became the seventh and eighth states. Leaving just one more necessary.
The election of delegates for the Virginia ratifying Convention was set for early-March 1788 [it would actually convene three months later]. Madison was urged by friends and family alike to go to Richmond to secure a seat as a delegate at the convention - some even warned his presence was needed to save the Constitution itself. Although he remained in New York longer than his colleagues wished [he insisted on finishing all of The Federalist Papers essays before returning to Virginia], Madison was eventually elected as a delegate to the Convention.
Madison arrived in Richmond for the Convention on June 1, 1788. Shortly after a successful opening salvo against Patrick Henry [in which Madison pointed out that George Washington himself was in support of the document], Madison became ill. At the most inopportune time [and, indeed, the fact that it was such an inopportune time no doubt contributed to it happening in the first place], Madison was struck down by a vicious anxiety attack that left him physically devastated.
In Madison's absence, the debate between Henry and pro-federalist Edmund Randolph grew so heated that the two men scheduled a duel. Fortunately, a reconciliation was negotiated and no shots were fired. But Henry was gaining the argument in Madison's absence. And then James Monroe - a Madison friend but an anti-federalist - made a brilliant, convincing and enlightened argument against the Constitution. When he heard about Monroe's eloquence and the positive reception it received from the other delegates, Madison decided he had to return to the arena.
After more than three weeks of heated debate, a final vote was taken on June 25, 1788: Virginia ratified the Constitution, 89-79.
Although the Constitution concludes the bulk of Signer's text, he does address aspects of Madison's post-Constitution career to highlight changes in his philosophy. Within ten years, in fact, things would change. Not Madison's commitment to the government established in the Constitution. But a change in nuance as to what that government's relationship should be with the states and its citizens. In 1798, Madison wrote the "Virginia Resolutions", in which he argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the, "general principles of free government, as well as the particular organization and positive provisions of the federal Constitution." He asked other states to join Virginia in declaring the acts unconstitutional. Signer points out that Madison's arguments were more nuanced than Jefferson's "Kentucky Resolutions". According to Signer, Madison's resolutions merely threatened while Jefferson's declared rebellion.
Madison lived a long life. Long enough to see the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions used by John C. Calhoun to argue that a state could nullify a federal law it didn't agree with. Madison was appalled by Calhoun's plans. As Signer writes, "Although Madison had supported Virginia's right to repudiate the Alien and Sedition Acts, he saw John Calhoun nullification action in 1828 in a far different light and with real alarm." According to Signer, "The Virginia Resolution was about [President] John Adams' unconstitutional abrogation of freedom of speech; [while Calhoun's] nullification laid bare the fundamentally unresolved tension in the constitution about coercion itself regarding the whole range of self interested pursuits and passions of the states." Madison argued that, contrary to what Calhoun was saying, the Constitution was not just a compact between separately acting states.
Signer argues that Madison's support of "nullification" in 1798, "had been valid because the Alien and Sedition Acts were plainly unconstitutional and because Virginia - in opposing them - had explained precisely that basis… In attempting to nullify federal tariffs, South Carolina - on the other hand - was just as plainly arguing from self interest."
Madison died suddenly on June 28, 1836 at the age of 85. He was the last founding father to die It says much about his life that Signer could write a 320-page book and cover - for the most part - only the years 1776-1788. That he was able to overcome what appears to our 21st-century diagnosticians to be a debilitating anxiety/physical condition and emerge as one of the Founding Fathers is a testimonial to the power of his mind and his physical and emotional courage.