Becoming Madison

The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father


By Michael Signer

Formats and Prices




$19.99 CAD



  1. ebook $14.99 $19.99 CAD
  2. Hardcover $28.99 $36.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 10, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

In a time when America is desperately searching for leadership comes this inspiring story of James Madison’s coming of age, providing incisive and original insight into the Founding Father who did the most but is known the least.

Michael Signer takes a fresh look at the life of our fourth president. His focus is on Madison before he turned thirty-six, the years in which he did his most enduring work: battling with Patrick Henry — the most charismatic politician in revolutionary America, whose political philosophy and ruthless tactics eerily foreshadowed those of today’s Tea Party — over religious freedom; introducing his framework for a strong central government; becoming the intellectual godfather of the Constitution; and providing a crucial role at Virginia’s convention to ratify the Constitution in 1788, when the nation’s future hung in the balance.

Signer’s young James Madison is a role model for the leaders so badly needed today: a man who overcame daunting personal issues (including crippling anxiety attacks) to battle an entrenched and vicious status quo. Michael Signer’s brilliant analysis of “Madison’s Method,” the means by which Madison systematically destroyed dangerous ideas and left in their stead an enduring and positive vision for the United States, is wholly original and uniquely relevant today.



1 “Our Passions Are Like Torrents”

THE TWELVE-YEAR-OLD BOY LOOKED WATCHFULLY OUT ON THE ROLLING blue mountains that seemed to float along the horizon. Informed by his father that he would soon be sent seventy miles away to attend a boarding school run by a mysterious Scotsman, the boy had been flooded with strong emotions. He had large dark eyes, delicate cheekbones, a strong nose, a pointed chin, thin lips, and feathery hair that would begin thinning soon enough. He was introverted, preferring to watch as others spoke, to digest information rather than spew it out. He tended to hover at the edges of rooms, as if seeking an escape. He was intensely sensitive, responding like a tuning fork to the slightest disturbance. Yet his seemingly brittle exterior masked a warm and humorous inner self that quickly became apparent to his friends.

It had already been an unsettling year. His father had recently moved the family, including the boy’s tough, independent grandmother Frances (a matriarch who owned and ran the majority of the family’s plantation) from a rough outpost they called Mount Pleasant to this large brick home. The wildness of the land was haunted by chaos and death. Iroquois, Shawnee, Oneida, and Cherokee lurked in the lands to the west, stories of violent clashes with Virginian settlers filling the boy’s head with vivid tableaux of blood and scalps.1 In Orange County, slave rebellions arose and were crushed with brutal executions. Before the boy’s birth, his grandfather Ambrose had been believed poisoned by his slaves and died.

His father’s intent, it was clear, was to create a fresh seat for a family empire. The library where the boy was sitting was one of the house’s largest rooms, with three large, lovely windows looking out west on the Shenandoah Mountains. Such a large space for books and thought was unusual in a planter’s house, but his father seemed to have designed Montpelier with his precocious son in mind. Yet if one thing was paramount, it was that his father wanted his eldest son to avoid vainglory.

Not many letters from Madison’s father, James Madison Sr., exist. But one long letter he wrote to a cousin he hadn’t seen in years helps explain how he tried to raise his son. The letter was written in 1793, when James Madison Jr. was forty-two years old. After sharing many pages of details about his family, the senior Madison apologized for going on at such length, reprimanding himself for indulgence. “However ostentatious it may appear,” he wrote to his cousin, “it is to you only that I have indulged a vein of vanity, which is a vice I have always despised.” He concluded with a telling sentence that “I shall now only add that my very dear Wife, and daughter Fanny, with myself, who are the whole of my White family when my son James is absent,” sent their love, affection, and best wishes to his cousin and his family.2

Those sentences were telling, in three key respects. First, Madison’s father “always despised” vanity and raised his son, in turn, to take great pains to avoid even any impression of vanity. Second, even though his son was, at the time, a former congressman recognized as the father of the Constitution, he barely mentioned him—save to state that his family was not “whole” while James was gone. That suggests strong, but suppressed, emotion, another characteristic his son would later share.

Third, his father referred to his “White family,” suggesting that, without the modified “White,” he thought he had another sort of family at Montpelier as well, one that included the enslaved men and women he owned, including Sawney, the enslaved man his son James first met when he was a baby. Sawney was fourteen at the time and probably belonged to the group of about a dozen slaves that Nelly brought into the marriage. Madison Jr. became so comfortable with Sawney over the years that in 1769, when he was eighteen, Sawney accompanied him on the journey to attend college at Princeton, New Jersey. Sawney was thirty-two at the time.

Sawney’s role in the “family” defied category. Madison always referred to Sawney in letters familiarly, as a fellow man. By 1782, when Madison was thirty-one, his father would make Sawney one of the plantation overseers in charge of one of the land’s four quarters. Sawney harvested tobacco himself and sold it to James Madison Sr., listed in plantation records as “Sawney’s . . . own crop.” In the mid-1780s, Madison’s father enabled Sawney to purchase special “English” shoes of the sort worn by white men. He also gave him an actual overseer’s house to live in, rather than a typical slave’s cabin.3


Two ideas took root in young Madison’s mind. Despite Virginia law holding to the contrary, the enslaved men and women around him were, in fact, human beings. And he would need to transcend the vulgarity of Virginia’s master-slave relationship in his own way.

That second aim would unfold over his long life. His longtime manservant, Paul Jennings, would later accompany him to the White House and outlive him. Jennings published a memoir in 1865, the year the Civil War ended, in which he wrote, “Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.” Jennings quoted Madison as saying, “I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness.”4

That self-control in an arena too often given instead to outbursts and brutal violence began in Madison’s youth. Madison Jr. was almost certainly aware of the fate of Ambrose Madison, his father’s father. Ambrose was an imperious, hard man who was likely an equally hard master of his slaves. His roughhouse ways were legendary in Orange County. As a new arrival, he immediately filed lawsuits against other men for trespassing on the property, including one alleging damages of 600 pounds of tobacco.5

In 1729, a merchant named Daniel Lamport plaintively wrote, “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you, ’tis a complaint I am not used to, & Sorry it should fall on you . . .” Two years later, Lamport, clearly worn down by Ambrose, resignedly wrote, “[I] have Ship’d the Goods you ordered and hope [they] will please,” but ended with a jab: “I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”6 Ambrose likely applied this abrasive and tight-fisted approach to all of his legal property, including human beings.

In 1732—nineteen years before Madison Jr. was born—Ambrose Madison died after a lingering summertime illness of several months. Soon after he died, two men and a woman, named respectively Turk, Pompey, and Dido, were arrested and charged with his murder.

Ambrose had owned Dido and Turk, while Pompey belonged to a neighbor. In a trial that lasted less than a day, all three were tried and convicted for “Suspition of Poysoning” and “conspiring the death” of Ambrose. The court ruled that Dido and Turk were guilty but “not in such a degree as to be punished by death,” and sentenced each to twenty-nine lashes on the back. Pompey, however, was sentenced to death, and hanged the next morning on a freshly built gallows, for which the court paid a builder one hundred pounds of tobacco.7

A possible explanation for the different sentences, and for the court’s wording, is that the court was forced to acknowledge the predicament of Ambrose’s own slaves, given Ambrose’s acknowledged brutality. In any event, Ambrose was grasping and acquisitive and ruthless—all qualities that his grandson James would repudiate, two generations later, with every fiber of his being.

SITTING IN THE LIBRARY, THE BOY MUST HAVE KNOWN HIS PARENTS worried about him. They worried about their intellectual son’s eventual ability to make a living for himself, and about whether the physically fragile child (who often had stomach-aches and complained frequently about his health) would even survive to adulthood in a time when many teenagers did not. But he also knew that James and Nelly Madison believed he had a unique intellect and a curious drive and that, if nothing else, his sheer potential demanded an investment. The trip about to take place, he understood, was as much for them as it was for him. He had much to live up to.

He rested his feet on the floor, contemplating the future. Many decades later, he would say, of the man he was about to meet, “All that I have been in life I owe largely to that man.”8

MADISONS PARTY CLATTERED ALONG THE LONG ROAD TO THE SCHOOL. Approaching, he saw a broad expanse of land, well over a hundred acres, gently sloping down to the banks of the Mattaponi River, which teemed with catfish, crappie, and glittering spring runs of shad. Eastern Virginia was busier, more crowded, and more cosmopolitan than agrarian Orange County. Meeting his schoolmates for the first time, Madison gathered that they knew the big cities well—Richmond, even Philadelphia. As they chattered about their fathers’ resentment of Great Britain’s increasingly heavy hand over its colony, he heard the same tones of anger and frustration his father voiced at home.

In the boisterous den, Madison was greeted by a teacher of warmth and evident dedication to the boys. Donald Robertson had an independence of thought and courageous spirit that immediately set him apart from the stuffy men so common in Virginia’s merchant circles. Madison and the other boys noted, with sympathetic affection, a mournful note in their fierce instructor. In his short autobiography written as an old man, in which he described Robertson as a man of “extensive learning” and a “distinguished Teacher,” Madison would include the peculiar detail that the unmarried Robertson was “himself a boarder in the neighborhood.”9

Gradually, the boys probably learned the sad story behind Robertson’s notable solitude. He had studied Greek, Latin, mathematics, algebra, geometry, philosophy, and theology at the University of Edinburgh; married a woman named Henrietta; and become a minister. When Prince Charles of Britain (also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) invaded Scotland, Robertson had supported the Scottish troops, but his father had joined Charlie . . . and died in the spectacularly bloody Battle of Culloden. Scotland’s economy was horrible, and Robertson eventually decided to leave for America to seek more profitable employment through teaching. He planned to bring his wife and their children soon after he arrived, but she died shortly after he left Scotland for America, leaving him marooned in a strange land.10

In America, Robertson took a dramatic turn away from his early road as a licensed Christian preacher. In a private autobiography that was never published, Madison delved into more personal and scandalous recollections. He recalled that the man he met was now “probably of the Celtic Religion,” which he carefully noted “would have been obnoxious” for Robertson to “avow publickly.” In other words, the boys had learned that their teacher was not an Anglican (the establishment Christian religion in Virginia); he was not even a Christian but a heathen, perhaps even a secret pagan, a polytheist worshiping Celtic gods and demigods. Madison intensely admired him regardless. Robertson was the first of many examples of a man Madison defended despite, or perhaps because of, his defiance of the mainstream faith. Six decades later, Madison was quick to defend his teacher’s reputation from any charges of impiety. Robertson was “exemplary in his morals,” the old man warmly remembered, “fond of his pupils,” had a “warm temper,” and was “just & liberal in his conduct towards them.”11 As Robertson stood before the boys, Madison glanced down at the pages of his commonplace book. Parents and relatives gave these expensive, sewn volumes to boys for taking notes in class. Madison received his when he was eight years old, but waited four years to start filling it, as if he was treasuring its raw potential.

Robertson called Madison “Jamie,” an adulteration of his parents’ nickname of “Jemmy.”12 During his time with Robertson, Madison purchased both Latin and Greek books. In Latin, he read Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Tacitus, Lucretius, Eutropius, and Phaedrus. In Greek, he read Plato as well as Plutarch, Herodotus, and Thucydides.13

But he did not fill his commonplace book with lessons from any of these august figures. What seemed to resonate most with the teenager were instead the personal essays that Robertson assigned. In the first pages of the book, Madison scribbled aphorisms from the memoirs of John Francis Paul de Gondi (Cardinal de Retz), a seventeenth-century French archbishop who, in the words of the preface to the book, had been “violent and inconstant in his intrigues of love as well as those of politics” and “so indiscreet as to boast of his successful amours with certain ladies whom he ought not to have named.” With this attitude, Gondi became a sworn enemy of the reigning cardinal, who imprisoned him. He escaped and fled to Rome. His tormentor then pursued him through a dizzying hopscotch journey that spanned Switzerland, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Cologne, and, finally, Holland.14 After the cardinal died, Gondi reconciled with the pope and lived out his days in Paris, a subject of fascination for many in both Europe and America.

This tempestuous, hunted man has been largely forgotten today. But the nonconformist Robertson used astonishingly frank memoirs to free the minds of his young charges. It was a true exercise of the liberal arts, and young Madison avidly took notes, reframing Gondi’s ideas in his own words.

The first sentence he wrote in his commonplace book was, “Nothing is more Subject to Delusion than Piety.” Other glimmers of the wisdom to come:

“Irresolute minds waver most when they are upon the point of Action.”

“A Grave Air hides many defects.”

“One is oftner deceiv’d by mistrusting People than by confiding in them.”

“There is a wonderful Sympathy between some minds. Like Unisones, they are moved alike, and move one another.”

“There is a Critical Minute in every thing, & the master-piece of Good Conduct is to perceive it and take hold of it.”

“In great affairs the Head signifies nothing without the heart.”

And, finally, “All the World is, & will be for ever decieved in things which flatter their passions.”15

The teenager was eerily assembling the rudiments of the philosophy he would bring to the nation’s new Constitution as a grown man.

On another day, Robertson stood in front of the boys to discuss the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. It was another all-too-human, fallible text by a man painfully aware of his limitations.

Quill in hand, the boy reframed Montaigne’s ideas in his own words:

“People who are too tender of their Reputation, & too deeply piqued by Slander, are too conscious to themselves of some inward Infirmity.”

“A Reputation grounded on true Virtue is like the Sun that may be clouded, but not extinguished.”

Madison then coined a metaphor that would perfectly capture the approach he would take as he grew older and began shaping and leading his rising nation: “Our passions are like Torrents which may be diverted, but not obstructed.”16

Instead of cowering before the rushing force of our hopes and anxieties, or vainly trying to suppress them, he meant, we must channel them instead.

In Robertson’s warm schoolroom, above the flowing Mattaponi River, young Madison was gathering the full mental power that he would need to master his heart’s torrents. It might take years, but he could build a future in which he would be in control—if he knew himself above all else.

WHEN THEY WERE NOT IN CLASS AND EVEN WHEN THEY WERE IN IT, Madison and his friends whispered about politics. At home for visits and vacations, they noted the tide of rage sweeping across Virginia. Then, in 1765, when he turned fourteen, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The American colonies could now use only paper with embossed seals produced in London and sailed across the ocean. This unwonted tax by their faraway masters infuriated anyone who wanted to write out a legal document on a plain sheet of paper made in America—or anyone, like Madison, scribbling away in his schoolboy’s commonplace book.

2 The Good Doctor

FROM DONALD ROBERTSON, MADISONS FATHER GATHERED THAT HIS SONS preternatural intellect indeed presented extraordinary potential. Madison returned home when he was sixteen. His father invested some of the plantation’s profits in arranging for his son to receive precollege instruction from the Reverend Thomas Martin, a personal friend.

Martin had graduated from the increasingly prestigious College of New Jersey run by free-thinking Presbyterians rather than the stuffy Anglicans who dominated almost every institution in Virginia. He was kind, studious, trustworthy, and earnest—an immediately reassuring presence in Madison’s anxious life, someone Madison could, and would, grow to look up to.

At seventeen, the time to attend college was quickly approaching. The question was where. The standard choice was the College of William and Mary, which had been established by King William III and Queen Mary II in 1693 with a charter envisioning a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.” George Washington studied there, as did Thomas Jefferson. The school, located in the established and wealthy Tidewater region, was prestigious and the natural choice for a planting family like the Madisons.

But Madison’s fiercely self-reliant father saw it differently. He didn’t care for the conventional wisdom that James must go to William and Mary, for the school was controlled by Anglicans. Virginia’s Anglicans were intimately bound up with the colonial government and loyalists to the Church of England. Their moralism, theocratic tendency, and addiction to political power had been wearing on him for years.

James Madison Sr. knew a civil war was brewing within the college that mirrored tensions within Virginia as a whole. The majority of the college’s faculty were English-born graduates of Oxford University. Intrinsically conservative, they were wedded to British customs and history and skeptical of trends toward modern literature and modern science, as well as mistrusted modern philosophies centered on individual freedom and justice. They tendentiously argued that the college’s curriculum must follow the rigid classical outlines that had guided generations of British students.1 James Madison wanted none of this for his precious son.

Madison’s parents also considered the nagging issue of their nervous son’s health. Orange County was considered “mountainous,” even though the hills outside were gentle at best. It took days to travel to Williamsburg, through climates so different they felt to the Madisons like different nations. William and Mary, within the reach of the Atlantic Ocean, was low and humid. It teemed with unfamiliar vegetation, mosquitoes—and unseen diseases. His mother feared the thought of sending her frail son there for years.

All the while, Thomas Martin was glowingly describing his alma mater. The College of New Jersey, located in Princeton, had earned a reputation for teaching integrity, moral probity, and intellectual quality to a small segment of the northern states’ leading men. He told Madison’s father exciting tales about John Witherspoon, the college’s renowned new president. Witherspoon was a reformer, a defiant Scottish Presbyterian skeptic, with a famous habit of deliciously skewering the sanctimonious and the tyrannical alike, particularly among the Anglicans. And that appealed even more to James Madison Sr.

Before dogma could poison his promising young son’s mind, the father acted. James Madison Jr. would go to the College of New Jersey.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1769, THE FOUR-MEMBER BAND—MADISON, JONATHAN Martin, his brother Alexander, and Madison’s personal slave, Sawney—loaded their horses with food, light and heavy clothes, water, and books for James’s months-long stay in Princeton, New Jersey. The journey north would take almost two weeks. They traipsed through the Virginia woods, then crossed the Acquia, Quantico, and Occoquan Rivers on ferries. They passed through the quaint town of Alexandria. Throughout, Jonathan Martin told Madison stories from his time as a student in Princeton. Together, they speculated about Witherspoon. They clopped along the banks of the Potomac River for several miles, then boarded another ferry over to George Town. They followed a leafy trail along Rock Creek and proceeded on to Annapolis. After two days, they reached the broad Susquehanna River, which spread around them like the sea itself. Ferrying across, they stepped onto the marshy sands of Delaware. After another day, they reached Pennsylvania, and then made their way to Philadelphia.

Madison had never seen anything like the city. He only knew the small hamlets and homey towns of Virginia. The twenty-five-thousand-strong metropolis was bracing. The group stayed at the London Coffee House, which was operated by the Bradford family, and he learned that their son William had already left for Princeton.2

They covered the forty-mile road from Philadelphia to Princeton in one day, the horses walking steadily on the dirt path along the Delaware River. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, the four entered Trenton. Twelve miles later, with darkness fallen, they finally came to the peaceful town of Princeton in the humid summer night.3 Tired from the long trip, an excited James looked around at the small town where his new life would begin, and beheld the massive building that would provide home, mayhem, and Lyceum—sometimes all at once.

WHEN MADISON ENTERED NASSAU HALL FOR THE FIRST TIME, HE beheld the largest stone structure in the colonies, built to house a student body as large as 150. The building was little over a decade old and settling nicely into its bones. The college’s ambitious founders had aimed for permanence. They chose locally quarried sandstone over brick as building material, giving the walls, which were over two feet thick, a weighty, slablike quality. The hall was three stories tall, with an elegant cupola perched on the center of its roof. Exploring inside, he walked through recitation rooms and a prayer room on the first floor; a library on the second; and a refectory, kitchen, storeroom, and more student rooms in the basement. His feet stepped lightly on hallways paved with brick to protect the building from fire and to retain warmth from the wood-burning fireplaces.4

Madison moved into a room with two other students, hardwood floors underfoot, cool plaster walls around. Everything happened in this building, which was a village unto itself. And the village had a chief.

AFTER HEARING SO MUCH ABOUT WITHERSPOONS WIT, INTELLIGENCE, and fearlessness from his father, Jonathan Martin, and nearly everyone else, Madison was prepared to be intimidated. He wasn’t disappointed. Ashbel Green, a student of Witherspoon’s who went on to become a minister and later the college’s eighth president, later recounted that effect of Witherspoon’s. “He had more of the quality called presence—a quality powerfully felt, but not to be described,” Green wrote, “than any other individual with whom the writer has ever had intercourse, Washington alone excepted.”5

Witherspoon seemed transcendent, somehow, his thoughts sweeping up into a higher plane. In the months and years to come, Madison began to learn more about the man and his extraordinary journey.

Witherspoon was a fighter and a moralist, a man of courage and principle. For him, defiance—in politics and philosophy—was as natural and necessary as oxygen. He was born on a cold Scottish February day in 1723 to a minister’s daughter. His father was also a minister. Like James Madison decades later, Witherspoon would become the eldest brother of six brothers and sisters. His mother, in Witherspoon’s description, was pious, a serious woman passionately driven by faith. His father made the church not only his profession but his life, serving as the minister of his local parish for almost forty years. But he was ambitious as well, with a political bug that expressed itself within the domestic empire of the Presbyterian Church. He preached before and was a commissioner to the Presbytery’s General Assembly, and in 1744, was appointed to the high post of royal chaplain.6

No surprise that when Witherspoon was just four years old, his father handed him a Bible and taught him to read it out loud.7


On Sale
Mar 10, 2015
Page Count
384 pages

Michael Signer

About the Author

The Hon. Michael Signer, mayor of Charlottesville from 2016-2018, is the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies and Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father.

A public scholar, practicing attorney, and executive, Dr. Signer has written for the New York TimesWashington Post, and Time, and has been interviewed by Meet the PressFace the Nation, and NPR. He has been profiled by the New York TimesWashington Post, and CNN, and has received awards from such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Learn more about this author