About Our Guest
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, he holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a BA from Princeton University. While in law school at UVA, he founded the Coalition for Progress on Race and cofounded the Center for the Study of Race and Law. He is Managing Principal of Madison Law and Strategy Group which he founded in 2010 where he practices corporate and regulatory law. He also lectures at UVA where he teaches in both the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and the Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy. Mr. Signer is a member of the Virginia and Washington, DC bars and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association. He has been a democratic voting rights attorney in Virginia for many years. He is also Chair of the Emergency Food Network. Mayor Signer is the author of two books. Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies from Powell Gregg McMillan in 2009 and Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father from Public Affairs in 2015. He has published essays and articles in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Richmond Times Dispatch, The New Republic, USA Today and The Daily Beast. He has also been interviewed by NPR, MSNBC, Fox News and the BBC. He has previously served on the Board of Directors of the Center for National Policy and the Truman Educational Institute and is a Principal of the Truman National Security Project. Michael Signer served previously as counsel to Governor Mark Warner in Richmond, Senior Strategist for Tom Perriello’s 2008 campaign for Congress, legislative aide to then delegate Creigh Deeds, National Security Director of the 2008 John Edwards for President Campaign and Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress. In 2009 Mike was appointed by Governor Tim Kaine to a four year term on Virginia’s Board of Medicine. He was a member of the Finance Committee for Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign for governor and was Chair of the Governor Elect’s Transition Counsel on Homeland Security. In 2009 he was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. Michael Signer is married to Emily Blout who is a lecturer in the Politics and Media Studies Departments at UVA and has recently concluded a PhD at the University of St. Andrews. Mike and Emily share their home in Charlottesville with their twin boys William and Jacoby.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I would like to welcome you once again to our program Politics Matters. Today we are honored to welcome as our guest Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer to discuss the enlightened political thought contained in his remarkably timely book Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father. Welcome, Mayor Signer.
Michael Signer: Thank you for having me.
Jan Paynter: Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, he holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a BA from Princeton University. While in law school at UVA, he founded the Coalition for Progress on Race and cofounded the Center for the Study of Race and Law. He is Managing Principal of Madison Law and Strategy Group which he founded in 2010 where he practices corporate and regulatory law. He also lectures at UVA where he teaches in both the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and the Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy. Mr. Signer is a member of the Virginia and Washington, DC bars and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association. He has been a democratic voting rights attorney in Virginia for many years. He is also Chair of the Emergency Food Network. Mayor Signer is the author of two books. Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies from Powell Gregg McMillan in 2009 and Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father from Public Affairs in 2015. He has published essays and articles in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Richmond Times Dispatch, The New Republic, USA Today and The Daily Beast. He has also been interviewed by NPR, MSNBC, Fox News and the BBC. He has previously served on the Board of Directors of the Center for National Policy and the Truman Educational Institute and is a Principal of the Truman National Security Project. Michael Signer served previously as counsel to Governor Mark Warner in Richmond, Senior Strategist for Tom Perriello’s 2008 campaign for Congress, legislative aide to then delegate Creigh Deeds, National Security Director of the 2008 John Edwards for President Campaign and Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress. In 2009 Mike was appointed by Governor Tim Kaine to a four year term on Virginia’s Board of Medicine. He was a member of the Finance Committee for Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign for governor and was Chair of the Governor Elect’s Transition Counsel on Homeland Security. In 2009 he was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. Michael Signer is married to Emily Blout who is a lecturer in the Politics and Media Studies Departments at UVA and has recently concluded a PhD at the University of St. Andrews. Mike and Emily share their home in Charlottesville with their twin boys William and Jacoby. Welcome again, Mayor Signer. Before we begin our discussion of your remarkable book Becoming Madison and the lessons it offers to us as citizens as we approach the November election, tell us if you would a little about your background, what brought you to your commitment to history, politics and a life of public service.
Michael Signer: Oh, that’s a big question with a couple different parts. Well, what brought me to the… I guess there’s a relationship between the book and what I’m interested in in politics and in public service. I am very passionate about when ideas developed the right way actually can influence the shaping of real life and of history and I started when I was an undergraduate at Princeton and that was when I first started kind of getting to know about Madison and what Madison had done and I kind of got taken by this Madison bug and I was very interested by how somebody like him could write these texts that people getting PhDs in political theory or people teaching political philosophy would read but he was never really in the academy. He didn’t teach at a university, he didn’t write books for an academic audience. He was always in the world, in the…right in the mix of trying to influence and improve everything around him from the local level to the state level to the national to the international level. And I was utterly fascinated by how somebody could apply his brain in such a direct way in ideas and history. And I think that’s probably why my career has brought in these different parts of a pretty deep study of ideas in history for doing a PhD and continuing to teach and read as much as I can now while I’m in the midst of very practical matters. But it also goes to the book. The book studies how did he kind of at once become the architect of the ideas that went into shaping America. So writing the Constitution, a lot of the critical battles that went into the Constitution, what were his studies like, how did he…what are the ideas? How did he put them together? But then he also lived what he preached. So he became the statesman that a lot of his ideas of how the country was best going to work needed. It needed people like him who at every turn were going to try to challenge the public, try to educate themselves, try and kind of crack the hardest problems, try and pull the American democracy away from demagogues and toward a higher plain and he did it personally. And so the book is kind of a study about not just him coming up with the ideas but him becoming his own example and I just think it’s an utterly fascinating story.
Jan Paynter: It’s a very fascinating story and I was telling you before the program that as I was reading it, I saw the title Becoming Madison functioning in lots of different ways, which we can talk about later. Your book builds momentum powerfully as you begin by recounting the formative years of Madison. So let’s discuss Madison’s youth, key role that mentorship plays in developing both his character and his approach to public service. So let’s talk about both Donald Robertson and Witherspoon.
Michael Signer: So Donald Robertson. He was sent away by his parents to go to a boarding school a couple hundred miles away where it was…a lot of Virginia’s leading families sent their boys to this boarding school and it was run by a kind of mysterious man named Donald Robertson. One of the interesting things was during the research of this book my wife was doing a PhD at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and I went there with her for a month at the very beginning when I was really starting to write the book and there are a lot of Scots, Scottish Americans in the story so Donald Robertson was one. He had begun his career as a cleric in Scotland and then had moved across the Atlantic to the United…to America then, to Virginia to start a boarding school and I was…he comes up a lot in the books on Madison but not…but in very fragmentary ways and there’s not a tremendous amount of documentary evidence about him. What there is I was able to find and to sort of piece together a story and some facts about him but what was most interesting to me was putting together what Madison himself wrote about him in different versions of his biography later on and you started to put together this picture of a very eclectic warm, independent, conscience driven kind of iconoclastic person who also had suffered some tragedy. His wife died while he was…while he was…I believe after he had arrived in Virginia and he was alone and Madison talked about him as a loner and as somebody who was fiercely dedicated and very warm to his…to the boys under his tutelage. And he also talked about his spiritual independence. He almost said that he was…that he practiced the Celtic faith which at that point would mean that in a state with a state religion… You had… The Anglican Church was running, was the formal religion of Virginia at that point, that you had a pagan who was teaching these boys and who…and then what he taught them was really remarkable. I was going into what he was learning under Robertson and he was teaching them kind of scandalous material that was about how famous…there’s this Cardinal who he taught about who was very scandal written and wrote these memoirs as he fled his pursuer through…who was…through Europe. And the lesson of it was, what goes into somebody being a truly independent spirit and being…setting forth…and having a sense of humor about it. And these schoolboys at that time would read his memoirs as an example of writing. But I was just so taken with all of the independence and bravery and the emphasis that Madison puts on conscience and of knowing your own conscience and of feeling free to kind of break through all kinds of obstacles, especially when you had an idea of where you were going that was informed. I think those started getting fleshed out at a very early age and that’s why that one story was… But that pales next to Witherspoon. John Witherspoon was his…was this…was one of the true charismatic, really remarkable figures, larger than life in this period of America’s founding. He was another Scottish cleric who had become very famous in Scotland. He took the side of the Purists but he did so with an incredible amount of humor and sardonic humor and a kind of drama that plunged somebody who was very focused on his conscience on matters of principle but also politically astute and ready for combat, ready to engage in this internessing fight inside the Scottish Presbyterian Church. And so he became very famous for this and sort of a public intellectual but also somebody who didn’t shy away from fights. So he was recruited across the Atlantic to become the new president of Princeton University at a time when there were three professors. So these were much smaller institutions but it was a much smaller country and the College of New Jersey, which is what it was called then, loomed very large in the minds of the leading men at that time and their wives in the country and his fame preceded him and Madison’s father, who was also a very independent, iconoclastic type of guy, made the choice to send his son out of Virginia, which was very unusual at this point, to go study under this Scottish cleric who had recently taken up the presidency of this college several states away. And it made a profound impact on Madison’s life, his career, his thinking, his heart, his sense of religion, his sense of religion’s connection to political causes but also his sense of religious independence and the freedom that can come when you’re driven by your conscience. That was the main lesson I think he took from this experience of learning from Witherspoon and they remained very close. And it was…and I think he really saw there was a father/son relationship.
Jan Paynter: It is fascinating. Now how does Madison amend the Socratic Method of argument and incorporate it into his idea of persuasive political discourse?
Michael Signer: So this is a crucial part of this book. It’s certainly something that I in my own life kind of both as a student of political history but also somebody who’s been involved in government and politics for a long time. This is kind of the… The spine of the book was this trying to figure out how did Madison do it? How did he win so many political battles where he was the underdog and how did he engage in political struggles? And it seemed to me that there really was a pattern. He would prepare very intensively, he would use logic when others were using emotion, he would govern his own passions. A lot of the book is about these anxiety attacks that he had which I think are key to understanding both the frailties but also the strength of his character. They became a model for the nation in a way I think when he was thinking about the nation and a number of other components that describe how he would go into kind of a controversy and educate and lead and master his own way and the people following him out of it and I could…there are a number of different examples. My speculation… So I was trained as a political theory…as a political theorist not as a…not exclusively as a historian. So I had a little bit more latitude in the way that I would write and analyze the phenomena in the book. There was this one passage when he was very young when he studied the Socratic Method as practice by Socrates and he was very critical of it in a way that was way beyond his years. A lot of people have tried to figure out why was Socrates assassinated by the mob in ancient Athens. It’s a topic that people have written books about. I.F. Stone wrote a book trying to figure out the trial of Socrates. What did this mean? Why did he infuriate people so much? And Madison basically says it was because he was incredibly condescending and controlling toward other people when he was winning the argument against them and in law school the Socratic Method is basically when the professor knows the answer, you don’t, they lead you down this garden path making you look like an idiot for not knowing all the answers and then force you to come to the conclusion that they already know. That’s the Socratic Method kind of reduced to contemporary terms. Madison thought it was capticious and infurious, those are the words that he used, and I think that he came up with a different way of engaging in political debate and in winning the challenges over where was government going to go and he did it with this unconscious—and I’m very clear. I think this was an unconscious coming together of different way…of different elements of how would he engage in these kinds of fights. And he came up with his own method that was based on debate, being over prepared, controlling, over mastering yourself and a number of the other pieces that I talk about; dividing and conquering. Every time you read a wonderful Madison essay or speech, he is saying, ‘There’s two options here.’ And he’s determining the path that you… It’s kind of why arguing with lawyers can sometimes be frustrating ‘cause they identify the ways in which something can branch off and then you’re already following them down here.
Jan Paynter: Oh and it’s really interesting because he limits the argument. Very often it’s a binary choice to use an over-used word these days. But that actually kind of pins down his opponent in ways that allow him to succeed with the argument.
Michael Signer: The question in all this was this was a man who was 5’4”, he weighed 100 pounds, he was chronically incredibly hypersensitive. Not just introverted but so sensitive that one of his best friends said about him when Jefferson suggested to her he should be governor of Virginia, she said, ‘He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t withstand the storm of abuses, the torrent of abuses that would come at him.’ He had anxiety attacks his whole life which modern research would now, and I go into this in the book, would…they’d call them epilepsy then but they were basically just a species of anxiety disorder and that makes perfect sense if you look at everything about his life and the way that he described them. He had palpitations and they would come at moments of great stress. So he was dealing with all these things. He was the last person you would think who would be…who could face down with somebody like Patrick Henry when the Constitution came down to whether it was going to be ratified in Virginia but he did. That was the puzzle of the book. How would somebody like that, facing such weaknesses, how would they become so powerful and that was the puzzle of the book and that’s why this method is so important. He came up with a way to enable somebody like him to…not just to prevail but to create a following behind him. It was… People watching him engage in these debates were fascinated, they were drawn. They were drawn to watch him because it was just so incredible watching somebody with such intensity of conviction and conscience, preparation, logic, education, challenging himself, challenging everybody. It was a spectacle to watch even though he was so small and so slight.
Jan Paynter: Well, his anxiety and his triumphing over illness is such an amazing…and you bring this out in the book…metaphor for the broiling problems that were besetting this new nascent country and the way in which… And so it’s a perfect window in to how the country is established and how the chief architect manages it and how the country triumphs over these various factions that are constantly embodied, as you bring out in Patrick Henry, in threatening to break it apart.
Michael Signer: It is the internal engine of progress in any democracy, especially a constitutional one, is how does it deal with that generative collision between the demagogue and the statesmen, between those two forces that are within a democracy. We unleash incredible creativity and education and potential to challenge ourselves and that’s the side of democracy that you see in America’s public universities for instance, or private, our great universities. But then it also has a side, a dark side, which you see in the demagogues that we’ve produced over time because when you have a country with very few limits and where anybody can speak and anybody can manipulate other people and anybody can have power, you can have demagogues erupt and you can have people who will prey on other people’s prejudices and go to the lowest common denominator rather than the higher plane and that… I think that the way that Madison solved this with his method and who he became and how he guided and tutored the country to go to this plane, I think that that is probably the most crucial component of what has made us successful, this idea of governing the passions and of aiming for more elevated levels of public policy and public achievement and it is the story. And if you look at his own life, the way that he wrote about the country, what we’ve done with our country but then you see right now with everything that’s happening, you see that that darker side is always there, that it was there from the beginning.
Jan Paynter: It’s very interesting because both…we talked about this before the program…both Madison and Jefferson are intensely interested in education for the populace and creating, if you will, citizen statesmen as the best hedge and protection against demagogic goings on in the government and this is something we are wrestling with today I think—better education for everyone. One of the things that I…I just think this is a fascinating and hilarious story that you recount in the book that people might like to hear about and that is lessons that Madison learned from political defeat. So I wanted to use the example of Madison, the aspiring delegate from Orange County. So tell us what happened.
Michael Signer: Well, he needed to be reelected to this position of delegate. He became a delegate after the first convention in Virginia after the Declaration of Independence so each state had their own so he needed to be reelected as a delegate and he was a little cocky at this point I think. He was young, in his mid-20s and he decided that on top of just getting reelected he was going to challenge the voters in this very established practice then which was just to ply…any candidate would bring liquor and cider to the polling place and they would throw these parties for people and get people drunk during…when people were voting and at that point you had to travel pretty long distances to go vote at the courthouse or wherever you’re voting so the candidates would kind of out compete each other with alcohol. And he thought that this was beneath the dignity of American democracy and he decided to…not just to challenge it but to sort of hold himself up as the candidate of higher principle.
Jan Paynter: Madison the controller.
Michael Signer: Yes. And he was also running against a tavern keeper so it was…and he lost and it was incredibly embarrassing and humiliating. Many decades later when he was writing about it in these many versions of his autobiography that he wrote in his 60s, 70s, 80s, he actually was still puzzling out why he had been such a fool, why he had made the mistakes and he was still really plagued by his own errors but what he learned, I think, was he learned you can never get too far ahead of public opinion. You have… I teach my students at UVA, I teach a class called Leadership, Statesmanship and Democracy and you…courage and principle are spectacular things and you do have to lead the public but every successful leader has had to be successful. There’s not a lot of value in political martyrdom so he learned that lesson, he needed to be involved and he couldn’t just sacrifice himself on the altar of what he felt was a good idea because then he wouldn’t be able to make change.
Jan Paynter: And what are we learning in this election? The importance of connecting with voters.
Michael Signer: Absolutely.
Jan Paynter: If you do it, you succeed. If you stumble, we see what happens to anybody in the polls. So it’s a…it was a great lesson and it just…I thought it was a hilarious story.
Michael Signer: Right.
Jan Paynter: This is wonderful and we’re going to have to stop for now but we look forward to having you join us again for Part 2.
Michael Signer: I look forward to it. Thank you.
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