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 back to the program 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 back, Mayor Signer.
Michael Signer: Thank you for having me.
Jan Paynter: What was the significance of Madison’s essay “Memorial and Remonstrance” against religious assessments and his…tell us a little bit if you would about his ideas toward religion and government and how they would interact.
Michael Signer: So this was an episode of incredible importance when Virginia and when the country were figuring out where were they going to be on the freedom of religion. This is several years before the Constitutional Convention, the 1782, ’83, ’84. Patrick Henry, who was out of power, he’d been the kind of leader of the…he declared, ‘Give me liberty or give me death. If this is treason, be the most of it.’ He was this…he was kind of the father and the grandfather of the American Revolution in many ways and also he’d been the first governor of Virginia, the first post-independence governor of Virginia so he was very famous. He was also a pretty classic demagogue through most of his career, going to the lowest common denominator. He identified this concern, which was that churches were…church enrollment was really faltering at this point. This was six years after the Declaration of Independence in Virginia. So he came up with an idea, a public policy idea, which was a new tax that would fund churches. So that was the assessment, the religious assessment part of the “Memorial and Remonstrance” against religious assessments. Madison had been developing, ever since his college years, a really robust appreciation for independence of religion. It’s a…it was…I tell the story in the book of a period when he was a young congressman in Philadelphia when he kind of pointedly repudiated the antisemitism that was so common among some of his colleagues. He befriended a Jewish money lender named Haym Salomon in Philadelphia, very…and really went out of his way to speak kindly of him. Just as a small example, when he came back from college after Princeton, the Baptists were being abused in Virginia at that point. They were a sect that was seen as out of turn and just really treated horribly, imprisoned and spit at and he led a…he joined in a petition drive to kind of prohibit the treatment they were suffering. So Patrick Henry proposed this tax to fund Christian churches at that time. And Madison planned out this battle plan to figure out how to stop this in its tracks and he…he used I think 15 different arguments in this initial outline that became a speech that he delivered in Richmond where he talked about how government support of religion had always backfired. He talked about how…he had many different arguments, none of which were sufficient. They all combined together.
Jan Paynter: Which is characteristic of his…
Michael Signer: Characteristic of him. He did not… One of the things of his method was we get kind of…the big $10 word would be parsimony. We really…a lot of people feel today that we have to have one perfect, elegant argument that’ll just win it all. It’s a silver bullet approach to arguing and you just try to figure out what the right answer is and he didn’t feel that. He thought that you could kind of throw the kitchen sink. There would probably be…if something was good or bad, there were probably a lot of different arguments for it. There was a lot of different evidence and the capable public servant should be engaged on all fronts and that was… He threw 15 things against this religious assessment and he said…he said he thought it was unchristian, it kind of went against Christian values to have government get involved in supporting Christian churches. He just threw a bunch of these. He said it was illogical. He even looked at history. He said, this hasn’t worked in the past. And then it really created quite a stir but it was just a blueprint for a petition, a letter that was printed that got distributed and at this point you didn’t have anything other than speeches and letters and newspapers so it sparked a petition drive and the petition drive I think ultimately got over 10,000 signatures and it had real force, sort of a tidal wave that stopped and overwhelmed Patrick Henry and Madison also succeeded in delaying the vote for another year so they could gain momentum.
Jan Paynter: Well, it was so interesting, I didn’t want to interrupt you but we’re so enmeshed and embroiled in media now with Facebook and Twitter but really, talking about the pamphleteering, the Federalist Papers, you see Madison pressing his argument through his version of media at the time and the Federalist Papers of course went all over the country and really the world. So it is fascinating that in a sense we are still in the media age as we began it with Madison.
Michael Signer: The key… Right. Without question he was fully engaged in public debates and in trying to engage and drive opinion through argument engagement toward his corner and not that much has changed. The media have changed obviously but the need and the urgency of winning public battles has not. What still I think is most remarkable was Patrick Henry at every turn was going to the lowest common denominator. He was stoking people’s prejudices, he was playing on their fears, he was playing on their loves and their fears and going to the gut whereas this “Memorial and Remonstrance”, so amazing, you read it 200 years later, is how much he was challenging the public and trying to create a new idea and an appreciation for the independence of religion and the separation between church and state then and he was challenging people to kind of come up with this new idea and support it politically as opposed to just playing their prejudices and he won. He won. And that became part of how we think about religion to this present day but it was the result of a very engaged political actor.
Jan Paynter: One of the things that I thought was very interesting in looking at parallels, as we talked about before the program, between the 18th century and today, things we struggle with between say 1779 and 1784 was the state of the country. Henry…Patrick Henry was nearing end of his term of governor, Virginia’s prestige was on the wane, the young country had inflation, lack of leadership and an ineffectual Continental Congress. You recount all of this in the book. There were partisan disputes, personal quarrels and an insatiable thirst for riches. Now, lots of this I think will sound familiar to people if they think about today because failure of leadership in a vacuum of united national purpose, as you recount in the book, was very much the atmosphere of the time. What kinds of specific lessons do you think that we can draw from this?
Michael Signer: Well, he thought that the… The major problem challenging the country at this time was the connection of the lack of a strong federal government and federal solutions with the money supply. That was a critical… Sort of the hub of many of the problems that were affecting the states and the nation as a whole was you didn’t have a center that was stronger than its parts and he cast his lot in a way that I don’t think history totally understands and one of the interesting things writing and researching this period so intensively was you see conservatives holding up Madison as a hero or Libertarians or whoever. A lot of people hold up a lot of Founding Fathers as a hero but in this period of time it’s very important to understand he wanted a very strong federal government. He wanted the federal government to have coercive authority.
Jan Paynter: That was going to be my next question, yeah.
Michael Signer: And he used that word coercive. He wanted them to be able…not just a conflicts clause like we have where you…the federal government wins when there’s an express conflict between two different provisions, the federal government…the state governments have, he thought the federal government should have been able to militarily coerce all the states to comply with it on any question. And he started… He set his kind of goals pretty far. I think one of the lessons that you learn from his career is that as long as you don’t get…as long as you’re not reckless or totally detached from public opinion or from working with your colleagues, you can have a very ambitious goal that your conscience and your research and your preparation identifies and drives you toward and he campaigned for that goal for years. He was the leading voice in Congress arguing for the strongest version of a federal government at a time when the country was splitting apart. They couldn’t even get a unified currency that was linked to value to pay for supplies for the different troops around the country. It was a huge problem because you couldn’t pay for goods. You had skyrocketing inflation because you had many different kinds…dozens of different kinds of currency that were floating around printed by the states, printed by the federal government and everybody was sort of nibbling around the edges of the problem that when he got to Congress, the most popular solution which he wrote but he just was horrified by this was just to exchange at a rate of 40 to one the old currency for new currency. That was just the idea. They just saw it as a numbers problem and he said, ‘It’s not a numbers problem.’ And he wrote this essay which he delivered as a…a private essay but it became the basis for a number of speeches he did. He said the issue is peoples’ confidence in the way the federal government itself is set up. He said, ‘We could exchange currency over and over and over but we need to actually totally overhaul the federal government, what’s at the heart of it.’ That was a huge…hugely new idea at the way…the way that he framed it and what is remarkable about his campaign was he just set the goal and he applied himself to it over and over again. And you can see how…no matter whether you’re liberal or conservative, the way in which people campaigned for universal healthcare for instance, that’s a decades long fight but if you keep coming back to your horizon, to your goal and you hand off the baton to somebody else and that is what happened and the vision of one person to set the goal and to make the arguments for it, to start to say, ‘There really is a crucial problem here that isn’t going to be solved without this answer,’ it can actually change the country but it really will be determined by the authors of those visions. And he had a vision of where the country was going to go and he ultimately prevailed.
Jan Paynter: Mike, let’s explore Jefferson and Madison’s disagreements on the approach to Shays’ Rebellion and why it was significant for the country.
Michael Signer: Well, Shays’ Rebellion was an outburst of very disgruntled, angry people who were in debt the year before the Constitutional Convention. So 1787 was the Constitutional Convention, 1786 in Western Massachusetts at this point in time there were prisons, they were called debtors prisons for people who were in debt. So if you had bankruptcy, you just got thrown in jail and you also had a lot of really predatory lending policies and the economy was a disaster at this point so you had a lot of forces that were conspiring against regular people with their…with their economic setup and so there was rebellion. The rebellion…in hindsight it was probably less of a contagious thing than it seemed it at the time but they were all in tenterhooks at this point in time because they were worried about the country going off the rails and they were incredibly focused on the danger of populist uprisings and a demagogue, a skilled mass leader who was preying on peoples’ prejudices—that’s the classic definition of a demagogue—rising up. So 1786 there was such an uprising in Western Massachusetts led by a man named Daniel Shays. A whole crowd of people marched up to the courthouse doors where they held these proceedings to throw people in jail. There was…there were violent skirmishes, then they all left and they went to a nearby town and they were pursued by the police force and then the military got involved. But meanwhile, everybody in the governing elite of the country who were in the states and were planning on coming to Philadelphia the next year and in Congress were incredibly alarmed by this and it kind of sparked this whole national discussion about, ‘What if this happened all around the country? What if we had demagogues and uprisings?’ And it kind of became a temperature check for how somebody thought about the country they wanted to build and it led to this real division between Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson was abroad in Paris as ambassador at the time. Madison was back in the United States or in America at the time and Jefferson, and this is what led to his very famous kind of idea that a little rebellion now and then can be a good thing and the tree of liberty should be watered with the blood of patriots. He was talking about Shays’ Rebellion. So he thought that this was fine. Madison had a much more worried outlook on this and he was much less optimistic about the sort of popular uprisings and how they could fit into the country that he was wanting to build. And they had…it kind of led to a very different…they had very different attitudes about the way in which you should respond to demagogues and the underlying thing about the passions in politics. Jefferson was much more comfortable with a politics that was tilted more toward a lot more fire, a lot less control about knowing where it was going to go. He had comfort with revolutions, at least theoretically, and Madison was much more concerned with building a country that could…that was kind of tempered to withstand those stresses but wasn’t about embracing those stresses and it was…they had very different perspectives on it and I think that in the end Madison probably won the battle about how the country was going to be designed to address that likelihood and Jefferson had the luxury of kind of saying, from across the ocean,’ Oh, this is fine, this is good for the country.’
Jan Paynter: Interesting that he was in France, too, during that time.
Michael Signer: Right. Well, and then France…the French Revolution ended up just a couple of years later providing a much more bloody, gory illustration of his infatuation at the time with a little rebellion…a little revolution now and then, a little rebellion with the blood of patriots. It ended up being extremely bloody.
Jan Paynter: It kind of proved Madison’s point.
Michael Signer: Right. That’s what I think. Yes, exactly.
Jan Paynter: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about Madison’s memorandum “Vices of the Political System”, of the United States and why it was significant.
Michael Signer: So this…Madison wrote two very lengthy memoranda before coming to the Constitutional Convention. This was a habit of his. He would retreat in solitude a lot of the time, spend months reading and studying. Not just kind of gathering facts externally but also finding his own depth of conscience that was going to boost him later on.
Jan Paynter: Well, he was a natural scholar.
Michael Signer: He was. A real scholar. Amazing. So he composed a study of the problems that were affecting the United States and how…and confederacies in general. He wrote one about the United States, he wrote one about confederacies in general and he was trying to figure out how could you design a country that would address the historical pattern of loosely organized confederations of states disintegrating for whatever reason. So he studied dozens of these confederacies that had happened throughout world history in Switzerland, in Germany, in Greece and he found that no matter how they were organized you needed a strong central core and you needed…it could be developed any number of which ways but you needed that and that was part of his battle plan coming into the Constitutional Convention was knowing that and being able to argue for that. Separately he had also done kind of a full inventory of the problems in the United States as it was…in the country as it was designed. That helped him figure out, how should the country be designed around those problems. This is what led him to be a very strong advocate for a bicameral legislature for instance, a mixed regime which had been argued about since Aristotle for…that you needed representatives of the wealthy and the kind of elite parts of society which became the Senate and you needed a more populace branch and you needed them to be in the same legislative house so they could…they would be forced to work things out together but represent different parts of the country. You needed three separate branches of government. You needed the federalist design where the states would be in healthy competition with the federal government. He thought the federal government should be way stronger but you still needed the states and the federal government coexisting together. So he had come to a very systematic idea of both the problems of confederacies generally. How could the United States be designed to avoid its flaws and to escape the flaws that the confederated states had? And they both sort of fueled his entry into the Constitutional Convention as the…kind of the leading visionary about where the country could be designed to go.
Jan Paynter: Yeah. He was also very acutely aware of protecting smaller states which is something I thought was very interesting about him.
Michael Signer: Right.
Jan Paynter: Going back to Witherspoon. We didn’t talk about Witherspoon’s idea of the nexus imperii that Madison picks up on that is the binding together of power for the mutual benefit between federal and state government which you’ve just been talking about and obviously Madison was extremely worried about it foundering, the government foundering. And you mentioned in the book that he issues almost ad hominem attacks on the power of the states in his need to control this sort of Hobbesian impulse for chaos that could result. Could you make the argument, in looking at the ways things are happening in our country today, that we are seeing to some extent Madison’s fears, at least to some degree, realized in these constant battles between federal and state authority?
Michael Signer: Yeah. So the nexus imperii is an idea that I came upon while I was looking at some lectures that Witherspoon had delivered while Madison was at Princeton and it was this idea of a noble connection between the different components of a government. That’s what the word meant in Latin was a nexus that was kind of kingly so you really wanted to aspire. And the way that Witherspoon wrote about it was very…was fascinating to me. It was that you had different, separate, competitive entities that would be tied together in this nexus and the nexus made them all better because they were codependent on each other. They required each other. The metaphor in the book is the fibers of a rope being twined together. So it was the best way that I’ve come on in many years of studying this of understanding what the idea was underneath the different branches of government. It’s not just that they’re separate and equal or coequal but they are actually tied together. So they have many connections that are forced and required by the Constitution. The president has to advice and consent with the Senate on Supreme Court nominees for instance. That’s a nexus that they have. He has to get advice and consent. When you’re looking at conflict of laws between the legislature and the states, there’s a nexus. Where do our laws connect? Where do they conflict? And you’re looking for, where does the federal government connect with the states? The power between the… The president proposes the budget but it gets passed through Congress and then each House of Congress, obviously even looking at something like budget reconciliation. When you reconcile different bills, there’s a nexus between the House and the Senate. So they are forced to recognize that they’re dependent on each other and they’re dynamic with each other. They must…they are entwined. We have forgotten a lot of that today. That is the… If you think about the one thing we’re missing most in our politics, it’s not just compromise but it’s the underlying idea that leads to compromise which is you and I are together and we must, even if we don’t like each other, even if we’re different, we must work together, we’re required to work together. We have a nexus that makes us better than us being apart. I think it’s the same idea that supports debate…robust debate as a key facet of constitutionalism that you watch people, even if they disagree, debating something together and then arriving at a place that’s better because they agreed to those rules. Right now if you go to the floor of Congress or the Senate, nobody watches anybody debate so nobody debates ‘cause nobody’s there ‘cause they’re not interested in it. It’s the same thing with the president and the Congress barely even talking to each other, this disregard between the Supreme Court and the other branches. You need everybody to kind of be in the same boat and recognize that they have a nexus to each other. So I think it’s a magnificent idea that I just kind of stumbled on and really thought illuminated some deeper components of Madison’s constitutional philosophy and his political philosophy and what he was always willing to do. He never ever ever abandoned the prospect of debate and persuadability. He and his enemies could be at each other’s throats but they were still engaged in the same process willingly and understanding that they were…that they had a nexus to each other.
Jan Paynter: I think that may be why his relationship with Patrick Henry was so contentious because Henry had a very different perspective on that. Even when Madison won over Monroe in the election, he went out of…Madison went out of his way to maintain a friendship with him which again goes to your point. This is wonderful and we’re going to have to stop for now.
Michael Signer: Thank you for having me. Thank you for doing this show. I really appreciate it.
Jan Paynter: Thank you at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on many of the issues under discussion today there for you. You will also find there a complete archive of all prior Politics Matters programs which you may watch in their entirety anytime. We will be posting extended versions of interviews online on our site as well and will continue to add more content. As always, we’re very interested in hearing from you with ideas, questions and concerns for future programs. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are on PBS WVPT on the second and last Sunday of every month at 11:30 AM. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.