Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father

Becoming Madison is an intellectual and psychological biography that takes a fresh look at the life of the United States’ fourth president, focusing on Madison before age 36, when he did his most enduring work—learning at the elbow of the great iconoclast and revolutionary cleric John Witherspoon, battling with Patrick Henry over religious freedom; introducing his framework for a robust and resilient central government; becoming the intellectual godfather of the Constitution’s brilliant checks and balances; and working to ratify the Constitution at Virginia’s convention in 1788.

Mike reintroduces readers to a brilliant, improbably charismatic, powerfully driven, and exquisitely sensitive young man, who was uncomfortable on the public stage but whose passionate concern to shape a great and enduring nation compelled him onto it.

Young Madison’s reluctant but firm decision to hurl himself into the ring, again and again, for the common good prove that leadership is possible in a democracy, and that ideas can make a difference. His story shows how much democracy depends on leaders like Madison.  The stunning story of his victories is simply incomprehensible without understanding the passion, charisma, energy, humor, and fierceness of Madison the actual man.


“Highly readable and often insightful...A perfect introduction to a deeply private and immensely important man." —Kirkus Reviews

“An important study of the intellectual and psychological development of a young Madison who believed that leaders should forsake self-interest in promoting the common good.” —Library Journal

"Sound and revealing." —The Wall Street Journal

"Intellectual history at its finest…an essential biography of an essential Founder.” —The Richmond Times-Dispatch

"In this engaging new study, Signer wrestles with the early life and career of James Madison and attempts to explain why Madison remains unheralded among the founding generation. ... According to Signer, however, Madison's humble status in American memory is not a function of his failures but rather a product of his successes...Highly recommended." —CHOICE

“[A]s lively as a thrilling mystery, as enlightening as a full college semester and as pleasing as a frosty bowl of Southern punch.” —Lincoln Journal-Star

"James Madison would be called a "flip-flopper" in today's political climate. Thank God he changed his mind and concluded that adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution was not just good politics but necessary policy. This is just one of the wonderful aspects of James Madison's life that Michael Signer captures so well in this important biography. Our nation owes huge debts to Madison, and today's civic leaders owe a huge debt to Signer for reminding us why."—US Senator Tim Kaine

"Becoming Madison is superb. As a native Virginian who grew up going to steeplechase races at Montpelier, the history is lively and engaging. But Michael Signer's greatest contribution is to turn a biography of Madison into a manual on leadership that is as relevant and valuable today as it was 200 years ago.” —Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America

"This engagingly written, carefully researched book is the fullest account we have of the development of Madison's thought and statesmanship through the promotion and drafting of the Constitution to the greatest triumph of his life, the ratification of the Virginia Convention of 1788. Signer shows how there, in face-to-face debate with Patrick Henry, Madison proved what John Marshall termed Madison's unmatched ability to convince could overcome Henry's supreme power to persuade. This capacity characterized Madison's style and career in a way that allowed him to become the master philosopher and practitioner of Lincoln's Union 'conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all ... are created equal.' Signer also shows brilliantly how Madison's studies at Princeton under John Witherspoon began an influential and revealing partnership in public spirited citizenship for good government. Altogether the book brings us closer to understanding how Madison became able to be, all things considered, the father of the Constitution." —Ralph Ketcham, Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, author of James Madison: A Biography

"For centuries James Madison has been overshadowed by the more striking and charismatic members of America's founding generation. And Madison's youth has been even less well known than his maturity. Michael Signer goes far toward filling this historical gap with an engaging, insightful account of how the unassuming young Madison became the hero of the Constitution." —H. W. Brands, University of Texas at Austin, author of Andrew Jackson, His Life and Times and The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace

Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies


Demagogue began as Mike's doctoral dissertation, which was about the historical tendency of pure democracies to self-destruct through demagogues. The ancient political theorists called this the “cycle of regimes,” and it fascinated the Founding Fathers—including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—who placed a concern with demagogues at the heart of America’s own Constitution.

Demagogue tells the story of the fight against demagogues in several arenas: in American history, in political theory, and in foreign policy and democracy promotion. Along the way, readers meet fascinating figures and remarkable stories, from the ancient Greek demagogue Cleon to the Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long to the Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin, to great thinkers including Plato, Thomas Jefferson, and Hannah Arendt. The end result is a vision of democracy that crucially depends on constitutionalism: an active, self-maintaining culture of civic values among citizens.

With constitutionalism, Mike argues citizens can take control of democracy for themselves, arresting the cycle of regimes  and protecting democracy through political culture, rather than just through checks and balances and institutions.


"The author constructs a muscular narrative... Makes a forceful case for civic engagement and eternal vigilance." —Kirkus Reviews

"[D]elivers hope, confidence and a vision for diplomacy." —Publisher's Weekly

"[This] intriguing book... echoes Tocqueville's contention that liberal mores and traditions within society are the bedrock of democracy."   —John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

"[D]emagogue is a thoughtful book, one that employs history,
political theory, and foreign policy analysis to impressive effect, and one that makes a powerful case for the importance of an engaged citizenry’s constitutional conscience in the fight against demagogic tyranny and excess." —D.J. Mulloy, Terrorism and Political Violence

Demagogue is a simply extraordinary book. A fascinating work of political theory, an eloquent response to the Bush administration's disastrous efforts at promoting democracy, a roadmap for progressives seeking to chart a new foreign policy direction and an intellectual lifeline for anyone who believes America should be on freedom's side, and knows, in their heart, that there must be a better way.” ―Peter Beinart

“The demagogue is the only enemy of democracy who pretends to be its friend. Michael Signer's erudite and eloquent defense of constitutional democracy against its demagogic counterfeit should be required reading for the citizens of established and emerging democracies alike.” ―Michael Lind

“Michael Signer has written a strikingly original book. Demagogue tells the story of democracy by analyzing its antithesis – the often frighteningly charismatic leader who draws his strength from his purported connection to the demos itself. Amid the myriad studies of democracy and waves of democratization, of rising incomes, civil society, institutions and elections, Signer brings the human element back into the equation. The demagogue, he argues, is an eternal element in democracy's rise and fall, one that we ignore today, from Venezuela to Russia, at our peril.” ―Anne-Marie Slaughter

“With American democracy facing so many challenges at home and abroad, Demagogue could not have come at a more important moment. Michael Signer has given us a deeply thoughtful book, shedding new light on one of the most important ideas in American foreign policy and drawing vivid portraits of some of history's most troubling and pivotal figures. Written with refreshing clarity and flair, this is a book to enjoy – and not soon forget.” ―Derek Chollet

© 2018 by Michael Signer.