Have you ever wondered what goes into bringing our characters to life here in the Revolutionary City? Unlike the characters from our favorite television shows or movies, the interpreters here in Williamsburg are charged with the lofty task of taking living, breathing people of the past and presenting them not only in fun and engaging ways but also with the highest degree of truth and integrity possible (and often with little to no scripts!).
Portraying one of our Founding Fathers is no different. There is an immense amount of respect, responsibility, and reverence held for the people of the past we partner with to better tell their stories.
In the pantheon of our American Founders, James Madison has often received a quiet seat in the corner of our consciousness. In grade school, our history, mythos, and folklore centered heavily on the courage of our Washington, or the sophisticated charm of our Jefferson. Yet on the small side of 5 feet and a hundred pounds soaking wet, our bookish, shy and reserved Madison often comes up short in our memory (pun very much intended). In my mind, this is one of the great faux pas we could commit in the study of our history and truly is one of the greatest delights I find in study and playing of the “Great Little Madison” on a daily basis. In our Public Audience with a Founding Father and Meet a Nation Builder Programs I often have the great pleasure of being the first real introduction people have to the man who will eventually go on to be the father of the constitution. Unlike other founders, they don’t come with preconceived ideas as to who the man was. In this respect, my day job is to be the best cheerleader and “trailer” I can possibly be for the real show: Who Madison really was.
I think the greatest compliment we can receive as interpreters is when someone asks us what he or she can do to learn more. It shows we’ve done our job right in making history fun and accessible. Our goal across Colonial Williamsburg is to ultimately ignite the spark of passion for the subject matter, to leave people across age and party line with the strong desire to get to know history and themselves better. Because of this, I am always on the lookout for great new books I can recommend to our public to keep the conversation going. A new release I had the pleasure of stumbling across is Michael Signer’s Becoming Madison.
The quality I really love about this book is that Signer spends the great majority of his work visiting who Madison was as a young man. You won’t find the focus fixed on his time as president, the burning of the White House, the War of 1812, or even his famed love story with Dolley. Instead, in this book we meet a young Madison, conflicted over the future of his country and developing a method forged from cool reason and electric insight rather than passion. From beginning to end, the book grips you in its drama, intrigue, and accessibility and tells the tumultuous story of our political beginnings as a country in a way we as Americans sometimes overlook.
We often see Madison as the gray-haired sage with all the answers, but the wonderful thing about this book and meeting him on the streets of Williamsburg is that he enters the political arena of 1776 at just 25 years old—nerdy, bookish and with a whole future of uncertainty ahead of him including a million questions waiting to be solved. While pop culture focuses on shows like The Big Bang Theory, Sherlock, or Doctor Who, society’s eyes are finally turning to brainy heroes making Madison a perfect figure to revisit. Over the past few years alone we’ve had what Signer calls a “Madison Mania” with several new books coming out to try and reconsider the mysterious mind of our overlooked founder. For Signer, his journey into studying the man is driven by a strong desire to solve the obstacles of today with the wisdom of the past.
Much like the man he writes about, Signer is a bit of a Renaissance man; in the course of his life receiving renown as an author, advocate, political theorist, lawyer, husband, and a father of twins. I think what draws me so much to his work in this book is it is not inspired out of the love or study of history for the study alone, but rather to learn lessons from it to apply to the world around us. He takes the daring step to build a bridge between the events of our past and the present, something Madison was all in favor for!
Here are some accolades for his book!
“Becoming Madison is superb. 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, Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011 and President and CEO, New America Foundation
“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.”
“[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
Want to know more about Becoming Madison, Mr. Signer, Madison, and the work we do here for Colonial Williamsburg? This Friday at 5:15 p.m., come join Michael Signer, James Madison, and some of our scholars for a panel discussion on one of our most brilliant Founding Fathers, with a book signing to follow! I hope to see you there!
Guest Blogger: Bryan Austin
Bryan has had the pleasure of being with Colonial Williamsburg for three years and the privilege of portraying James Madison, the eventual fourth president of the United States, and the Father of the Constitution. Before coming to CW, he worked as a professional actor across the country—doing everything from Shakespeare, puppetry, trapeze—even directing! What drew him here most were the stories and the unique blend of performance and scholarship you’ll find nowhere else in the world.
Bryan lives in the historic area of CW with his fiancé, dog, and books—enjoying all the aspects of a Revolutionary City lifestyle with, thankfully, all the modern amenities. Like his 18th-century partner in crime Madison, Bryan enjoys walks in nature and tucking in to a good, long book.