At first glance, James Madison (1751-1836) seemed unimpressive. A second look would probably produce the same result.
He was often plagued with health problems, including what were then called bilious fevers and a possible mild form of epilepsy. His frailty kept him from serving in the Continental Army, and years later as president he traded the sweltering summer heat of Washington for the healing airs of Montpellier, his family home in central Virginia. . Although he lived to be 85, considered old then and now, our Constitution’s principal framer himself suffered from a “bad constitution,” as his contemporaries would say.
His attitude also did not attract attention. He was often shy in large gatherings and was a poor speaker, hampered by a weak voice in an age that treasured oratory. Patrick Henry could bring roars of approval from a crowd, but Madison spoke so softly at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that delegates had to move their chairs closer together to hear him.
Even his size worked against him. Compared to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who were both well over 6 feet tall, Madison was about 5 feet 5 inches tall. He was America’s shortest president and his height made him the butt of jokes, earning him nicknames such as “Little Jemmy” and “His Little Majesty”. As one person observed, Madison was “no bigger than half a piece of soap.”
Yet today we know this timid, diminutive man by other, more dignified titles: the Father of the Constitution, the Father of the Bill of Rights, and the Sage of Montpellier.
Gifts to a nation
Although some confused Americans call Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, the name Father of the Constitution, it is of course Madison who wears this badge of honor.
And rightly so. It was Madison who had spent years before the Constitutional Convention reading history and political science. It was Madison who diligently took daily notes of the Convention meetings and then studied them carefully in the evenings. It was he who imagined a republican form of government with a system of checks and balances distributed among the branches of that government. And when the new Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, it was Madison who wrote 29 of the 85 articles in “The Federalist Papers” defending and promoting this document.
Madison was also the primary author of the Bill of Rights, those amendments to the Constitution listing natural freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion. These remain the core of the American experience and are the hallmark of American exceptionalism.
In Federalist No. 14, Madison writes of Americans and their leaders that “they have wrought a revolution which has no equal in the annals of human society.” The same could be said of the Madison Constitution.
For these gifts we should be grateful. Whether we realize it or not, our Constitution has shaped the lives of all of us. But Madison’s lessons for us don’t end there. If we examine other aspects of his life, we find guidance on how we ourselves might live more fully.
Freedom and Learning
“All that I have been in my life I owe in large part to this man,” Madison later wrote of Donald Robertson.
Robertson was the head teacher at Innes School, which Madison was sent to aged 11, about 70 miles from Montpellier. There, this graduate of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland educated the boy in mathematics, science, Latin, Greek and French. Later, Madison was educated at home by young Thomas Martin, a graduate of what is now Princeton University. Madison also attended this college, entering it as a sophomore due to her excellent preparation.
As a result of this education, Madison remained a lifelong reader and student. But he also became an advocate for more educational opportunity, writing in August 1822 to Kentucky Lieutenant Governor WT Barry: “What spectacle can be more edifying or more expedient than that of Liberty and Learning, each relying on the on each other for their mutual benefit. and the safest support? At the same time, he was working alongside Jefferson to establish the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and would continue his involvement as rector of the university after Jefferson’s death in 1826.
Madison’s recognition of the important connection between learning and freedom should inspire parents and teachers to make that same connection.
Choose your friends wisely
The 50-year friendship between Madison and Jefferson had a huge impact on the formation and future of America.
The deep bond between Madison and Jefferson is unlike that of two other presidents in our history. They were an odd couple physically—Jefferson was 6-foot-2—but that difference didn’t matter. Over half a century, these friends exchanged books and ideas, not all political in nature, and had fun chatting whenever they were together.
The camaraderie of these two founding fathers should remind our youth, and us for that matter, to choose our friends wisely and keep them close.
Strong Marriages Matter
When he lost the 1808 presidential race to Madison, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina noted that he had lost to both Mr. and Mrs. Madison, and might have had a better chance if he had faced Mr. Madison alone.
Madison was 43 when he met 26-year-old widow Dolley Payne. He was instantly smitten, but after a marriage proposal, Dolley took three months to say yes. For the next 42 years, until Madison’s death, they were the picture of a happy, compatible couple.
In many ways, they were proof that opposites attract. Dolley was outgoing, loved to entertain and throw large parties, and despite her previous Quakerism, enjoyed wearing jewelry, her signature turbans, and beautiful dresses, some of which she ordered from Europe. Madison was withdrawn, intimate only with those he knew well, and mostly dressed in black.
Each recognized the strengths these differences brought to their marriages and public lives. Pinckney was also not far from the truth in his devious compliment on the influence of Dolley, whose social ease and shrewdness set a tone of grace in the White House entertainment that lasted until our days.
As one would expect from such a modest personality, Madison rightly struck those around her as a gentleman who kept his ego in check. Despite being the main force behind the Constitution, for example, he once said, “You give me credit to which I have no right by calling me ‘the author of the United States Constitution.’ ‘ It was not, like the legendary Goddess of Wisdom, the offspring of a single brain. It should be seen as the work of many heads and many hands.
A final note
Like some of the other Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, Madison owned slaves, a practice we moderns rightly condemn.
Yet some people would use this evil, which shamed Madison himself, to erase all of his other accomplishments. In July, for example, the New York Post reported that the directors and staff of Madison’s Montpelier had excluded most of his contributions to our nation from its exhibits, focusing instead on the slavery of his time and the perceived racism of ours. Their tours of the house and grounds left many visitors confused or angered by their politically correct guides and the banishment of Madison himself from his own home.
After these protests, Montpelier announced that it would offer a month-long “Constitution Day” celebration centered on the September 17 anniversary of the adoption of this document.
It’s unclear if this celebration was already in the works, as claimed by a Montpellier representative, or if it was more of a reaction to public outcry. Be that as it may, what these iconoclasts forget by seeking to denigrate or even erase our past is that Madison does not only live in Montpellier, nor in the cities that bear her name, nor in the statues erected in her memory. . Its greatest memorial is found in the oldest written constitution in the world. If the culture cancellation movement ever destroys this sanctuary of our freedoms, then the republic it established will also disappear.
As Madison wrote near the end of her life: “The counsel closest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the declared enemy be considered a Pandora with her box open; and the disguised one, like the serpent crawling with its deadly wiles in paradise.
Preserve Madison’s greatest monument, the Constitution, and we preserve what Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence called our inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”