“At five feet six an less than 140 pounds ‘little Jimmy Madison’ (above) had the frail and discernibly fragile appearance of a career librarian or schoolmaster, forever lingering on the edge of some fatal ailment , overmatched by the daily demands of ordinary life…. Not only did he look like the epitome of insignificance — diminutive, colorless, and sickly — he was also paralyzingly shy, the kind of guest at a party who instinctively searched out the corners of the room.”
– Joseph J. Ellis
James Madison, born on today’s date, March 16 in 1751, was a giant. No, he didn’t look like one; he was obviously a small-sized man, and painfully shy, by all accounts. But he had an intelligence so discerning, and a sense of reason so acute that he produced the framework for our national Constitution and our Bill of Rights, and guided both to passage. For all of his shyness, he landed one of the brightest ladies of his day for his wife – Dolley. And his spirit was active enough to serve two terms as Secretary of State, and two terms as President of the United States. No, this was no small man.
Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
James Madison had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and along with many he was seriously worried that the “Articles of Confederation” under which the country had first formed their government was too weak. So he and others such as Ben Franklin, James Monroe, and George Washington pressed for the convening of a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (May to September of 1787) to form a stronger national government to govern our new nation. But he and many of our founders were worried about
making a central government so strong as to overwhelm the powers of the states. Thus he arrived in the then Capitol city with a plan of checks and balances within a government divided into three branches: Executive (the President), Legislative (the Congress), and Judicial (the Court System) which became known as the “Virginia Plan” all ready to go. Writing to Washington on April 16,1787, he said that he had “formed in my mind some outlines of a new system, I take the liberty of submitting them without apology, to your eye.” This plan was eventually adopted as our system of government. Following this he was the primary author of the Bill of Rights (adopted, 1791), which enumerated our most basic rights, such as freedom of religion, of the press, to assemble, seek redress of grievances, and other freedoms which we enjoy to this day. It took a huge amount of debate, but Madison’s powers of persuasion were very keen. “His physical deficiencies meant”, said Joseph Ellis, “that the Madisonian argument lacked all the usual emotional affectations and struck with the force of pure, unencumbered thought. Or as one observer put it later, ‘Never have I seen so much mind in so little matter.’ His style was in effect, not to have one.”
Madison my have been painfully shy, but he when he saw an opportunity he went for it. In the 1790’s he saw a beautiful widow at Washington social functions named Dolley Payne Todd, who was said to have a “regal” bearing, but a charming personality. So in May of 1794, Madison asked Aaron Burr, a mutual friend to
arrange a meeting between the two. This was arranged and shy little James must have turned on the charm of his own, because by August, she had accepted his proposal of marriage. He was 43 and she was 26. By the time Thomas Jefferson was President, he was a widower, so Dolley wound up playing the role of hostess for many official functions during her husbands time as Secretary of State. She had a truly outgoing and warm personality which would serve her well when she became First Lady for her husband a few years later. The two of them had a close and loving marriage which lasted the rest of their lives together. By redecorating the White House, she made it into the social center of Washington and became the first “First Lady” according to many historians. She saved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from being burned in the 1814 British attack on the city… a singular act of courage on her part.
Secretary of State and President
James Madison followed up this already full and rich public career with two full terms in the office of Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, as well as two full terms as President of the United States. His terms in both offices were marked by frequent difficulties and armed conflict with he European powers of France and England. There was a world conflict going on between those two nations at that time, and the United States could not avoid getting caught up in it. During Jefferson’s term as President (1801 – 1809) France went over from the Revolutionary governments to the government of Emperor (Dictator) Napoleon. There was constant difficulties with U.S. Shipping being stopped by both powers, and with British impressment of American sailors into British service. Jefferson dealt with this by the Embargo Act which cut off trade between America and these two belligerent powers. This kept America out of war with these two powers, but
wound up costing American merchants so much that it also wound up costing Jefferson his popularity. But one big item on the plus side during Jefferson’s administration was that Madison was able to arrange the sale of the huge Louisiana Territory to the United States from France. During Madison’s administration (1809 – 1817), the Embargo Act, which had expired left trade with England and France open again. But this simply resulted in further acts of seizure of American sailors from British ships. This resulted in Madison delivering America’s first Declaration of War. But it was a huge mess with our Capitol city of Washington D.C. being sacked and burned to the ground by the Brits on August 24, 1814 (above). Eventually the Treaty of Ghent ended the conflict, but not before the Battle of New Orleans left the War of 1812 with a positive taste in every one’s memory. Madison was thus able to leave office with some degree of popularity. James Madison died at his home of Montpelier, Virginia on June 23, 1836, the last of the Founding Fathers of our country, and it would seem certainly the hardest working of the group.
“Founding Brothers” by Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books, New York, 2002.