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"Take Jemmy with You"

JMU/CSM Commencement Address - May 8, 2010
By Bill Ingham, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Bill Ingham.

Bill Ingham

Physics professor Bill Ingham delivered the 2010 commencement address to graduating students in the College of Science and Mathematics. Ingham regularly incorporates James Madison's relationship with science as part of teaching history of science courses.

"Congratulations, graduating students in the College of Science & Mathematics. Welcome parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends of graduates. And greetings to friends, staff, and fellow faculty of our College!

"Thank you, Dean Brakke, for the invitation to give this address. Graduates, I'm going to talk about someone whom you probably think you know: James Madison. You may wonder why you should learn anything more about Madison; he's so familiar. After all, our university bears his name and our campus boasts two statues of the man. But today I want to tell you a few things about Madison to convince you that even two centuries after his time, he makes a great role model. Now about those statues …

"At the main entrance to the ISAT Building there's a statue that I'm going to call The Mighty Jimbo. Now The Mighty Jimbo holds a quill pen and the US Constitution but he's just over 10 feet tall and built like an action hero or an NBA coach's, not a slender political theorist. Larger than life? You bet! Historians tell us that the real James Madison had a strong and earthy sense of humor. If he could come back to life and visit our campus, I wonder what he would make of The Mighty Jimbo.

"Over on the original campus, there's another statue that better depicts the height and facial features of the real James Madison, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall. The artist's model was a high-school wrestler, so I shall call that statue Jimmy the Grappler. But though the height and the face are pretty realistic, Jimmy the Grappler's build is still too powerful: the real Mr. Madison never weighed much over 100 pounds.

"I recognize the value of artistic license, and I mean no disrespect toward the statues by using these nicknames. And I mean no disrespect toward the real James Madison by using his nickname Jemmy. That's what both his mother Nelly and his beloved wife Dolley called him.

"Jemmy attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he studied Greek and Latin literature, moral philosophy, rhetoric, and logic, but also mathematics and science. One of his notebooks includes a sketch of the planetary system as known in 1770. Jemmy's diagram includes correctly labeled orbits of six planets then known orbiting the Sun, but his rendering of the Sun is a face --- complete with mouth, nose, eyes, and heavy eyebrows. Even as he studied, Jemmy's sense of humor was in play.

"In 1772, at the age of 21, Jemmy finished his formal studies and did what some of you may do after commencement he went back home to live with his parents. If this is your plan and it's making your parents a little nervous, just keep reminding them that Jemmy did the same thing, and he went on to be President of the United States!

"Today I want to mention three ideas that seem to have guided Madison to explain why you graduates should "take Jemmy with you when you go".

"The first idea is terribly familiar, but still a good place to start: be prepared. Madison was a voracious reader who learned from the reflections of others. In 1786, having plowed through book after book that Jefferson obligingly sent him from Europe, Jemmy prepared a commentary called "Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies." Then Jemmy used his prior experiences in the Virginia Assembly and the Continental Congress to make a detailed list of "Vices of the Political System of the United States." It was no accident that Madison played a pivotal role in hammering out our Constitution. Jemmy had done his homework. And I know how grateful you graduates must be for the all the opportunities that we faculty have given you to do your homework.

"The second idea is that collaboration is powerful. Jemmy used this, often behind the scenes, throughout his life. And Thomas Jefferson treasured Jemmy, who was his very best sounding board. There were no phone calls, no text messages, and no tweets, but the two of them exchanged more than a thousand letters during their 40-year friendship. And these messages were not limited to 140 characters! Today I'll cite a letter from 1786 that Jemmy sent to Jefferson in Paris. Jefferson was trying to counter claims by European naturalists that American animals were nothing but degenerated versions of Old-World fauna. The first part of the Jemmy's letter deals with political economy and the price of tobacco, but then Jemmy sends along hard biological data to bolster Jefferson's defense of New-World animals. He reports on the dissection of a weasel yes, you heard me right: James Madison, aged 35, personally did a complete "weasel autopsy". His letter includes a table of more than 30 measurements --- everything from the length of the tail to the width of the spleen. Jemmy's table compares the features of this Virginia weasel to published measurements on similar European critters. And in the same letter, Jemmy tells Jefferson that he has "a little itch to gain a smattering in Chymistry" and he asks Jefferson to send him books and two kits so that he can do some chemical experiments. Madison and Jefferson were great collaborators, and not just on political theory.

"We faculty members trust that you graduates have seen the power of collaboration in science and mathematics. If you have done undergraduate research, you have learned first-hand that "two heads or several are better than one." This idea will serve you well in graduate study, in the workplace, and in your community.

"The third guiding idea is to meet life's challenges and changes head-on. In the early evening of August 24, 1814, 63-year-old President James Madison, was forced to flee the Federal City on horseback as British troops advanced. Dolley had abandoned the Executive Mansion a few hours earlier, taking with her the silverware, Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, and a few other precious items. The President and First Lady were not reunited until the night of the 25th, when Jemmy arrived at Wiley's Tavern near Great Falls. In more than 200 years of our national history, that is by far the closest any sitting President has come to wartime capture by enemy forces. Understandably, the public's opinion of Madison (especially the opinion of city's residents) really suffered. (In today's language, we'd say that there was a big drop in Jemmy's poll numbers.) As Commander-in-Chief, Jemmy deserved much of the criticism that he got about the sacking of Washington, DC. This humiliating episode might have broken even a strong person's spirit, but it did not break Jemmy. By the time the war ended in 1815, Madison's public standing was rebounding, and by the end of his second term, he was downright popular. In the Spring of 1817, Jemmy and Dolley left Washington on a Potomac-River steamboat on the first leg of the trip home to Montpelier. One of the other passengers observed that Jemmy (now 66 years old) "was as playful as a child; talked and jested with everyone on board" and generally gave the impression "of a school Boy on a long vacation." Well, Jemmy's long vacation turned out to be 19 years of productive retirement that included hosting lots of family gatherings, studying agriculture both by reading and by experimentation, helping Jefferson start what is now the University of Virginia, and exchanging hundreds of letters with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic. Jemmy accomplished more in his long retirement than many people do in their working lives.

"This third guiding idea to embrace change is particularly appropriate for your commencement day. Over the past several years, with the help of the faculty and your fellow students, you have deepened your understanding of yourself and the world around you, and hopefully you have fed your curiosity to dig even deeper. Now it's time to move on and embrace change whether you are heading into the work force, on to graduate or professional studies, out for a year or two of volunteer work, or back home to await your nomination for the Presidency of the United States.

"Whether you are tall and big, or short and slender like little Jemmy, or anywhere in between, I wish you a life as long as Madison's, and as full of energy, curiosity, resilience, and concern for the general good.

"Take Jemmy with you when you go, but also please stay in touch. Come back often to this gorgeous Valley and this beautiful campus. We faculty members love to hear about the adventures of our former students. And both Jimmy the Grappler and The Mighty Jimbo stand ready 24-7 for your return visit!

"All the best, Class of 2010! Savor your special day!

"Thank you."