The Great Little Madison
Portraits of James and Dolley courtesy of White House Historical Association
John F. Kennedy described James Madison, our fourth president, as the least appreciated of our Founding Fathers.
As a historical interpreter at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, I see how true that is as I encounter visitors who regretfully know so little about the man whose contributions affect our lives every day.
I try to rectify this injustice every time I jump on my soapbox at Montpelier and help educate the general public about one of the United States' greatest men.
James Madison was immortalized in American history when, at the signing of the Constitution in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, he was named by the other 43 signatories of the document as "The Father of the Constitution." This is no small recognition considering the stature of the participants in that historic event, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, to name only a few. It is important to remember that this is not a label modern historians gave Madison in hindsight. He was named so by his peers, which makes it truly meaningful.
Especially in light of the accolades of his illustrious peers, Madison's overshadowing by Thomas Jefferson in popular accounts of history is a frustration to Madison scholars, if I can count myself among them. People are so steeped in Thomas Jefferson that many believe that Madison was Jefferson's student. Madison, a lifelong friend of Jefferson, was at least his equal in terms of the impact he has had on our form of government and the preservation and exercise of our freedoms.
Thomas Jefferson has been properly recognized for his inspiring Declaration of Independence, yet it was Madison who crafted the Constitution on which our form of government is actually based. This came at a pivotal time, 10 years after the American Revolution, when the Articles of Confederation were proving unworkable. Madison's shaping of the Constitution assuaged the former Colonies' fears of a too-strong federal government by creating a three-pronged executive, legislative and judicial system of checks and balances.
Part of the reason for Madison's lack of recognition is that he has not been promoted as vigorously as have our other Founding Fathers. Here at Montpelier, we got our start in 1983 when then-Madison estate-owner Marion duPont Scott donated the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Montpelier is a newcomer to the presidential homes that are open to the public, and students and tourists are now beginning to make their way to the property.
Thousands of Montpelier visitors are now learning about the great stature of this, well, tiny man. He was called "The Great Little Madison." I like to say that he had a 100-pound body and a 1,000-pound brain. Madison's political supporters said he was 5 feet 6 inches tall, while his detractors said he was 5 feet 2 inches. I split the difference and assume he was 5 feet 4 inches.
Montpelier faces out over the Blue Ridge Mountains. In what is known today as the mansion's clock room, James Madison wrote the U.S. Constitution and the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. Photo courtesy of thge National Trust for Historic Preservation.
James Madison was a reticent person and not a dynamic public speaker, judging by most historical accounts. He was unprepossessing, though not particularly shy or modest. His strength was content not delivery. Nevertheless, it was he who did the most talking at the Constitutional Convention as he debated, countered arguments against the document and promoted it toward adoption and ultimately tried to convince the 13 former Colonies that they, as members of a loose confederation, should become part of something to be called "The United States of America."
Of all the delegates to the convention, Madison had the most exemplary attendance record. He never missed a session and was the only delegate to take thorough notes of the proceedings. He did so in his own form of shorthand, transcribing them each night. From his verbatim notes, modern historians are able to reconstruct the proceedings.
Another major factor in the adoption of Madison's Constitution was The Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays written by Hamilton, Jay and Madison, which laid out the theory behind the Constitution. The papers were printed in the newspapers of the land. Madison wrote 25 of these, and his are considered the most focused and instructive. Today, in fact, when each new Congress is convened, the newly elected members attend Harvard's School of Government, where a significant portion of their studies are devoted to The Federalist Papers.
During the national state-by-state debates on the merits and applicability of the Constitution, some thought individual liberties were not well enough defined in the Constitution. To clarify these issues, James Madison, in 1791, wrote the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution.
Later, when George Washington took office as our first president, he relied heavily on James Madison for his advice and counsel on the interpretation and implementation of this new governing document. Madison even wrote Washington's inaugural address.
As historic as they were, the writing and ultimate adoption of the Constitution were just two of Madison's achievements. He participated in four sessions of the Virginia Assembly, and was elected to the first national Congress as a member of the House of Representatives from Orange, Va. He served three subsequent terms and left the Congress in 1797 to retire to Montpelier. Thomas Jefferson lured him out of retirement to become his secretary of state from 1801 to 1809. Madison then went on to become the fourth president of the United States, from 1809 to 1817.
All Americans are indebted to the wisdom, dedication and participation of this great statesman in the shaping of the United States. Our lives, every day, are influenced by James Madison - and, unfortunately, few are even aware of this indeed "forgotten president."
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