James Madison was notoriously private, and his legacy is usually defined by his fatherhood of the Constitution. As important as that is, I’m much more intrigued by the passions that breathe life into his stuffy portraits and his stern little action figure.
These are eight of the things that James “Little Jemmy” Madison loved.
James Madison had a special talent for binging on books and regurgitating his newfound knowledge in essays and debates. Before attending the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson sent him a “literary cargo” of 200 books from France. Madison tore through the relevant volumes, channeling what he learned in his plan for a new Constitution and the Federalist Papers essays he wrote to support it.
He stored this knowledge like he was America’s external hard drive. That ensured, as one contemporary stated, that he “always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate.”
Twelve years before he married Dolley, Madison’s heart belonged to young Kitty Floyd. He was a 31-year-old Congressman when he met her – the 15-year-old daughter of his boardinghouse’s owner. Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, they exchanged miniatures (not a euphemism), and were engaged to be married.
The union was strongly encouraged by Kitty’s parents and Thomas Jefferson, but it was not meant to be. “Miss Kitty” broke off the engagement in a letter Madison called “a profession of indifference” because her heart belonged to another – a 19-year-old medical student.
Madison was a ninja with a pen. Never craving the limelight, he preferred writing in the shadows – under the secrecy rule of the Constitutional Convention, under a shared pseudonym (The Federalist Papers), as a ghost writer (Washington’s Inaugural Address), anonymously (The Virginia Resolution), or in secret code. In many of his letters, especially to Jefferson, Madison used codes and ciphers to keep political and personal secrets from getting into the wrong hands.
The idea that Madison was Jefferson’s puppet does a great disservice to Madison’s strong influence over Jefferson. Madison excelled at reining in Jefferson’s lofty political ideals. He talked him down from his idea that the Constitution should expire every 19 years so each generation can create its own set of rules, and from his impulse for Virginia and Kentucky to secede from the Union during Adams’s administration.
In many ways, Madison was the jockey controlling the Jefferson horse and guiding them to political victory over the Federalists.
Ice cream was popularized in the White House during Madison’s presidency, and he had a two-story ice house built underneath the Temple at Montpelier so they could have ice cream all summer long. We don’t know his favorite flavor, but Dolley’s fave was reportedly oyster, made with oysters from the Potomac. Perhaps James preferred another popular ice cream flavor at the time – asparagus.
Before the internet, curious 18th century folks had to find their own answers – through science. To refute a theory that American mammals were smaller than Europe’s, Madison made thirty-three measurements of a female weasel (including its heart, spleen, and “distance between anus & vulva”) and sent them to Thomas Jefferson.
Madison tried to downplay his excitement in relaying his weasel taint data by saying:
For want of something better to fill the remainder of my paper I will now add the result of my examination two days ago of another of our minor quardrapeds. I mean, a Weasel. It was a female & came to my hands dead.
Sure it did, James. Sure it did.
First impressions mean a lot in politics, and James Madison came off like a grumpy sourpuss. Margaret Bayard Smith said of him, “This entertaining, interesting and communicative personage, had a single stranger or indifferent person been present, would have been mute, cold and repulsive.”
That’s where Dolley came in – she was the opposite of repulsive. Upon visiting the Madison White House, Washington Irving described Dolley as “a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word or everybody” but said “Poor Jemmy Madison” was “but a withered little apple-john.”
James was happy to let Dolley play the “lady presidentess” and sit at the head of the table as the convivial host, more than making up for his lack of social prowess. After her husband’s death, Dolley Madison continued to be a popular social force in Washington and Congress granted her an honorary seat on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Madison’s weird science may have extended to mischievous experimentation on humans. Biographer Richard Brookhiser wrote “One evening he proposed an experiment to see how many bottles of champagne it would take to induce hangovers the next day. (No result was recorded).” Who knows what happened to those party guests during this real episode of Drunk History, or what anatomic measurements Madison may have taken during the night?
Madison’s comedy was said to create “roars of laughter over his stories and his whimsical way of telling them” but little evidence exists of that. One reason may be that it was too raunchy to write down, with the exception of his weirdly violent abusive poetry in college.
What we know is that there was another side to Madison that only his friends saw. Unfortunately for us, only glimpses of it remain.
Update 11/24/2020: This champagne experiment was not actually proposed by Madison, but by another guest. We discuss this in our hunt for Madison’s sense of humor in our podcast episode: “Finding Madison’s Funny Bone.”
Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser, Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley by Ethel Stephens Arnett, PBS Food: Ice Cream: An American Favorite Since the Founding Fathers, James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Louis Ketcham, Founders Online