How to tell a James Madison from a James Monroe in the wild
The fourth and fifth presidents of the United States, James Madison and James Monroe, have so much in common it’s easy to get them confused. This handy field guide helps you tell them apart and shows you how to react should you encounter them in the wild.
Notes on the James Madison
Appearance: The shortest of the Jameses – and of all the presidents – the Madison is easily distinguished by his size. Measuring about five foot four inches and weighing approximately 100 pounds, he is said to resemble a “withered apple.” His wrinkled face has the beaten look of a wartime president whose poor choices led to the burning of the White House.
Temperament: The James Madison can be friendly—even funny—once he warms up to you. Until then he may appear as a cranky old man who tells White House party guests he would rather be in bed.
Geographic Range: The fragile nature of the James Madison prevents him from surviving outside the eastern United States. In his own words, “crossing the sea would be unfriendly to a singular disease of my constitution.”
Offspring: Madison has no biological children, but (like George Washington) he does have one disappointing stepson, John Payne Todd. Never fully weaned off his mother’s financial teat, the professional ne’er-do-well “Payne” can be found in various bars gambling away his parents’ money and in debtor’s prison.
Mate: The female of the Madison species, the Dolley, is larger and more animated than the male. In sharp contrast to her mate, she is described by writer Washington Irving as “a fine, portly buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody.” She is renowned for saving dinner parties from boredom and saving a famous portrait of the George Washington from going up in flames in the White House.
Survival Tips: This is very important: do not engage in a battle of wits with the James Madison. His frail body is but a shell for a mighty mind. In matters of global relations and economics he may sit well below the Alexander Hamilton on the food chain, but in the kingdom of governmental theory he has no natural predators.
Notes on the James Monroe
Appearance: Measuring a statuesque six feet tall, the James Monroe towers over his diminutive predecessor. In appearance he is described as being dignified yet approachable.
Temperament: The James Monroe has the calm but confident look of a president who ushered in the Era of Good Feelings and has his very own Doctrine telling Europe to keep off the western hemisphere. He does not like to brag, but he dwarves his peers with the length of his impressive resume.
Geographic Range: Unlike the stay-put Madison, the Monroe has been sighted as far west as Kentucky and as far east as England, France, and Spain where he helped negotiate peace and double the size of the United States.
Mate: The female Monroe, the Elizabeth, is described as petite and beautiful. Her time in Europe hobnobbing with aristocrats helped her gain a reputation for being aloof, mostly in comparison to the party monster Dolley. Though she did not save any famous paintings of the Washington, she is credited with saving the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife from being guillotined in France.
Offspring: The Monroes and their two daughters, Eliza and Maria, travel as a pack whenever possible. The dutiful Maria and her husband (who is also her first cousin) will take in the aging James Monroe in his later years.
Safety Tips: Whatever you do, do not get between the James Monroe and the expansion of the United States. When his manifest destiny is threatened, you cannot be sure whether he will respond with negotiation and money or by unleashing the bloodthirsty Andrew Jackson. It’s just not worth the risk.
If cornered, you may try to distract the James Monroe with one of his greatest weaknesses—expensive French furniture. He cannot resist it.
Should you encounter either James:
Do not bring up George Washington. Both Jameses have an “it’s complicated” relationship status with the Father of His Country.
The James Madison was once Washington’s most trusted advisor, but their friendship blew up over a bitter disagreement about the role of the federal government and its ties to Britain and France that kicked off America’s venomous two-party system.
The James Monroe once served bravely under the Washington in the Revolutionary War, but that bond broke when Washington recalled him from France for openly opposing the Jay Treaty. The enraged Monroe wrote a book defending himself, to which the Washington added his own scathing, sarcastic responses to Monroe in the margins of his copy.
The Jameses were both too pro-France for George Washington, who started his military career “accidentally” assassinating a French diplomat. Speaking of France…
Ask about France. The James Madison could tell you many great things about the country he read in books, and the James Monroe could give you actual firsthand accounts of the Reign of Terror and what it was like making awkward small talk with le Napoleon.
Do not make loud, sudden noises. It might remind the James Monroe of the time he was wounded in the Battle of Trenton. It is also best to avoid loud, sudden noises as they would just scare the self-described “extremely feeble” Madison.
Mention Thomas Jefferson. Both Jameses were beloved protégés of the Thomas Jefferson. The Madison helped the Jefferson form the Democratic-Republican party, and the Monroe helped him snag the Louisiana Purchase. The three of them presided over the United States for 24 straight years known as the Virginia Dynasty. Just the mere mention of the Jefferson’s name should lull the Jameses into a docile state.
Should you encounter both Jameses at once:
Do not become alarmed. You are in little physical danger if you come between the Madison and the Monroe, as they have much in common. They share a homeland (Virginia), a political party (Democratic-Republican), and a hypocritical view on slavery (professing to deplore it but doing little to end it while owning slaves themselves.)
The Jameses are quite friendly except when competing for limited resources, e.g. a seat in the House, the Presidency, Thomas Jefferson’s love. They occasionally butt heads on fundamental things, like the Constitution, which Monroe opposed for giving the federal government too much power.
Their rivalry left the Madison with a permanent scar on his nose—not from violence, but from frostbite suffered during a wintertime debate while campaigning for the House of Representatives. (The Madison won by a nose.)
Despite these differences, friendship always prevails. When the James Monroe reaches the end of his 73-year life span, his last words will be about the James Madison: “I regret that I should leave this world without again beholding him.”
If all else fails:
Offer them ice cream. Everybody loves ice cream.
You should be better-equipped to deal with a Madison or a Monroe now, but be warned – there are four more presidential Jameses to go. As I plod further, I’ll be sure to share any tips for dealing with a wild Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, or Carter.
Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow James Unger