It’s Groundhog Day, James Madison

Never give an animal to James Madison.

Groundhog Day was not yet a thing in eighteenth century America, but the furry rodent itself was a source of fascination to two early presidents.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson made a hobby of measuring American animals and comparing them to their European cousins. Once, to refute a theory that American mammals were smaller, Madison made thirty-three measurements of a female weasel – including its heart, spleen, and “distance between anus & vulva” – and sent them to Thomas Jefferson. (The measurements, not the parts.)

A month before his weasel work, Madison was fortunate enough to acquire a groundhog, which he referred to as a “monax.” (Moonack, monax, woodchuck, whistlepig – the groundhog goes by many names.)

“I have lately had an opportunity of examining a female one with some attention,” he wrote to Jefferson. (This was before he met Dolley.) He determined “its weight after it had lost a good deal of blood was 5½ lbs.” How it lost that blood, and how he acquired it, he doesn’t say. For the record, this means that James Madison weighed approximately 18 groundhogs.

Madison went on to detail more anatomical observations including its number of teats (8!) and the thickness of its fur. But what he was most curious about was whether the monax hibernated in the winter, like its European marmot counterparts. He thought taking its temperature might provide that information, but the injured animal was too far gone: “tho’ it remained alive several days in my hands, [it] was so crippled and apparently dying the whole time that its actual heat could not fairly be taken for the degree of its natural heat.”

Looking past the plight of this poor rodent that’s been dead for 230 years, I love how this weird little scientist moves into such admittedly clueless language, like the animal betrayed him by not being more forthcoming about its plans.

Still hellbent on knowing whether this American marmot hibernated, James hatched a plan. His proposed solution reminds me of the fact he was the only sitting president to ever ride with his troops into battle:

“I now propose to have if I can one of their habitations discovered during the Summer, and to open it during some cold day next winter. This will fix the matter.”

Reconnaissance. Patience. Then a surprise wintertime attack, just like his old buddy George Washington.

Sleep tight, groundhog. Spring might not be coming, but James Madison is.


For a deeper dive into the weirdness (and humor) of James Madison, take a listen to our podcast episode “Finding Madison’s Funny Bone.”

Source: Founders Online



  1. Leon Pollom
    February 2, 2018 / 3:25 pm

    Madison and Jefferson were following examples set by intellectual naturalists in Europe The American Revolution, which is still considered a civil war in England, was motivated primarily by Americans feeling disrespected. Naturalists in Europe wrote extensively how fauna in the New World was smaller and thus inferior. They blamed climate, water,air, etc. By extension, this applied to the people who lived here. Jefferson worked hard to disprove the theory. That’s why he sent Lewis and Clark out. He also made sure bones of mammoths found in Ohio tar pits made it to Paris and London.

    • Howard Dorre
      February 2, 2018 / 6:57 pm

      This might be tied with inventing the swivel chair as my favorite thing about Jefferson.

  2. JMR
    February 2, 2018 / 6:51 pm

    How much wood could a moonack chuck if a moonack could chuck wood just doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

    • Howard Dorre
      February 3, 2018 / 8:46 pm

      No it doesn't, though I wonder how a knackered moonack's knack for noon naps impacts his bushwhacks…

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