The humor behind those sparkling eyes
In this episode, Jess and I go on a hunt for the often-mentioned but little-documented wicked sense of humor of James Madison, which is said to have made people roar with laughter.
Before we started recording, I showed these four portraits to Jess and asked her to come up with a few words to describe the subject.
She came up with words like “striking,” “sometimes kind,” “suspicious,” and “awoken by a ghost.”
Those terms track fairly well with how most outsiders viewed Madison. The writer Washington Irving described him as “but a withered little apple john” and one acquaintance said he was “the most unsociable creature in existence.”
It makes sense then than in 2017, historian and author Alexis Coe called James Madison “America’s least fun founding father.”
But maybe they didn’t know the real Madison…which was no easy feat. His friend writer Margaret Bayard Smith said he was “very droll” and made his company “laugh heartily,” but she admitted that this “entertaining, interesting and communicative” man, “had a single stranger or indifferent person been present; would have been mute, cold, and repulsive.”
So we went on a hunt for his well-hidden and weird sense of humor.
That hunt for his humor includes his abusive college poetry, his weird experimentation with animals and humans, and his special relationship with Thomas Jefferson.
One of the best collections of Madison’s humor is an article called “The Mischievous Mr. Madison” by Hilarie M. Hicks which explores some of his more subtle humor and 19th century dad jokes.
We come away with a better understanding of the personality of James Madison (and myself) and we agree that he is definitely not America’s least fun founding father.
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I loved this podcast. I knew it was going to be good when the link popped up in my email.
Madison is my 2nd favorite president, second to my #1…. JQA.
When researching James Madison for my novel, I wanted to know these jokes by Madison. It’s sad that Margaret Bayard Smith did not record them for us. His poems….wow, very interesting. I used one of them in the novel. Truly an eccentric little fellow.
I think Smith is correct in saying that Madison looked older than his 90+ year old mother. His life mask shows it. I also would love to know what Madison’s eyes looked like. I reconstructed his life mask shown in my link below. When making a life mask the eyes are closed leaving the eyes to be sculpted by the artist. Like paintings, artistic license comes in to play and we may not know if the eyes on the mask are correct….hopefully close. Madison’s face drooped on one side of his life mask possibly showing a stroke at some point in his life thus adding to his myriad of health problems.
Thank you again for the podcast….I can’t get enough of James and Dolley…..makes me wish for a time machine. Too bad Madison didn’t have a diary like JQA.
Life Mask reconstruction of James Madison… See the droop on one side of his face.
Thank you, Cheryl! And yes – it’s such a shame that the Virginian presidents didn’t keep detailed diaries or preserve their most personal correspondence. I love the digital reconstructions you’re doing, they’re a very cool way to bring these figures to life!