It’s not Presidents’ Day or the 4th of July, but I’m still writing about James Madison. Not because he was a Founding Father or our 4th President, but because he wrote the Constitution. If you follow politics like I do, you know that people are arguing over what it says, what it means, again. I hope that if you know a little more about James, you’ll have a little more faith in our Constitution and the way it works.
I met James at Montpelier on Presidents’ Day, 2020. I wasn’t expecting to spend the day tromping around his house and yard, but I was fascinated with some of the things I learned. I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn them into a blog ever since.
I was almost there last night, but the why answer was missing – why you’d want to read about the Madisons now, in May 2021. Here are the tidbits, the fun facts I remember – 2 years later! Plus a little research to fill in the gaps.
Part 1 – Meet Little Jimmy – That’s the first thing I learned from our tour guide, his nickname, the name his friends and his wife used – Little Jimmy. This is Jimmy in college. I googled his height – 5’4”. That makes him our shortest president. No one has slipped under his height – Yet!
The second thing that got my attention was how bright Little Jimmy was. He was a curious boy who loved to study. His favorite subjects were math, geography, philosophy, and languages, especially Latin.
Jimmy’s mom was probably his 1st teacher. He started school at age 11 and finished after 5 years. Then he studied with a minister for 2 years to get ready for college. Most Virginians went to William and Mary. Not Jimmy. He went to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) because his family thought it’d be healthier for him. His parents had already lost 5 of their 12 children.
Jimmy graduated at age 20 with top marks in classical languages, math, geography, philosophy, and rhetoric (persuasive speech and writing). That wasn’t enough for Jimmy. He took another year to study Hebrew and political philosophy with John Witherspoon. That made him Princeton’s 1st graduate student. Clearly Jimmy loved to learn, but he came home without a clue about what he wanted to do with his life.
PS – John Witherspoon later signed the Declaration of Independence. Jimmy did not. He was only 25 when it was ratified in 1776.
Part 2 – Little Jimmy and the Constitution – I didn’t know Jimmy was the father of the Constitution. How did he do it? You don’t go from being clueless about your future – to writing the Constitution. Jimmy had work to do.
He started with local politics, then moved onto the state level. That led him to the Continental Congress. Can you imagine – talking politics with Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, or John Adams?
The Constitutional Convention was scheduled for 1787. Jimmy was tapped to draft the Virginia Plan. He didn’t write down his own ideas. He started digging for books about government through the centuries. Some books came from the 13 colonies. Others from France and England.
Jimmy looked at governments across time and from around the world. He gathered information and put a draft together. The Virginia Plan proposed 3 branches of government, and our system of checks and balances.
But not everyone agreed. Some worried they might lose freedoms. They wanted a Bill of Rights. They’d agree to the Constitution – but only if they got their bill.
Jimmy was afraid if a right wasn’t listed, it’d be lost. He came around after he looked at hundreds of ideas and whittled them down to 19. Then a committee boiled them down to 12.
- Jimmy’s ideas were the first ten Amendments to the Bill of Rights.
- Two more were added in the next 14 years.
- The next amendment – not until 1865. It abolished slavery.
- Would you believe the 27th amendment was from Jimmy’s original dozen? It took almost 203 years to ratify. Figures! It says Congress can vote themselves a raise, but they don’t get the money until . . . after the next election.
- Before writing this, I had no idea how brilliant Jimmy was. Imagine – being part of a written document that is used and respected 200 years later. I am SO impressed with Little Jimmy and the Constitution!
Part 3 – Hello, Dolley – Little Jimmy said hello when he was 43. He was charmed by Dolley. She was a wealthy widow with a little boy. He asked Aaron Burr to help them meet. They did, in May of 1794.
Jimmy and Dolley married in September. Dolley was 26,. Her son was 2. Presto! Jimmy became a husband and a father, four months after meeting Dolley.
(Note – Aaron Burr, the one from the duel with Alexander Hamilton, was guardian to Dolley’s son, Payne.)
Dolley was known as a Washington hostess long before Jimmy became president. She brought people together from both political parties. She made them feel welcome. She set styles in her day, and in the future too.
She also knew the power of image and how to use it. I grew up believing she carried George Washington’s portrait out of the White House before the British burned it down during the War of 1812. She didn’t!
That story came from a letter Dolley wrote before racing away from the White House. She edited it in 1836 and gave it to her friend and society writer, Margaret Bayard Smith. She published it. Other stories came out, but it was Dolley’s that I learned as a kid in the 1960’s. It was a good story!
The Madison family finances went downhill after they left the White House. Bad crops. Bailing Dolley’s son out of his alcohol and gambling problems. Then Jimmy died in 1836.
Dolley didn’t sell Montpelier and its slaves until 1844. Jimmy didn’t set them free, but he asked Dolley not to sell them without asking them first. I wonder why she didn’t. Maybe it had to do with money troubles.
It also surprised me that Paul Jennings, a freed slave, passed Dolley small sums of money. I heard this story when I was at Montpelier, and I thought it said something wonderful about both of them. The truth is it says more about Paul. Dolley sold him in 1844, and Paul worked to buy his freedom. That he would do something to help Dolley, makes him impressive.
Dolley may have been poor during her final years in Washington, but she was still well loved. Her New Year’s open house had as many guests as the White House’s. Dolley died in 1849, but she was buried in Washington. Nine years later her body was moved to Montpelier so she could be buried beside Jimmy. I’m glad they’re together again.
This is the final resting place for Jimmy and Dolley, just like it was in 1858. In 1901 the Du Ponts bought it (They own that chemical company.). In 1984 the family gave it to the National Trust.
My last favorite fact - the Madisons had 22 rooms at Montpelier. The Du Ponts made a few renovations – they added 33 rooms. The National Trust has spent the last 40 years redoing the house. How? They demolished 33 rooms! They also painted and furnished it to make it look like Jimmy and Dolley are still living there.
The Trust left the Du Pont race track in place, and they still run the annual horse races. If you go to the visitor center, you can see a wing that’s dedicated to the Du Ponts. It’s lovely to remember both families!
My final comment – I wasn’t keen to visit Montpelier, but now I want to go back. All this research makes me want to visit the rooms Jimmy and Dolley lived in. PLUS I can learn more about them and the community they built! Now, to find a reason to visit Virginia!
- The Life of James Madison | Montpelier
- James Madison - Wikipedia
- List of amendments to the United States Constitution - Wikipedia
- Becoming America's First Lady | Montpelier
- The Life of Paul Jennings | Montpelier
- Montpelier (Orange, Virginia) - Wikipedia
1. Montpelier – Source By Aigrette - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12559450
2. Madison’s Grave – By Billy Hathorn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16048056
When I write, I can only have one voice in my head, mine. A little noise is fine. But too much, or worse yet, WORDS, and I must change rooms or pull out headphones. Then I can write on!