4. James Madison

Birthplace (July 20, 2008)

James Madison, father of the Constitution and our fourth president, was born in a drainage ditch on the the side of US-301.

Believe me, I was shocked too.

Happy Madison (12/29/08)

The older you get, life is less about figuring out who you want to be and more about finding the people who will tolerate the wackadoo you've become. I'm happy to report that at 32, there are at least three folks on the planet not obligated by DNA who were willing to take me to James Madison's house for my birthday. I'm a lucky guy!

Montpelier is in the REAL real O.C., Orange County, Virginia, and for the last few years it was a construction site. The house had ballooned to 55 rooms under the care of the duPonts, the great American family which understands that money is pointless unless you spend it, whether it's on shooting Olympic wrestlers, or in the case of Marion duPont Scott, owning a president's house and then raising champion racehorses there. There's a race track and everything!

(Fun note -- the Scott in Marion duPont Scott comes from Randolph Scott, who you probably haven't heard of if you're under the age of 50, unless you've seen "Blazing Saddles," in which case you may remember when Bart gets the townspeople to listen to his plan to build the fake Rock Ridge by saying, "You'd do it for Randolph Scott," and then a choir sings "RAN-DOLPH SCOTT," as all the people cover their hearts. He was a huge Western star, and he eventually divorced Marion, since for the most part he lived in Hollywood. I love history.)

After a few years of tearing down 33 of the rooms and restoring the interior to its early 19th-century glory, restorers wrapped up work this summer. The house isn't furnished or painted or papered yet, but good tour guides can make up for a multitude of empty rooms, and thanks to superguide Tom we got a pretty good idea of what Montpelier is all about:

Madison's grandpa bought the spread, which was your standard slave-operated tobacco plantation. James Madison was the oldest of about 53 children, and his dad shipped the tiny, sickly James off to the the healing waters of New Jersey (Princeton) for schooling, maybe for religious reasons (I wasn't listening that hard). He finished the 4-year program in two years, then became the "first graduate student" in the the history of Princeton by studying with John Witherspoon, the university president and star of the "Friday" movies. As a big nerd, he was perfectly suited to be a part of the Continental Congress, where he met sugardaddy Thomas Jefferson and started to think a lot about government. He did a veritable crapload of reading on philosophy and civics and that sort of thing, and so when it came time to write the Constitution, Madison was the point man. (You don't send a hick to do a nerd's job.) After that he served in the House that he helped invent, became Jefferson's Secretary of State and then fourth president of these United States. After presiding over the burning-down of the White House, he retired to Montpelier and died there in 1836, the last of the Founding Fathers to kick the bucket.

Sound boring? It is! Madison doesn't have the panache of the other early America bigwigs. He didn't fight in the Revolution, he wasn't too much of a personality, he didn't invent things or have syphilis. All his big accomplishments, aside from marrying a lady with a great rack, are on paper, and that's probably why they call him the forgotten Founding Father: because Americans hate nerds.

Which isn't to say that Montpelier isn't cool. There's the study where he formulated his plans for the Constitution, the room where he died, the dining room where he and Dolley entertained thousands of guests, the guest bedroom where Jefferson crashed when headed to or from Monticello. The house tells you something about family priorities -- it's a duplex, since Madison's mom had her own wing to live in after her husband's death. The estate doesn't really have the plantation feel any longer (all the slave quarters and outbuildings are long gone), but the grounds are pretty nice for strolling. The personality is going to change once they get the place decorated, but it's definitely worth a visit now.

Plus there's a graveyard! The Madison family cemetery is just a stone's throw away from the mansion, so you can enjoy the very plain obelisk sitting on top of James Madison, and the very small plain obelisk on top of Dolley. They're very simple, and very beaten down by time; Dolley's marker looks like it's been split in twain and then glued back together. More people need to insist on being buried in their yard. It would make for a far more interesting real estate market. But put Madison in the "surprisingly underwhelming" category of presidential graves.

As far as future study, James seems intriguing, but Dolley seems to be the cooler Madison. She was the White House hostess for 16 years (Jefferson, a widower, asked her to help out) and was apparently THE party monster of Washington society for something like 40 years. No one at Montpelier had anything awesome to say about Jimbo's personality, but Dolley was an "it girl" before anyone knew what the antecedent of "it" was.

Shall we get down to the business ... of FUN MADISON FACTS?!!!

  • At 5'4", Madison was our shortest president, and in 1810 he issued an executive order making dunking a basketball punishable by death.
  • Washington, Madison and Jefferson all married widows, probably because it was easy to figure out that the chick wearing black was single.
  • Before being known as Montpelier, the estate was known as Mount Pleasant, except by slaves, who knew it as Mount Regularly Whipped in Shackles. Madison found slavery to be intellectually indefensible but never freed his more than 100 slaves, because who wants to do all that paperwork?
  • In addition to being the first graduate student in the history of Princeton, Madison was the first recipient of a French certificate from the Orange County Learning Annex.
  • The Madisons would entertain as many as 100 guests at their backyard barbeques, and as many as 200 guests at their Live Action Role Playing theme weekends.
  • Jefferson, during his time in France, would regularly send books about government back to Madison, and in return Madison would send Jefferson cheesecake paintings of Dolley.
  • Madison's personal notes on the Constitutional Convention are one of the best resources on the proceedings. Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution." Hmm. Hrrrrrm ...
  • On rainy days, James and Dolley would exercise by racing eachother on the front porch, because real exercise wasn't invented until 1913.
  • Dolley Madison saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington during the 1814 burning of the White House, and also the Winter 1814 issue of "Colonial Jugs" for her husband.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White