Today we are featuring our nation’s fourth president, James Madison. This post is part of our U.S. Presidents 101 series. If you’ve been following along with us, you’ll remember one of my goals this year is to learn all the U.S. Presidents in order and some fun facts about each one (and to teach it all to my kids). If you missed the post about our first president, George Washington, you can find it here. Our second president, John Adams, is here. Thomas Jefferson is here. Now, on to James Madison!
The facts: James Madison is best known as the Father of the Constitution. He served as our Commander in Chief from 1809-1817. Prior to that, he served as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. By the time he took over, the country was super divided about going to war with the British and France (both countries kept seizing America’s already small fleet of ships which Madison said went against international law–neither country cared what he thought though). Madison stayed out of it as long as he could but ultimately was the first president in U.S. history to ask Congress for a declaration of war. It became known as the War of 1812 (ironically, it lasted until 1815). It completely defined his presidency and was a major disaster for the U.S. Anyone who says America has never lost a war needs to do a little more research on the War of 1812. In fact, the British raided Washington, D.C. in August of 1814 and set fire to the White House. Consequently, James Madison became the first and only U.S. president to face enemy fire.
Both of his vice presidents died in office, which I’m sure didn’t help make his presidency go any smoother. On a brighter note, Francis Scott Key penned The Star Spangled Banner during Madison’s presidency, so at least he had that going for him then.
Political Party: Democratic-Republican (more on what that means, here)
Why he’s cool: Madison was Thomas Jefferson’s right-hand man for decades, but was the complete opposite of him in many ways. He stood almost a foot shorter than TJ, at 5’4″–our nation’s shortest president. His acquaintances say he had a great sense of humor, but was calm and even-keeled and also sharp as a tack. He was well known for always doing his homework and being well-prepared for any meeting he had.
His wife, Dolley (who was two and a half inches taller than her husband), set the standard for First Ladies of today. Apparently the Madison’s threw quite the dinner parties and charmed everyone by serving ice cream which was a new thing at the time (Dolley’s favorite flavor was oyster!).
Fun fact: When I lived in Virginia, I worked for the Congressman who held James Madison’s original seat in Congress. I always thought that was pretty cool. As far as personal connections go, this is it for me for awhile. So if you were getting sick of all my stories of visiting our Founding Fathers homes, don’t worry, it stops here! I never made it to James Madison’s home, Montpelier, but it’s on my bucket list. Apparently the grounds are gorgeous and the tour experience is super family friendly. There are a lot of activities for kids there with a lot of incredible exhibits, including Dolley’s engagement ring and an entire exhibit devoted to the pop culture Dolley created.
Sources: Lynn Cheney recently wrote a book on James Madison called James Madison: A Life Reconsidered that has rave reviews. See here for more information on it.
For Kids: If you have kids in middle school, there’s a series called The Unforgettable Americans that are great for this age. The one on James Madison is called The Great Little Madison. More info here. There’s a super cute picture book (appropriately titled A Picture Book of James and Dolley Madison) about the Madisons for younger kids. Don’t let Amazon’s low rating on this one fool you. I first found it on Good Reads and it has stellar reviews on there. Go here to find it.
Up next: James Monroe. James Madison is probably the last president for awhile that most Americans are more familiar with, though Monroe is still one of our Founding Fathers. In the next few weeks we will be officially venturing into our “19th century forgettables.” Stay tuned! 🙂
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.