George Washington's Attack on Christmas Pies


Losing a battle never tasted so good.  
Most people know the story of George Washington crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas night to launch a surprise attack at the Battle of Trenton. It was the first and best American Christmas story (until Die Hard) and an instant legend, changing the narrative of the war.

What most people don’t know is that ten years later, George Washington led another, less successful, Christmas attack.

John Quincy Adams and Jack the Ripper


Unraveling A Giant Mystery  
Long before I embarked on this presidential biography project, I was a big fan of horror. Just how big a fan became evident my first week of college.

10 Things James Monroe Loved


Don't underestimate "The Last of the Cocked Hats."
James Monroe might be the most experienced and least appreciated president ever. I'll do my best to honor the overlooked memory of the fifth president with this list of ten things he loved.

How to Teach Your Baby About Slavery


One picture book gets it so wrong – 
and one gets it righter than it should.
One of my earliest memories is of me throwing a massive tantrum in front of the television. My parents were watching the local news, and they refused to believe me when I insisted it was a re-run.

Died on the Fourth of July... Almost


Three presidents died on the 4th of July.
One broke the curse.
It's well known that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously died on the same day July 4th, 1826. Their simultaneous passing on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is viewed as a wonderfully patriotic cosmic coincidence, or at least a victory of the human will to hang on. (Or possibly some good old-fashioned euthanasia.)

Ranking the Founding Fathers as Fathers

How 8 Revolutionary Heroes Stack Up as Dads


A year ago I wrote about how reading about the presidents helped me raise a newborn. Now, that newborn girl is a walking, talking toddler bursting with personality and I’m about to celebrate my second Father’s Day as a dad.

Father's Day – and even the words father and dad – used to feel empty for me after I lost my dad when I was young. Now, thanks to my daughter, the word “dad” fills me with unbelievable joy and pride.

Can You Spot James Monroe in These 3 Famous Paintings?


James Monroe is the Waldo of historic masterpieces.
James Monroe played a role in several major world events before becoming America's fifth president, but he doesn’t get the same love his fellow founders do. History, and art, tend to put him in the background.

I want to take him out of the background of three famous historical paintings by sharing some background on how he got there.

1. Washington Crossing the Delaware
by Emanuel Gottlieb-Leutze, 1851
The most famous artwork of American history ever created depicts Patriot troops crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, to launch a surprise attack on the enemy camp in Trenton, New Jersey.

Can you spot James Monroe among the Revolutionaries below?

18-year old Colonel James Monroe is depicted behind Washington, holding the American flag.

In reality, the flag shown here didn’t exist yet, and James Monroe wasn’t on the same boat as George Washington – Monroe was part of an advance force that crossed hours earlier.

Also, the boats in the painting are too small, the ice is too chunky, and the river is too narrow. Not to mention Washington's crossing didn't take place on a clear, glorious morning – it happened in the dead of night in a snowstorm.

There is also contention about whether they could have realistically stood in the boat without falling overboard. Historian David Hackett Fischer says the actual boats had taller sides and they would have stood to avoid the icy water at the bottom of the boat.

Whatever the case, George Washington probably wasn't standing in that iconic pose, a stance one New York Times critic said gave him "the head and air of a dancing master...ready to teeter ashore and dance a pirouet on the snow." Washington was known to be a good dancer, but not Nutcracker good.
Artist Worthington Whittredge (left, in a portrait by William Merrit Chase) posed as George Washington for Leutze's painting. He wore a replica of the General’s uniform borrowed from the US Patent Office and said of his time modeling, “I was nearly dead when the operation was over. They poured champagne down my throat and I lived through it.”
I would cut the artist some slack for the inaccuracies – Emanuel Gottlieb-Leutze painted this piece of Americana in Dusseldorf, Germany 75 years after the event it captures. To put that in perspective, that would be like a painting of Pearl Harbor done today, by someone with no access to photographs or recordings.

Leutze strived for authenticity, but it was secondary to his main goal. First and foremost he wanted his depiction of the American Revolution to inspire Germans to come together after the Revolution of 1848. In their goals to inspire, Leutze and Washington were in a similar boat, as the Battle of Trenton itself was brilliantly engineered as an inspiring piece of propaganda.

In December 1776 the Patriots were sorely losing their war for independence and troop numbers and morale were dwindling. Washington needed to change the narrative, and he set his sights on the Hessian camp in Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were highly-trained German mercenaries working for the British – basically the 18th century equivalent of Terminators. If the scrappy Americans could launch a successful surprise attack on those time-traveling cyborgs, it would show the world they had a fighting chance.

Washington's plan worked. News of their victory spread across the United States, raising troop morale and boosting recruitment. It also spread across the Atlantic, convincing France to throw in her game-changing support. 
Metropolitan Museum of Art visitors viewing Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1907
Recently film director Zack Snyder said he thought about making a movie about George Washington in the style of his film 300. He said the first thing he thought about was "how are we going to make it look?" He pointed to Leutze's painting and said, "It looks like 300. It’s not that hard.”

Surprisingly, I don't have a problem with Snyder making an over-the-top action movie based on an inaccurate painting depicting a battle fought primarily for its propaganda value. It sounds like exactly what popcorn was made for. If it does happen, I look forward to teenage James Monroe being played by a young up-and-coming (almost certainly Australian) actor ready to make his mark on the world,  just like the real James Monroe in 1776.

The part of George Washington could be played by my G.I. Joe.


2. Capture of the Hessians at Trenton
by John Trumbull, 1787-1828
Set just hours after Washington Crossing the Delaware, this piece shows what happened following the Continental Army's sneak attack on the Hessian forces.

James Monroe appears in the painting, bleeding to death on the ground. Can you spot him among these wounded men?
If you guessed this gentleman...
Nope. Not this guy.







...you're wrong. You might think that's him because of the flag, but Monroe was not actually a flagboy. (As far as I can tell, this fallen soldier's identity is unknown.)

THIS is James Monroe, being cradled by a doctor: 
Monroe owed his life to that doctor's dogs.
While sneaking through the snowy countryside earlier that morning, Monroe’s regiment was spotted by a few dogs. Their howling woke their master, John Riker, who came outside screaming profanities at the armed men he mistook for British soldiers. When he realized they were the American army, he volunteered to join them on them spot, saying, “I am a doctor and I may be of help to some poor fellow.”

Early in the battle, Monroe was shot down while charging Hessian cannons. A musket ball pierced his chest, lodged in his shoulder, and severed an artery. Dr. John Riker expertly clamped Monroe’s artery and stopped the bleeding, saving the poor fellow's life.

The artist John Trumbull said he composed the picture “for the express purpose of giving a lesson to all living and future soldiers in the service of [their] country, to show mercy and kindness to a fallen enemy – their enemy no longer when wounded and in their power.”

Unlike Emanuel Leutze, Trumbull didn’t have to settle on a drunk stand-in for George Washington; he got the real Washington to exercise on horseback for him so he could get the likeness just right. I don't think he asked Monroe to lie down and bleed for him.
Of Monroe’s role in the battle, Trumbull said he “was dangerously wounded by a ball which passed through his lungs” and that “fortunate ball…made him president of the United States.”
Trumbull subscribes to what I call the Forrest Gump theory of James Monroe, which sees him as an ordinary man whose greatest talent was being in the right place at the right time. That’s opposed to the Harlowe Giles Unger theory, who in his biography “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness” makes the case that Monroe did more for America than any previous president (Washington included) by transforming the nation into “a glorious empire.”

The truth of Monroe’s greatness is probably somewhere in the middle, but getting wounded while executing a strategic attack in a famous battle was definitely a huge bullet point on his pre-presidential resume. Another big one took place 27 years later and 4000 miles away from the Battle of Trenton, and it focused on a very different glorious empire.

#3 The Coronation of Napoleon
by David, 1807
David's Coronation is a massive 33 feet wide and 20 feet tall, the size of 2.5 Washington Crossing the Delawares.

I saw this behemoth of a painting at the Louvre on my honeymoon, and I was instantly captivated. It was like a life-size window back in time to a world controlled by Napoleon.

David's painting is so famous that there is another famous painting just of people looking at it.
Boilly’s painting, The Public Viewing David's "Coronation" at the Louvre is just a few rooms away from Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1804, Napoleon decided he wanted to be emperor so he threw the most decadent coronation ever in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Everyone who was anyone was there, including James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth. Monroe might be a little harder to spot in this painting, though.

He should be in this group of diplomats...
...but he's not. In fact, he's probably not in the painting at all.

Everything about Napoleon's coronation was filled with drama, including the Monroes' presence. Despite getting along fine with Napoleon a year earlier when negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, James and Elizabeth Monroe were informed they were uninvited. Apparently Napoleon's hot-cold relationship with the United States had cooled over disagreements about the ownership of the Spanish Floridas.

When Monroe appealed to a friendly French senator and got reinvited, he and Elizabeth received invitations relegating them to nosebleed seats “in the gallery, a great measure out of sight, and not with those in our grade, the Foreign Ministers.”

I thought the wedding invitation list drama between my wife and her mother was tense, but Napoleon's was somehow worse. He refused to invite his brother Joseph, which upset his mother so much that she refused to come herself. Neither of them attended the coronation, but that didn't stop Napoleon from bending reality to his will. Exerting total control over David's work, Napoleon had him add both his mother and brother into the painting as if they were one big happy family.
Napoleon's mother (upper left) looks happy to be there.

If there was room in the picture for people who weren't even there, I felt sure James Monroe had to be there somewhere.

I couldn't find any evidence that Monroe was included in the painting, so I reached out to an expert: professor and author Philippe Bordes, who literally wrote the book on the artist David and Napoleon. Bordes kindly shared that he’d “never come across mention of the possible presence of Monroe in the picture” and conceded that “there may have been some politics involved.” Politics indeed.

Bordes pointed out an American who did make the cut: John Armstrong. As an Ambassador to France, Armstrong outranked Monroe and got a better seat at the party and his image memorialized by David. Had Napoleon known the fates of the two men, I think he would have swapped out Armstrong for Monroe.

In the War of 1812, Armstrong was the Secretary of War, and he was so convinced the British wouldn’t attack Washington, D.C. that he left the city defenseless to the British forces that burned down the White House. President Madison fired him and replaced him with none other than James Monroe, making Monroe both Secretary of State AND Secretary of War at the same time. Armstrong's incompetence ended up further padding Monroe's resume and all but ensuring he would be the next president.
John Armstrong failed at keeping the White House not on fire, but he succeeded in outliving
Monroe by twelve years, which was long enough to pose for this sweet picture with his dog.
Even though no record exists to suggest Monroe is pictured in Coronation, I still can't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, David snuck a portrait of him somewhere in the background of his masterpiece.

Could James Monroe be here somewhere?

Or here in the crowd?

Maybe he's hiding back here.

The often overlooked James Monroe was a soldier, diplomat, governor, and double-Secretary before becoming an extremely popular president. Known as "The Last of the Cocked Hats," he was a relic of the Revolutionary generation. Because he stands in the shadow of giants who came before him, James Monroe is destined to fade into the background. 

Like this creeper:

Mary Lincoln's Flannel Pajamas: Book Review


A peek under the First Ladies' veils
I never gave much thought to how society judges women by their clothes.

And by society, I mean me.

During a recent presidential debate, I didn’t think twice about tweeting that Hillary Clinton’s suit resembled the outfit from Kill Bill. Then I saw this tweet:
Ana Marie Cox is right. Men (all former presidents included) just aren’t judged by their clothing like women are. The same can’t be said for their wives.

Fashion has always been deeply woven into the first ladyship, as I learned from historian and author Feather Schwartz Foster's new book exploring the rich history of First Ladies through their closets. It's called Mary Lincoln's Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from The First Ladies' Closet (more on that title later), and she was kind enough to send me a copy to review.

I agreed to review it because I’ve always enjoyed the stories Foster shares on her presidential history blog, but I was a little nervous because fashion is not my strong suit. (In fact, I only have one strong suit and I save it for when my friends or I get married.) I was glad to find that no prior knowledge or passion for fashion is required to appreciate Foster’s stories.

The "closet" items – inaugural dresses, hats, a Red Cross uniform, etc. – are really just a gateway into fascinating mini-biographies of each of the First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower. Foster brings these very different women to life with intimate glimpses of who they were under their real and metaphorical veils.


Howard Chandler Christy's official White House portrait of Grace Coolidge with her dog Rob Roy.
 
Foster recounts in her book how the controlling President Coolidge wanted her to wear a white dress for her portrait. When the artist said white wouldn't contrast enough with the dog, Coolidge quipped, "Dye the dog."
 
The artist won out in the end.


What I dig about this book is that it's not a collection of trivia – it’s stories about real people who faced unique challenges. I loved learning that while crossing Europe, Louisa Adams saved her carriage from imperial soldiers by putting on her son’s little soldier hat, holding up his toy sword, and yelling “Vive Napoleon, vive le France!” She even wrote a play about her journey called “Adventures of a Nobody” that stayed in a drawer for 75 years. Full disclosure: I might have teared up a little during a passage about Julia Grant seeking treatment for her lazy eye. Feather Foster will give you the feels.

If the title Mary Lincoln's Flannel Pajamas doesn’t entice you, here are some alternate titles I came up with that might be a little more my style:  
  • Julia Grant’s Got Her (Lazy) Eye on You  
  • Jane Pierce’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Life  
  • Give Mary Todd Lincoln Your Hat and Nobody Gets Hurt  
  • Abigail Adams Doesn’t Give a Sheet  
  • Grover Cleveland’s Guide to Marrying Your God-Daughter

I finished Foster's book on the way to Washington, D.C, which was perfect timing. It was my first time in the capital city and she convinced me to check out the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Knowing their stories gave deeper meaning to the impressive display of inaugural gowns and personal items.

Dolley Madison's shoe and fan at The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
These ladies had to strike a delicate balance between being dignified and fashion-forward without appearing frivolously extravagant. They had to dress appropriately for their status, their age, the season, the occasion, and the times. Reading about the history of how they've been portrayed gave me a greater sense of the demanding role fashion plays in womens’ lives. So far that delicate balance has been the burden of the First Lady, but one day soon it may be the burden of the President herself.

I wonder where the Smithsonian will put that inaugural gown.

Madison vs. Monroe: A Field Guide to Jameses


How to tell a James Madison from a James Monroe in the wild
The James Madison and the James Monroe in their natural habitat.
The fourth and fifth presidents of the United States, James Madison and James Monroe, have so much in common it’s easy to get them confused. This handy field guide helps you tell them apart and shows you how to react should you encounter them in the wild.

The James Madison

Notes on the James Madison

Appearance: The shortest of the Jameses – and of all the presidents – the Madison is easily distinguished by his size. Measuring five foot four inches and weighing approximately 100 pounds, he is said to resemble a “withered apple.” His wrinkled face has the beaten look of a wartime president whose poor choices led to the burning of the White House.

Temperament: The James Madison can be friendly – even funny – once he warms up to you. Until then he may appear as a cranky old man who tells White House party guests he would rather be in bed.

Geographic Range: The fragile nature of the James Madison prevents him from surviving outside the eastern United States. In his own words, “crossing the sea would be unfriendly to a singular disease of my constitution.”

The early years of photography coincided
with the later years of Dolley Madison
Mate: The female of the Madison species, the Dolley, is larger and more animated than the male. In sharp contrast to her mate, she is described by writer Washington Irving as “a fine, portly buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody.” She is renowned for saving dinner parties from boredom and saving a famous portrait of the George Washington from going up in flames in the White House.

Offspring: The James Madison has no biological children, but (like the George Washington) he does have one disappointing stepson, the John Payne Todd. Never fully weaned off his mother’s financial teat, the professional ne’er-do-well “Payne” can be found in various bars gambling away his parents’ money and in debtor’s prison.

Survival Tips
: This is very important: do not engage in a battle of wits with the James Madison. His frail body is but a shell for a mighty mind. In matters of global relations and economics he may sit well below the Alexander Hamilton on the food chain, but in the kingdom of governmental theory he has no natural predators.

Notes on the James Monroe

Appearance: Measuring a statuesque six feet tall, the James Monroe towers over his diminutive predecessor. In appearance he is described as being dignified, yet approachable.

Temperament: The James Monroe has the calm but confident look of a president who ushered in the Era of Good Feelings and has his very own Doctrine telling Europe to keep off the western hemisphere. He does not like to brag, but he dwarves his peers with the length of his impressive resume.

Major, Senator, Minister Plenipotentiary, Governor, Secretary, and President, James Monroe.
Geographic Range: Unlike the stay-put Madison, the Monroe has been sighted as far west as Kentucky and as far east as England, France, and Spain where he helped negotiate peace and double the size of the United States.

The Elizabeth Monroe
Mate: The female Monroe, the Elizabeth, is described as petite and beautiful. Her time in Europe hobnobbing with aristocrats helped her gain a reputation for being aloof, mostly in comparison to the party monster Dolley. Though the Elizabeth did not save any famous paintings of the Washington, she is credited with saving the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife from being guillotined in France.

Offspring: The Monroes and their two daughters, Eliza and Maria, travel as a pack whenever possible. The dutiful Maria and her husband (who is also her first cousin) will take in the aging James Monroe in his later years.

Safety Tips: Whatever you do, do not get between the James Monroe and the expansion of the United States. When his manifest destiny is threatened, you cannot be sure whether he will respond with negotiation and money or by unleashing the bloodthirsty Andrew Jackson. It’s just not worth the risk.

If cornered, you may try to distract the James Monroe with one of his greatest weaknesses – expensive French furniture. He cannot resist it.

Should you encounter either James:

Do not bring up George Washington. Both Jameses have an "it's complicated" relationship status with the Father of His Country.

The James Madison was once Washington’s most trusted advisor, but their friendship blew up over a bitter disagreement about the role of the federal government and its ties to Britain and France that kicked off America’s venomous two-party system.

The James Monroe once served bravely under the Washington in the Revolutionary War, but that bond broke when the Washington recalled the Monroe from France for openly opposing the Jay Treaty. The enraged Monroe wrote a book defending himself, to which the Washington added his own scathing, sarcastic responses to the Monroe in the margins of his copy.

The Jameses were both too pro-France for the George Washington, who started his military career "accidentally" assassinating a French diplomat. Speaking of France...

Ask about France. The James Madison could tell you many great things about the country he read in books, and the James Monroe could give you actual firsthand accounts of the Reign of Terror and what it was like making awkward small talk with le Napoleon.

Do not make loud, sudden noises. It might remind the James Monroe of the time he was wounded in the Battle of Trenton.
Two paintings depicting The Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day 1776. The James Monroe is depicted holding the flag in Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware (left) and wounded in Trumbull's Capture of the Hessians (right).
It is also best to avoid loud, sudden noises as they would just scare the self-described "extremely feeble" Madison.

Mention Thomas Jefferson. Both Jameses were beloved protégés of the Thomas Jefferson. The Madison helped the Jefferson form the Democratic-Republican party, and the Monroe helped him snag the Louisiana Purchase. The three of them presided over the United States for 24 straight years known as the Virginia Dynasty. Just the mere mention of the Jefferson's name should lull the Jameses into a docile state.

Should you encounter both Jameses at once:

Do not become alarmed. You are in little physical danger if you come between the Madison and the Monroe, as they have much in common. They share a homeland (Virginia), a political party (Democratic-Republican), and a hypocritical view on slavery (professing to deplore it but doing little to end it while owning slaves themselves.)

The Jameses are quite friendly except when competing for limited resources, e.g. a seat in the House, the Presidency, the Jefferson’s love. They occasionally butt heads on fundamental things, like The Constitution, which Monroe opposed for giving the federal government too much power.

Their rivalry left the Madison with a permanent scar on his nose – not from violence, but from frostbite suffered during a wintertime debate while campaigning for the House of Representatives. (The Madison won by a nose.)

Despite these differences, friendship always prevails. When the James Monroe reaches the end of his 73-year life span, his last words will be about the James Madison: “I regret that I should leave this world without again beholding him.”

If all else fails:

Offer them ice cream. Everybody loves ice cream.

You should be better-equipped to deal with a Madison or a Monroe now, but be warned - there are four more presidential Jameses to go. As I plod further, I'll be sure to share any tips for dealing with a wild Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, or Carter.



You might also like:
John Adams vs. George Washington: The Beer Test
George Washington's Disappointing Stepson
Madison's Bad Blood with Washington Part 1: Inferior Endowments

Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness by Harlow James Unger

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8 Things James Madison Loved


James Madison was notoriously private, and his legacy is usually defined by his fatherhood of the Constitution. As important as that is, I'm much more intrigued by the passions that breathe life into his stuffy portraits and his stern little action figure.

These are eight of the things that James "Little Jemmy" Madison loved.

#1

My Interview with The Washington Post


The dirty details that weren't fit to print.

I'm excited to share that Plodding through the Presidents was mentioned in this week's Washington Post Magazine article "44 Presidents, 43 biographies, one surprising takeaway."

The story is about reporter Justin Moyer’s endeavor to read a biography of every president, and how there are others out there like him. Others like me. As I’m only 6 presidents deep in my journey, I count myself lucky to be included alongside the seriously dedicated readers in his story. It's like those guys climbed Everest multiple times and I'm still at base camp saying "Look at the snowman I built!"

My humble efforts here didn’t get much coverage in the article, so I’ll share the inside scoop on what was said during my interview that didn’t make the cut.

Moyer reached out to me in March of last year, on Twitter. This might be how the Washington Post has always done it, I’m not sure.
During our phone interview, Moyer assured me I was the only person he talked to who was making presidential dioramas. That's good, because if there were someone else I think we'd have to duel.

We talked for maybe 15 minutes about what would possess me to read bios of every president, what I hoped to get out of it, and what I’d learned so far. I told him how I thought this would be an interesting way to learn about American history, how I hoped to better understand how we got where we are today, and how my biggest takeaway was that we’ve been a bitterly divided country from the start.

I soon realized that not only was Moyer reading biographies of the presidents himself, but he was also a new parent like me. That’s where we connected, and where I ultimately fit into his article:
As a new parent, I’ve kept up with my presidential reading project because I think — perhaps wrongly — that looking at the lives of America’s No. 1 citizens will teach me something about being a good dad.

I found I’m not alone. “Reading about the presidents helped me raise a newborn,” said Howard Dorre, a 34-year-old project manager living in Los Angeles. His blog, Plodding Through the Presidents, includes detailed photographic studies of presidential action figures. “I think that founding a country is similar to having a family,” Dorre said. “It’s very much like founding your own little nation.”
That was the extent of my appearance in the two-thousand word piece. You might expect further insight about how reading about the presidents helped me raise a newborn. So did he, when he asked me to explain.

Did I respond by talking about the monumental responsibility of fatherhood and how it takes an incredible First Lady and Cabinet just to help you feel like you know what you're doing? Did I give him an insightful quote about how I hoped that understanding the do’s and don’t of being a great leader might help me bring out the best in my child?

Nope.

I talked about poop.

As a new dad, poop was a big part of my life. The same could be said for the first few presidents, I argued. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all loved manure – it was a hot new fertilizer and they wanted to get the most out of it. I told the Washington Post reporter that the presidents helped me learn to love poop, because of its value in the circle of life and because it was one of the only things my newborn had to give.

Somehow that didn't make it into his piece.

We also touched on how John Adams was my favorite president so far, how we tend to look back at progressive presidents more fondly, and how Alexander Hamilton was the perfect supervillain. Since then, I think my new favorite is John’s son, John Quincy Adams (JQA). I still think Hamilton’s a great arch-nemesis, but I’ve come around to agreeing with most of his policies and loving his musical’s soundtrack.

Detail of John Quincy Adams (my new favorite) by George Caleb Bingham
So much time had passed without the article being published that I was sure it would never see the light of day — some editor must have decided there would never be a slow enough news day for people to care about this kind of thing. I was thrilled when Moyer reached out to say it was finally being scheduled for Presidents’ Day, which made perfect sense.

I still think about how raising a child is like starting a nation, or at least forming its government. Reading about the first six presidents’ administrations made me realize how lucky I am to have such a loving, supportive partner. I know my wife Jess and I will have more talks about the rules and framework of this government as our daughter gets older. She’s only 15 months, so the best she can hope for at this point is a benevolent co-dictatorship between my wife and me (one where we each seem to think we have veto power.) We can discuss a more representative government when she’s potty-trained.

Reading about others who are much further along or have finished this biographical journey was encouraging – and daunting. I just finished John Quincy Adams and I’m about to start Andrew Jackson. I hear it’s downhill after that until Lincoln. Unfortunately that means wading through Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan. Not exactly the all-star team.

When the going gets tough, I'll turn to this quote from JQA: 

“…once severed from my books I find little or nothing in life to fill the vacancy of time. I must, therefore, continue to plod, and to lose my labor; contenting myself with the consolation that even this drudgery of science contributes to virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honor.”
I too shall continue to plod, even when the lesser-known status of these presidents poses its greatest  challenge to me – an absolute dearth of action figures. I think my George Washington G.I. Joe spoiled me, and I became addicted to posing presidents to illustrate my points. So far I’m covered through Monroe, but good ol' JQA is a problem.

There is simply no action figure for John Quincy Adams. Because he wouldn't let that kind of thing stop him from plodding, I won't either.

I’ll just have to get a little creative.

When life hands you Lex Luthors, make John Quincy Adams.


Are you reading a bio of every president, or interested in giving it a try? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on my Facebook page or @plodwithme on Twitter so we can build a slow-moving literary army.

The Abusive Poetry of James Madison


Young James Madison exercised his right to bust rhymes.
The baby-faced James "Little Jemmy" Madison at 32.
While reading Richard Brookhiser’s biography of James Madison, I came across this little nugget:
…Madison did and said a number of improper things while he was at Princeton, writing abusive poems about students who belonged to the other of the college’s two debating societies.
Abusive poems? It’s hard enough to believe the stern-looking Father of the Constitution was ever young, let alone that he wrote abusive poetry. I had to find them.

This is how I'm used to seeing Madison – as so old and stern he needs to keep his head tied to his neck so it doesn't scowl its way off.

Thankfully Founders Online came through, with three of Madison’s poems from a “paper war” between Madison’s Whig Society and their rivals The Clios. These nasty poems were read aloud in the college’s Prayer Hall, like a rap battle at Hogwarts. Madison didn't do any of the reading himself though – shy Little Jemmy was the only member of his graduating class excused from performing a required oratory. He preferred to spit his gold on the page.

By far Madison’s best (worst) piece is called “The aerial Journey of the poet Laureat of the cliosophic Society.” It’s a mythical fantasy where Clio member Samuel Spring encounters Apollo and his muses, who proceed to beat the everloving shit out of him.
Samuel Spring, years after he was the poor subject of Madison's violent fantasy poem.
In the poem, written mostly from Spring’s point of view, Spring recounts a dream he had where he traveled to the domain of the gods and tried to steal Apollo’s laurel wreath so he could gain his poetic skills “And then a poet laureate rise / The dread of whigs of every size.” Instead, Apollo grabbed a big stick and mashed his jaws and head.

Then Euterpe, muse of music, started whipping Spring with a dishcloth full of grease and boiling water on his “sides & back / Which lost its hide at every whack.”

That’s when things got a little weird.
Urania threw a chamber pot
Which from beneath her bed she brought
And struck my eyes & ears & nose
Repeating it with lusty blows.
In such a pickle there I stood
Trickling on every side with blood
So Urania, muse of astronomy, beat this dude’s face to a bloody pulp with a chamber pot that I have to assume was at least filled with urine.

The muses Euterpe and Urania admiring Apollo while awaiting their next victim.
That’s when Clio, muse of history (and inspiration for his society’s name) swoops in to rescue poor bloody Spring.
When Clio, ever grateful muse
Sprinkled my head with healing dews
That has to be more pee, right? Maybe Little Jemmy had a thing for golden showers.

At least Spring is finally getting some relief in the form of muse dew. The worst is surely behind him. Right?
Then took me to her private room
And straight an Eunuch out I come
My voice to render more melodious
A recompense for sufferings odious
The muse of history peed on his head and cut off his balls. That seems like overkill if the only objective was to improve his karaoke game.

In Charles Meynier's painting, Clio the muse of history looks ready to make some Eunuchs.


Clio returned Spring to earth and promised he would be famous, as long as he gave up writing poems about the Whigs:
But mark me well if e’er you try
In poetry with Whigs to vie
Your nature’s bounds you then will pass
And be transformed into an ass
Madison wasn’t just saying Sam Spring would make an ass of himself if he dared poetry-battle the superior Whigs – if Spring didn’t give up the pen, he would turn into a literal donkey, Pinocchio-style.

At the end of the poem, it turned out Spring’s dream was more than just a dream. He forgot Clio's warning...
And wrote an ode and then essay’d
To sing a hymn and lo! He bray’d
This is what happens when you poem-battle James Madison.



Madison was only 20 years old when he wrote this poem, but some of his defining qualities were on display even then – a command of the pen as weapon, an attraction to strong, powerful women (hello, Dolley), and a penchant for doing his best work behind the scenes.

A lifetime later when Madison was 81, he told John Quincy Adams he had “never myself been favored with the inspiration of the Muses.”

If the muses were anything like Madison described, I’d say he got off lucky.


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