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.

James Madison had a special talent for binging on books and regurgitating his newfound knowledge in essays and debates. Before attending the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson sent him a “literary cargo” of 200 books from France. Madison tore through the relevant volumes, channeling what he learned in his plan for a new Constitution and the Federalist Papers essays he wrote to support it.

He stored this knowledge like he was America’s external hard drive. That ensured, as one contemporary stated, that he “always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate.”


Twelve years before he married Dolley, Madison’s heart belonged to young Kitty Floyd. He was a 31-year-old Congressman when he met her – the 15-year-old daughter of his boardinghouse’s owner. Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, they exchanged miniatures (not a euphemism), and were engaged to be married.

The union was strongly encouraged by Kitty’s parents and Thomas Jefferson, but it was not meant to be. “Miss Kitty” broke off the engagement in a letter Madison called “a profession of indifference” because her heart belonged to another – a 19-year-old medical student.

Madison was a ninja with a pen. Never craving the limelight, he preferred writing in the shadows – under the secrecy rule of the Constitutional Convention, under a shared pseudonym (The Federalist Papers), as a ghost writer (Washington's Inaugural Address), anonymously (The Virginia Resolution), or in secret code. In many of his letters, especially to Jefferson, Madison used codes and ciphers to keep political and personal secrets from getting into the wrong hands.

The idea that Madison was Jefferson’s puppet does a great disservice to Madison’s strong influence over Jefferson. Madison excelled at reining in Jefferson’s lofty political ideals. He talked him down from his idea that the Constitution should expire every 19 years so each generation can create its own set of rules, and from his impulse for Virginia and Kentucky to secede from the Union during Adams’s administration.

In many ways, Madison was the jockey controlling the Jefferson horse and guiding them to political victory over the Federalists.

Ice cream was popularized in the White House during Madison’s presidency, and he had a two-story ice house built underneath the Temple at Montpelier so they could have ice cream all summer long. We don’t know his favorite flavor, but Dolley’s fave was reportedly oyster, made with oysters from the Potomac. Perhaps James preferred another popular ice cream flavor at the time – asparagus.
Before the internet, curious 18th century folks had to find their own answers – through science. To refute a theory that American mammals were smaller than Europe’s, Madison made thirty-three measurements of a female weasel (including its heart, spleen, and “distance between anus & vulva") and sent them to Thomas Jefferson.

Madison tried to downplay his excitement in relaying his weasel taint data by saying:
For want of something better to fill the remainder of my paper I will now add the result of my examination two days ago of another of our minor quardrapeds. I mean, a Weasel. It was a female & came to my hands dead.
Sure it did, James. Sure it did.

First impressions mean a lot in politics, and James Madison came off like a grumpy sourpuss. Margaret Bayard Smith said of him, “This entertaining, interesting and communicative personage, had a single stranger or indifferent person been present, would have been mute, cold and repulsive.”

That’s where Dolley came in – she was the opposite of repulsive. Upon visiting the Madison White House, Washington Irving described Dolley as “a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word or everybody” but said “Poor Jemmy Madison” was “but a withered little apple-john.”

James was happy to let Dolley play the “lady presidentess” and sit at the head of the table as the convivial host, more than making up for his lack of social prowess. After her husband’s death, Dolley Madison continued to be a popular social force in Washington and Congress granted her an honorary seat on the floor of the House of Representatives.


Madison’s weird science may have extended to mischievous experimentation on humans. Biographer Richard Brookhiser wrote “One evening he proposed an experiment to see how many bottles of champagne it would take to induce hangovers the next day. (No result was recorded).” Who knows what happened to those party guests during this real episode of Drunk History, or what anatomic measurements Madison may have taken during the night?

Madison’s comedy was said to create “roars of laughter over his stories and his whimsical way of telling them” but little evidence exists of that. One reason may be that it was too raunchy to write down, with the exception of his weirdly violent abusive poetry in college.

What we know is that there was another side to Madison that only his friends saw. Unfortunately for us, only glimpses of it remain.

For more presidential passions, check out:
10 Things George Washington Loved
8 Things John Adams Loved
10 Things Thomas Jefferson Loved
10 Things James Monroe Loved

Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser, Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley by Ethel Stephens Arnett, PBS Food: Ice Cream: An American Favorite Since the Founding Fathers, James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Louis Ketcham, Founders Online

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?


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.

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