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.

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.

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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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