True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

James Madison



Father of the Constitution

Very far back in the history of Virginia, back in its early days, we meet with the well-known names of Jefferson and Madison. In 1619, when the first legislature met in America, one of its members was a planter named Jefferson. From him came down the great Thomas Jefferson. And about that time the ship which brought the Madisons to Virginia dropped its anchor in the Chesapeake. Thus the Jefferson and the Madisons began their life in Virginia at an early date. Their descendants were close friends and neighbors all their lives.

It was on the 16th of March, 1751, that the little boy who was to be our fourth President, first opened his eyes in the world. He was born in his grandfather's house at Port Conway, King George County, Virginia, but he was still very young when he went to live on his father's great farm at Montpelier.

This place was in the beautiful country of the Blue Ridge, only twenty-five miles away from Jefferson's home at Monticello. That was almost next door in the thinly settled country of Virginia, and the two were all their life great friends.

There is not much to be said about James Madison's boyhood. He was not a bit like Washington and Jefferson. While they were busy at outdoor life, hunting, riding, working, he was as busy reading and studying. He was a homebody, fond of books, and caring very little for play and the rough sports of hearty boys. Shy and thoughtful, he seemed like a little man before he was a big boy. What do you think of a boy who could read French and Spanish while he was quite young, and who was already hard at work at Greek and Latin? I think it would have been better for him to have mixed a good deal of play with his hard study. The old saying goes that "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." All study and no play are not much better.

When James Madison was seventeen years old he went to Princeton College, at the quiet little college town of Princeton, in New Jersey. Here he was more of a student than ever. Such a tireless bookworm has not often been seen. He wanted to know everything. He gave himself, we are told, only three hours' sleep out of the twenty-four. All other time was given to his books and his classes, none of it to play.

Carpenter's hall, Philadelphia, where the


What must the fun-loving college boys have thought of such a hopeless case as that? No doubt they made fun of him; but he went on all the same. He made himself a fine scholar, it is true, but he injured his health so that he was never strong, and passed many a miserable day in later life. That is what comes of overwork of any kind. Our bodies and our constitutions are not given us to deal with as though they were as tough as hickory wood. It is a wonder that his twenty-one hours of study in a day did not kill him in college. But he came of sound stock and lived to be an old man.

When his college life was over he studied law. He was a small-sized, pale, delicate young man, with a grave, serious face. He hardly knew what it was to laugh, and was often so miserable that he made up his mind he was near the end of his life. He was already being punished for studying too much, as others are punished for eating or drinking too much.

But Madison was a good thinker and knew well how to put his thoughts on paper. People soon learned to look on him as an able man. In 1776 his public life began, when he took part in making a constitution for the new State of Virginia, which was born that year.

The next year his name was up for election to the Virginia legislature, but he was defeated. Why? Because "he refused to treat the voters with whisky." I think you will say with me that it was an honor to be defeated on those grounds. Now-a-days money is used to get men to vote. In those days it was whisky. But very likely the money soon gets turned into whisky, and there is not much difference.

All the better people thought Madison did right not to try and win votes by making the voters drunk. He was made a member of the Governor's Council when Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson were governors, and both these great men had a high regard for him.

After Jefferson's wife died and he grew sad and lonely, he tried to get some of his friends to come and live near him, so that they could meet and have long and pleasant talks. Madison was one of these. Jefferson wanted him to take a little farm near his own, and live in a small old house on it. But Madison did not care to give up his fine home at Montpelier, and live in a rude farmhouse, even to meet and talk with Jefferson.

The young student was elected to the Continental Congress in 1780. This was a high honor for one not thirty years old, but Virginia had come to look on him as one of its great statesmen. He stayed there three years, and stormy years they were, for they were the closing years of the Revolutionary War. But he found it a splendid school in politics, even if it was a trying one for a quiet man like him.

From this time on Madison took an active part in all that went on in the new Republic. When he got back in the Virginia legislature in 1784, he and Jefferson worked hard to do away with the bad old religious laws, which made everybody pay taxes to support the Episcopal Church, which was the government church in Virginia. He did not believe in the union of Church and State, and he wrote a powerful paper against it which put an end to it in Virginia Since then religion has been free in all parts of this country, and no one can be taxed for its support. All money for religion must be a free-will offering.

And now Madison became a leader in the greatest work of the times. After the Revolution the young nation was in a sad way. It was over head and ears in debt; the States were jealous of one another; what was called the Union was no stronger than a rope of sand; it must be bound by something as strong as an iron chain or it would soon fall apart.

Madison was one of the first to see this. A strong government must be formed or there would soon be no united government at all. Washington said, "We are one nation to-day and thirteen to-morrow." Madison saw that we must form one powerful nation or we would soon break up into thirteen weak ones, which England might pick up again, one by one.

Let us see what steps were taken. The first was a meeting held at Mount Vernon in 1785 to settle disputes about the waters between Virginia and Maryland. Madison was there, and when he went back to the Assembly of Virginia he had a law passed to call a convention at Annapolis the next year to regulate commerce between the States.

Here he and Alexander Hamilton brought up the question of a stronger union of the States, and it was decided to call another convention, to meet at Philadelphia in 1787, to see what could be done to increase the powers of the Federal Government. It was his great service in bringing this about that gave Madison the proud title of "The Father of the Constitution," for it was this convention that formed the Constitution of the United States, and established in this country the powerful Union it now possesses. I am not going to tell you the story of that great convention, with Washington at its head, and Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and other great men among its members. Never was there an abler body of men. Some of them wanted to revise the old Articles of Confederation formed during the Revolution, but Madison and Hamilton said that would be a waste of time. There must be a new system or none at all. They had their way, and the new Constitution was formed.

What took place in that convention, which sat for six months behind closed doors, we know mostly from Madison. He made notes of all that went on, and these were published after his death, and very useful reading they are.

Jones, the Naval hero


When the Constitution was offered to the country there was a desperate fight over it. Madison and Hamilton and John Jay wrote splendid essays about it, and these were published in a work called "The Federalist." And while Hamilton was fighting for it in New York, Madison was fighting for it in Virginia. Here he made the greatest speeches of his life. He had against him such splendid orators as Patrick Henry and George Mason, yet he won his cause and brought Virginia into the Union.

When the First Congress of the United States met, in the old City Hall of New York, Madison was one of its members. Washington wanted to make him Secretary of State, and also asked him to serve as Minister to France, but he declined both. He was democratic in his views, like Jefferson, and did not like Hamilton's ideas about a strong central government. But he held back, for he was never fond of controversy.

Now let us step aside a while from politics, and follow Madison into other and more flowery fields. Like Jefferson, he fell in love twice. The first time was with a pretty girl of sixteen named Catharine Floyd. The two were engaged, but the girl saw somebody she liked better and she threw her old lover aside.

Madison moped for a while, but Jefferson told him to go back to his books and he would soon forget the pretty face. Jefferson had done the same thing himself.

Eleven years passed before Madison fell in love again. He was now forty-three and the lady was a lovely young Quakeress of twenty-two. She was a very young widow, named Mrs. Dorothy Todd. Madison met her one day when he was out walking in Philadelphia and fell in love with her sweet face at sight.

He tried to get an introduction, and soon got one. We have a letter from Mrs. Todd to a friend, in which she said, "Thou must come to me. Aaron Burr says that 'the great little Madison' has asked to be brought to see me this evening."

Mrs. Todd did not throw her lover overboard. Though he was nearly twice her age, she accepted "the great little Madison." In September, 1794, the dainty young widow went to her sister's house at Harwood, in Virginia, and here soon after the wedding took place. It was a gay one, as was the habit in that old time. So pretty and sweet was the bride that in her earlier days, when she wore her quiet little Quaker gown of gray, a friend said to her: "Dolly, truly thou must hide thy face, so many stare at thee."

Dolly Madison, as she was afterward known, needs a good introduction, for she was to play a large part in American life. For sixteen years she was to be the mistress of the White House, twice as long a term as any other woman enjoyed. And a cherished and favorite mistress she was for all that time.

When Washington retired from the Presidency in 1797, Madison went home to Montpelier. There had been talk of nominating him to succeed Washington, but he positively declined. He wanted some home life. He was rich, he was famous, he was delicate, he had a charming young wife, and Montpelier was a delightful home. It lay between Jefferson's and Washington's homes, and was as comfortable a country mansion as either of these. And there were his cherished books.

Virginia currency

There he lived in peace and happiness for four years. Then Jefferson was elected President and selected Madison for his Secretary of State. For the next sixteen years he made his home in Washington, which had been made the National Capital in 1800. The new President had long been a widower, and the duties of mistress of the White House fell upon Dolly Madison. And she filled them with a charm and ease and a gracious dignity that won all hearts. She was kind and thoughtful and had a social gift and tact that made her hosts of friends. It is said that "Mrs. Madison never forgot a name or a face," and that is a faculty of rare value in high places.

For eight years Madison held his important office. France and England were then at war, and were interfering with American ships and sailors in a way that made our people very angry. It was no easy matter to keep the country out of war, but Jefferson and Madison both wanted peace, and managed to preserve it.

In 1809 Jefferson's term ended and James Madison was elected President of the United States. The hard-working student of Princeton had reached the highest post in the nation, and his wife, Mistress Dolly Madison, was now by right of position the "Lady of the White House."

There is a good story told about Madison at this time. One of the Senators was being shaved in a Washington barber shop, the morning after Madison was nominated. The barber talked as he shaved, in a way barbers have. It must be remembered that in those days men wore their hair in long queues. "This country is going to ruin, sir," confided the barber. "See what elegant Presidents we might have. There is Daggett of Connecticut and Stockton of New Jersey. What queues they have got, sir; as big as your wrist and powdered every day, like real gentlemen. Such men as this would give dignity to the office. But this little Jim Madison, with a queue no bigger than a pipe-stem, sir. It is enough to make a man forswear his country."

But little Madison was elected in spite of his pipe-stem queue, and by a large majority. He might not have been, if all the voters had been barbers.

Madison as President tried as hard to keep the country out of war as he had done while Secretary of State. But it could not be done. From taking sailors out of American merchant ships, England began to insult our men-of-war, and took steps that would ruin our commerce. Matters grew so bad that Congress declared war against Great Britain, and on June 8, 1812, President Madison signed the declaration of war.

The history of that war has very little to do with the life of the President. It was only in 1814, when the British landed an army and marched on Washington, that the war came very near to him. The militia who had gathered were sent flying, and Washington lay at the mercy of a foreign foe. Then there was a wild coming and going. Madison had to flee to save himself from capture. Mrs. Madison, left in the White House, was in equal danger. He sent her word to flee in time, but to save the Cabinet papers.

Dolly Madison now showed herself a woman of nerve. She got all the papers and the plate, but she would not leave till a large portrait of Washington, which was screwed against a wall, was secured. The cannon were sounding loudly and the British soldiers were near at hand when she got into her carriage with the papers, plate and portrait and drove away. She had not been gone long before the city swarmed with soldiers, and that night all the public buildings were in flames.

Mrs. Madison spent the night in a little tavern in an apple orchard, while a furious rain-storm raged outside. The wind was so strong that the apples were flung like musket balls against the house. Here the President joined her, but at midnight a scared courier rode up and told him that the British were close on his track. His friends made him go out into the storm, and he spent the rest of that night in a wretched hovel in the woods.

The next day word came that the British were leaving, and the fugitives made their way back. They reached Washington to find the Capitol and the White House heaps of blackened ruins. They had gone through an experience which no other American President has had anything to match.

When Mrs. Madison got to the Long Bridge on the way back, she found that it was barred at both ends. There was an officer there in charge with a ferry boat, but he did not know the lady and refused to take her across. Her husband had sent her word to go home in disguise, but after begging for a while in vain, she had to tell the officer her name. Then he ferried her and her carriage across the river, and she made her way through the desolate and ash-covered streets to the ruins of what had been her home.

A little more than two years later President Madison's second term reached its end, and he left Washington for his quiet, beautiful home at Montpelier. Here, in his "dear library," in taking care of his estate, in generous hospitality,' and in happy domestic life the scholarly Madison spent the remainder of his days. In 1829 he took part in the work of the convention to make a new Constitution for Virginia. That was his last public work. He died on the 28th of June, 1836. The delicate scholar had lived to be eighty-five years old.

His beloved wife survived him for thirteen years. She had business troubles towards the end. There had been losses. But Congress purchased her husband's valuable papers, and her difficulties came to an end. Comfort and peace lay around her later days. But there is an incident which goes to show that she was growing tired of life. One of her nieces went to her for sympathy in some slight trouble.

"My dear," said the old lady, "do not trouble about it. There is nothing in this world really worth caring for. Yes." she continued, looking intently out of a window, "I who have lived so long, repeat to you, there is nothing in this world here below worth caring for."