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Four Years at the Mount

Senior year

Meet the Madisons

Katie Powell
MSM Class of 2015

(2/2016) "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it;" ah, yes—the famed quote used by many a history teacher to threaten their students to pay attention to their lessons on the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia, Athens, and Sparta in ninth grade social studies. I am certain you all remember the eye-rolls and groaning that followed, save for that one pupil nodding in agreement, front-and-center. I am sorry to say, you all, that pupil was me. I truly do believe that statement to be true! That is why I am thrilled that this month I get to time travel a bit and talk about the great James Madison, the fourth President of the United States.

While it is why he is best remembered, Madison’s eight years as President from 1809-1817 were not his greatest contribution to our nation. I will also argue here that his presidency is not what we ought to remember most about Madison. Some of my reasons involve his policies, others his passion, and some his wife, Dolley, whom describes as "the toast of Washington."

First, I must mention that Madison attended college at Princeton, which was then called the College of New Jersey (I guess great people gravitate toward great places). He then returned to Virginia to serve his home state’s government. Although Madison is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution of the United States, that was not his first Constitution. In 1776, at 25 years old, Madison helped to frame the Virginia Constitution while serving on the Virginia Assembly as well as the Continental Congress.

During the Revolutionary war, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, published the Federalist essays, a publication aimed at communicating the ideals of the fledgling nation. Despite this success, Madison’s career was far from over.

Madison was instrumental in the formation of the Bill of Rights, and in fact, he helped create the Jefferson (also called Republican) Party due to his opposing view of Alexander Hamilton’s ideas.

After helping found the nation, Madison served as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. During this time, Madison made the biggest mistake of his political career. Because of unfair seizure of American ships by Britain and France, who were at war, Madison enacted the Embargo Act of 1807. The Embargo made exports from the United States illegal, in an effort to punish Britain and France, and regain respect for American people and goods. Although the aim was to end the capture of American ships, the only success it really had was causing a depression in the United States because of the severe decrease in income. After his presidency, Madison returned to his home state and lived the remainder of his life in Virginia.

It would be unfair for me to write my article about James Madison without mentioning some of the quirkier facts surrounding Madison and his presidency.

To start off, I want to talk about his darling wife, the iconic and classy Dolley Payne Todd Madison. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and Dolley may have well have been the inspiration for that saying. She is one of the most famous First Ladies in history; in fact, according to Dolley is the only first lady to be "given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress." She was a natural beauty with dark hair and bright blue eyes, and she loved fashion—she was Jackie Kennedy, 120 years before Jackie Kennedy was born. She is a huge reason that James Madison was so popular. Dolley was incredibly socially active, and made her home the "center of society" from the time Madison became Jefferson’s Secretary of State until the end of the presidency in 1817.

I used the term "quirky" to describe the president with good reason: for all of the Madison's popularity, they caused quite a stir. Here are some "fun facts" about the Madisons.

  • Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse code) chose Dolley to be the first American to receive a telegram.
  • Madison served as a colonel during the Revolutionary War.
  • Dolley increased the popularity of ice cream through the United States—her favorite flavor being oyster ice cream, which she made herself with oysters from the Potomac.
  • James Madison and Thomas Jefferson met at the Virginia Convention in 1776, and became best friends.
  • During the War of 1812, a British army forced the Madisons to flee the White House. When they returned, it was in ruins.
  • Madison opposed George Washington’s financial decisions, in part because Alexander Hamilton served as Washington’s Secretary of Treasury.
  • The "Republican" or Jeffersonian party that Madison helped to create is actually the direct ancestor of our current Democratic party.
  • James Madison was the smallest of all of the presidents, weighing only 100 pounds and standing at a mere 5’4.

I wanted to take some time to conclude this month’s FYATM theme. As I mentioned, I love history. However, I must admit, regrettably that although I am almost 22 years old, I have not yet voted in an election. I am not proud of it, but to my defense there has only been one presidential election I have been eligible for, and living in a different state than that of my home has made it trickier.

According to, in the last presidential election 58.2% of eligible adults voted, about a three percent drop from 2008. Midterm elections dropped from 41% in 2008 to 35.9% in 2012. Upon reading that, I was embarrassed to add to the statistic. My new years resolution is to register to vote, follow the debates this year, and make an informed vote this coming November, and I challenge you to do the same! Nearly all of the Founding Fathers, in their final years, begged for the continuation of the United States, and for the prosperity of Democracy.

James Madison’s final political comment in his letter, "Advice to my Country," was this: "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."

Every single one of us plays a key role in the success of our nation—whether your candidate ends up winning or losing, your vote plays a part, and your opinion matters. Our rights to freedom of speech in the United States are unprecedented and almost unparalleled, and it is our duty to exercise it on behalf of those who cannot.

Read other articles by Katie Powell