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Our Fourth President James Madison

By Ruth Browning

James Madison is probably best remembered for his work as one of the founders of the United States and especially as the “Father of the Constitution.”

He may also be remembered for how his wife Dolley saved Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from the White House as the nation’s capitol was being besieged and burned by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812. Madison was born in 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia, the oldest of 12 children. His great-great-grandfather had emigrated from England in 1653 to become a tobacco farmer in Virginia. His descendants built up a farm of more than 5,000 acres in what is now Orange County, Virginia. This plantation, Montpeller, was the home of James Madison throughout his 85 years. Madison was well-educated. He completed the four year course at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in two years and became a lawyer. He was in his twenties when the Revolution began and served in several capacities in the formation of the new government. He enlisted for military service but was forced to drop out because of physical strain. He was 5 feet 4 inches in height and weighed 100 pounds. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and Madison made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing the “Federalist” essays. Madison also helped frame the Bill of Rights.Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a young widow, in 1794, when he was in his early 40s and she was only 26. Dolley was known for her graciousness and charm as a hostess when Madison became President in 1809. Madison did all he could to avoid war with the British but eventually, even though the U.S. was ill-prepared with only a small army and navy, he felt he had to ask Congress to declare war. The navy won some good victories but the army didn’t fare so well. The army’s best victory actually came after the treaty ending the war was signed in 1815 when the Americans won at New Orleans. This victory boosted the spirits of the Americans and the years following the war were marked by economic growth and westward expansion. Madison died at Montpeller in 1836 but Dolley lived until 1849. They had no children.

Two interesting items about Madison: he was the first president who regularly wore long trousers, as opposed to knee-breeches. Also he was a second cousin to Zachary Taylor, who became our 12th president.