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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

James Madison Portraits

James Madison, Official White House Portrait, 1816, John Vanderlyn
Very few First Ladies have been as well-known and beloved as their presidential spouses. The short list would include Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Dolley Madison. The latter, Dolley Madison was, of course, the wife of President James Madison, born on this date, March 16, 1751. He would have been 260 years old today. She would have been 248. James Madison is best known as the fourth President of the United States and the "Father of the U.S. Constitution." Dolley Madison is best known for having bravely ordered the saving of the famous Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, even as nearby British cannon fire echoed in the chaos. Incidentally, Stuart had also painted her portrait in 1804, and later, that of her husband in 1821.

As the British neared the White House, Dolley Madison directed that a
Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed.
James Madison's role as one of the "Founding Fathers" of our nation was, of course, far more profound (if less colorful) than his wife's efforts in saving a famous work of art. Following our war of independence, the Articles of Confederation established the United States as an association of sovereign states with a weak central government. In practice, this arrangement not only met with disapproval, but was quite unsuccessful. Congress had no power to tax, and was unable to pay war debts, which concerned Madison and others such as Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who feared national bankruptcy and disunion. Madison was largely responsible for a national convention called in 1787. He was also pivotal in persuading Washington to attend the convention, recognizing how instrumental the general would be to the adoption of a new constitution. As the convention began, the 36-year-old Madison wrote what became known as the Virginia Plan, an outline rather than a draft of a possible constitution. Though Madison's plan was extensively changed during the debate, its use at the convention led many to call Madison the "Father of the Constitution."

James Madison, 1829, Chester Harding, National Portrait Gallery
As if being deemed the "Father of the Constitution" wasn't enough of an accolade, Madison has also come to be recognized as the "Father of the Bill or Rights" as well. Though the idea for a bill of rights had been suggested at the end of the constitutional convention, the delegates thought the idea unnecessary. However the omission of a bill of rights soon became the main argument against the constitution. Several states came close to rejecting the Constitution because it lacked language protecting individual rights. Ironically, Madison objected to a bill of rights in that he not only saw it as unnecessary, since it aimed to protect against powers that the federal government had not been granted; but also that it was dangerous, since enumeration of some rights might be taken to imply the absence of other rights. Moreover, at the state level, bills of rights had proven to be useless paper barriers against government powers.

Numerous artists at numerous times painted Madison--some better than others.
Nonetheless, fearing the states might call a second constitutional convention, in June of 1789, Madison introduced a bill proposing amendments consisting of nine articles comprising up to 20 Amendments. The House passed seventeen amendments and sent this bill to the Senate. The Senate edited the slate of amendments still further, condensing their number to twelve. A House–Senate conference committee then convened to resolve the numerous differences between the two Bill of Rights proposals. The committee came to issue its report, which finalized 12 Constitutional Amendments for the House and Senate to consider. This final version was approved by joint resolution of Congress in September 1789. Articles Three through Twelve were ratified as additions to the Constitution in 1791, to become the Bill of Rights. Article Two became part of the Constitution more than two-hundred years later in 1992 as the Twenty-seventh Amendment. Article One is technically still pending before the states.

Fifty years in guiding a new nation takes a toll.
James Madison, Jr. was born at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway, Virginia in 1751. He grew up as the oldest of twelve children. Nelly and James Madison Sr. had seven more boys and four girls. Three died as infants. In the summer of 1775, two others died in a dysentery epidemic due to contaminated water. James Madison, Sr. was a tobacco planter, born and raised on a Virginia plantation, then called Mount Pleasant, which he later inherited. In the years that followed, he acquired more property and slaves. With some 5,000 acres, the elder Madison became the largest landowner and a leading citizen in the Virginia Piedmont area. James Jr.'s mother, was the daughter of a prominent planter and tobacco merchant. From the age of eleven, young "Jemmy" Madison was sent to study at a plantation in the Tidewater region where he learned mathematics, geography, and modern and classical languages. At age 16, young Madison returned to Montpelier, where he began a two-year course of study with a private tutor in preparation for college. Unlike most college-bound Virginians at the time, Madison eschewed the College of William and Mary. Instead, in 1769 he enrolled at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University.

The ever-gracious Dolley. She was twenty-six when she married the future president.
He was forty-three.
Madison graduated in 1771, having studied Latin, Greek, science, geography, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy with great emphasis placed on speech and debate. Madison also studied law due to his interest in public policy, rather than with the intent to become a lawyer. In September, 1794, James Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widow, at Harewood, in what is now Jefferson County, West Virginia. Madison was 43 when he married, which was considered late in that era. The couple had no children but did adopt Dolley's one surviving son from an earlier marriage.

Montpelier, Orange County, Virginia
Having had a major role in shaping the U.S. Constitution, as well as serving as Virginia's first Congressman, and as Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, James Madison was well prepared to become President of the United States on March 4, 1809. He served two turbulent terms, directing what has come to be called America's "Second War of Independence" against Great Britain (the War of 1812), while shaping the future expansion of the nation into the Northwest Territory. He will also go down in history as the shortest U.S. President, standing at a mere five feet, four inches, and never weighing more than 100 pounds. Madison died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836, at the age of eighty-five. He was the last of the Founding Fathers.

President Barack Obama contemplates a portrait
of President James Madison while waiting in the
Blue Room prior to his first presidential press conference.


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