Here are a few things you may or may not know about (my hero) James Madison, Founding Father extraordinaire, who was born this week (March 16) in 1751.
He was short — maybe 5’ 5” in his stocking feet, prompting his wife, Dolley, to call him “the great little Madison.” His nickname, “Jemmy,” even sounds like someone who is short.
He was shy. He hated large gatherings and loathed the spotlight. At social functions he preferred to retire to the corner of the room and engage in quiet discourse, usually political, with a few trusted friends and advisers.
Fortunately he had a wife who enjoyed being the center of attention and who was one of the great official greeters and hostesses in the history of Washington society. (Dolley Madison is the only First Lady to have served that function for two different presidents. When Madison was secretary of state in the Jefferson administration, President Jefferson, a widower, asked her to be his official hostess.)
He was a life-long hypochondriac. Madison would tell anyone who cared to listen that he was sure to die young. He wound up being among the last of the Founding Fathers to die — at the ripe old age of 85 — prompting him to say late in life, tongue firmly in cheek, “Having outlived so many of my contemporaries, I ought not forget that I may be thought to have outlived myself.”
He was self-effacing and polite to a fault. He went out of his way to give others credit whether they deserved it or not, and he would concede the merits of an opposing argument regardless of how idiotic it happened to be — which, as historian Joseph Ellis has noted, allowed him to more easily demolish it. “He seemed to lack a personal agenda,” Ellis writes, “because he seemed to lack a personality. Yet when the votes were counted, his side almost always won.”
Which brings me to the last thing you may or may not know about James Madison. After George Washington, he was the most effective and important of the Founding Fathers.
There are three documents that serve as the foundation on which our nation is built. They are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison is chiefly responsible for the last two. He wrote the Virginia Plan on which the Constitution is based — earning him the title “Father of the Constitution” — and he created and engineered passage of the Bill of Rights, earning him the title “Chief Architect of the Bill of Rights.”
The Constitution is our owner’s manual and the Bill of Rights is our warranty (the Declaration, Jefferson’s, is our mission statement). Not a bad life’s work.