Founding father James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia. Though shy and physically frail, he forged a hugely influential political career that included guiding the Constitution through its ratification process, drafting the Bill of Rights and serving as the fourth president during the War of 1812. Explore 10 surprising facts about the man often called the “Father of the Constitution.”
1. He was America’s smallest president.
Madison was a sickly and slightly built man who stood just 5 feet 4 inches tall and rarely tipped the scales at much more than 100 pounds. His voice was so weak that people often had difficulty hearing his speeches, and he was plagued by recurring bouts of “bilious fever” and what he described as “a constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy.” While contemporaries praised Madison’s fierce intelligence, many also made note of his small size and timid demeanor. The wife of a Virginia politician once labeled him “the most unsociable creature in existence.”
2. Madison was Princeton University’s first graduate student.
In 1769, an 18-year-old Madison left his family’s Montpelier plantation to attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He proceeded to blaze through the four-year course in only two years, often sleeping just four hours a night to make time for reading law and Greek and Roman philosophy. Though a natural scholar, Madison was still unsure of what career path to take after graduating, so he remained at Princeton for another year and studied Hebrew and other subjects under the direction of the school’s president, John Witherspoon. While Madison wasn’t awarded an advanced degree, the University now considers him its original graduate student.
3. He once lost an election because he didn’t give alcohol to voters.
Following a stint in the Virginia Convention in 1776, a young James Madison lost a 1777 bid for election to the state’s House of Delegates. He would later write that the defeat was the result of his refusal to provide free liquor to the voters on Election Day, a common custom then known as “swilling the planters with bumbo.” The future president believed that bribing electors with booze was contrary to republican principles, but one of his opponents—who also happened to be a tavern keeper—simply “adhered to the old practice” and raked in the votes. Despite the setback, Madison was soon chosen for an open seat on Virginia’s Council of State. By 1780, the 29-year-old was serving as the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress.
4. Madison had a longstanding rivalry with Patrick Henry.
Madison’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson is considered one of the most fruitful political partnerships in American history, but he also had a lengthy and often bitter rivalry with the famed “Give me liberty, or give me death” orator Patrick Henry. The two clashed over the separation of church and state while serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, and Henry later became one of the most outspoken leaders of the Anti-Federalist faction that opposed Madison’s efforts to ratify the Constitution. During Virginia’s ratifying convention, the pair engaged in a now-famous debate, with Henry saying the Constitution “endangered the public liberty” and Madison countering that Henry’s arguments were “ill founded” and distorted “the natural construction of language.” Madison and his supporters eventually won the day—Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution by a margin of 89 to 79—but the bad blood remained. Henry blocked Madison’s appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1788, and was later accused of gerrymandering Virginia’s voting districts in a failed attempt to prevent Madison from winning a seat in the House of Representatives.
5. He was initially opposed to the Bill of Rights.
While Madison drafted the Bill of Rights and introduced it to Congress in 1789, he originally thought the amendments were unnecessary and potentially harmful. Like many Federalists, he believed the Constitution’s separation of powers already adequately protected personal freedoms, and he worried that any rights not explicitly enshrined in a “parchment barrier” would be easily infringed. Madison only changed his mind after concluding that the lack of a Bill of Rights would be a major stumbling block in winning over his opponents and getting the Constitution ratified. He also came to believe that the amendments might ingrain certain freedoms into the national consciousness and “be a good ground for an appeal” whenever the government overstepped its bounds. Though still lukewarm on the need for a Bill of Rights—he privately described it as a “nauseous project”—Madison eventually took the lead in shepherding it through the legislative process.
6. Dolley Madison helped define the role of first lady.
In contrast to Madison’s quiet and retiring personality, his wife Dolley was a social butterfly known for her exuberance, warmth and wit. When Madison began his first term as president in 1809, she embraced the role of first lady and helped define its duties by redecorating the White House and hosting the first ever Inaugural Ball. By serving as the “directress” of an orphanage for young girls, she also started the tradition of first ladies taking on a public outreach project. Dolley proved particularly effective in her job as the White House hostess. Her weekly receptions became a hot ticket among foreign dignitaries, intellectuals and politicians, leading writer Washington Irving to remark on the “blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison’s drawing room.”
7. Both of Madison’s vice presidents died in office.
Despite his lifelong struggles with his health, Madison proved to be more resilient than his vice presidents. His original VP George Clinton died in 1812, and Clinton’s successor Elbridge Gerry later suffered a fatal hemorrhage in 1814, just a year and a half after taking office. Having lost two vice presidents in less than three years, Madison finished his second term without a recognized number two.
8. He was one of the only presidents to accompany troops into battle.
Other than Abraham Lincoln, who was present at the Battle of Fort Stevens during the Civil War, Madison is the only sitting commander-in-chief to be directly involved in a military engagement. When British forces marched on Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812, the bookish president borrowed a pair of dueling pistols from his treasury secretary and set off for the American lines to help rally his troops. He and his entourage nearly blundered into British forces upon arriving, and they soon heard the whistle of enemy Congreve rockets overhead, prompting Madison to tell his cabinet secretaries that it “would be proper to withdraw to a position in the rear.” After American militiamen were put to a rout, Madison joined his troops in fleeing the city, leaving the victorious British free to torch the White House and U.S. Capitol. Madison was able to return to Washington a few days later, but damage to the executive mansion forced him to take up residence in the city’s Octagon House.
9. One of Madison’s slaves wrote the first White House memoir.
One of the most interesting accounts of Madison’s life came courtesy of Paul Jennings, a black slave who was born into bondage on his Montpelier plantation. Jennings accompanied the newly elected President to the White House as a boy, and eventually spent nearly three decades serving as Madison’s footman and manservant before purchasing his freedom in 1847. He later recounted his experiences in 1865’s “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” a short book now considered the first memoir of life in the White House. Along with a look at Madison, whom Jennings describes as a temperate man who “always dressed wholly in black” and never owned more than one suit, the memoir also includes a firsthand account of the evacuation of the White House during the War of 1812, during which Dolley Madison oversaw the rescue of a famous portrait of George Washington.
10. He declined an offer to prolong his life until July 4.
After leaving the presidency, Madison returned to his Montpelier plantation and spent his later years farming and serving as the second rector of his friend Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. When the 85-year-old was later on his deathbed in the summer of 1836, his doctor suggested that he take stimulants to keep him alive until July 4, the same historic date that Jefferson, John Adams and James Monroe had all perished. Madison turned down the offer, however, and instead died on June 28—six days before the 60th anniversary of the nation’s birth. At the time, he was the last surviving signer of the Constitution.