By Kat Imhoff
The Montpelier Foundation
In Madison’s time, democracy was considered a radical idea. It’s still considered radical in many areas of the world.
Madison’s biggest contribution to history was the idea of expanding the sphere of republican government and allowing more people to participate in it. Just look at an American public school classroom today, and you’ll see faces of every ethnicity and color in one room learning together. That’s Madison’s dream of expanding the sphere of government, realized.
His wife of 42 years, Dolley Madison, was witty, charming, and attractive—but she was more than that. There was substance beneath the glamour.
Using her adept social savvy, Dolley was able to forge connections and loyalties with important and influential people. In both the political arena and in public opinion, she was very much on par with James Madison, continuing to influence Washington politics and society even after James’ death in 1836.
The strategies they used that made them successful are a result of these five characteristics that entrepreneurs today would do well to emulate, and that parents should encourage in their children:
- First, tell them to be bright and curious like James Madison was, in all subjects, from law and politics to agriculture and science. The editor of Wired magazine calls Madison the Bill Gates of his generation, an avid supporter of innovation.
- Tell them to stand up for what they believe. Madison was intrepid. He took action to defend the rights of the American people, whether that meant riding out to defend Virginia Baptists from persecution or against the British in the War of 1812, applying himself in back staterooms with his contemporaries or alone in his library at Montpelier.
- Tell them to be cooperative. When James Madison was creating our government, he came up with ideas that he thought were really great, but naturally, some people didn’t agree with everything he proposed. He realized that in order to be successful and effective, he had to compromise. He understood that he could get the majority of what he wanted, even if it meant he had to give up some of the finer points.
- Make sure they feel empowered, because of the rights and freedoms guaranteed to them in the U.S. Constitution. Imagine what our world would be like without James Madison? The liberties that we often take for granted—freedom of speech, the right to petition, freedom from tyranny—are Madison’s legacy. Of course, things have changed since Madison’s time. We have witnessed emancipation, women’s suffrage, and unbelievable advances in technology. Through these changes, the Constitution has endured because Madison’s fundamental work allowed for governmental transformation with time.
- Tell them to be entrepreneurial. Dolley Madison was able to supersede the traditional, circumscribed position of women in her generation. Even though she held no elected position and didn’t even have the right to vote, she had more political power than most of the elected men in government. We are Americans. We figure out how to get things done.
Here are five fascinating facts about James and Dolley Madison to discuss at dinner tonight:
- James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution. Before the Constitutional Convention, he spent many hours studying the structure of governments around the world and came up with the basic idea of a blended republic. While he didn’t write every part of the Constitution, he was a key player in all the discussions and debates, and he forcefully argued for many aspects that are key to our Constitution, including population-based representation in Congress, the need for checks and balances, and support for a strong federal executive.
- When he was president of the United States, Madison went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war against England, which started the War of 1812. He resorted to war because the British would not stop harassing American ships and impressing soldiers (taking men into the Navy by force). The Americans struggled at the beginning, losing Detroit without a fight. The Navy fared better, with Commodore Perry leading the defeat of the British on Lake Erie. However, the British were still able to march on Washington, not being stopped until they were on their way to Baltimore. The war ended in 1814 with a stalemate.
- Madison was one of the main proponents for passage of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights. These were ratified in 1791.
- Dolley Payne Todd Madison was a well-loved first lady and known as a terrific hostess. Because Thomas Jefferson’s wife died before his election, she helped him at official state functions during his presidency. When she married Madison, the Society of Friends disowned her because Madison was not a Quaker. James Madison was her second husband—she lost her first husband, her in-laws, and one of her two young children to a yellow-fever epidemic.
- Two foreign trade bills passed during Madison’s time in office: the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 and Macon’s Bill No. 2. The Non-Intercourse Act allowed the United States to trade with all nations except France and Great Britain. Madison extended the offer that if either nation worked to protect American shipping interests, they would be allowed to trade with the United States. In 1810, this act was repealed with Macon’s Bill No. 2. It said that whichever nation stopped attacking American ships would be favored, and the United States would stop trading with the other nation. France agreed but Britain continued to impress soldiers.
Visit Monpelier, James and Dolley Madison’s fascinating home, and learn more at www.Montpelier.org.
For more fascinating interviews with historians, authors, and executives of our nation’s presidential homes, visit GratefulAmericanSeries.com, where you’ll find links to more episodes!
Here’s to restoring enthusiasm for American history in children—and adults, too!