Celebrations of James Madison, who was born on March 16, 1751, fall to second tier, a paragraph if we’re lucky in your local newspaper’s “today in history” feature.
March 16 is not a holiday. It’s not even a Flag Flying Day (though, if you left your flag up for March 15th’s anniversary of Maine’s statehood . . . no one would notice).
Should we leave James Madison out of our celebrations of history with such vengeance?
Madison left a great legacy. The question is, how to honor it, and him?
- Madison is known popularly, especially for elementary school history studies (the few that are done anymore), as the Father of the Constitution. It’s fitting: Madison engaged in a great, good conspiracy with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to get the convention to “amend” the Articles of Confederation and create a better, probably stronger, national government. But Washington stayed behind the scenes, and pulled very few strings Madison didn’t tell him to pull. Hamilton’s support from New York was weak; while Hamilton played a hugely important role in getting the convention called, and in getting New York to ratify the Constitution with the creation of the Federalist Papers project, the day-to-day operation of the convention and direction of the political forces to make it work, fell to Madison.
- Madison’s notes on the Philadelphia convention give us the best record of the then-secret proceedings.
- Madison devised the scheme of getting conventions to ratify the Constitution, instead of colonial/state legislatures. He had Patrick Henry in mind. Henry opposed any centralized government for the colonies, to the point that he refused to attend the Philadelphia convention when he was appointed a delegate; by the end of the convention, Henry was off to another term as governor where he hoped to orchestrate the defeat of ratification of the constitution in the Virginia legislature. Madison circumvented that path, but Henry still threw up every hurdle he could. (Henry organized the anti-federalist forces in the Virginia Convention, and hoping to kill the Constitution, called it fatally flawed for having no bill of rights; when Madison’s organizing outflanked him, especially with a promised to get a bill of rights in the First Congress, Henry blocked Madison’s election to the U.S. Senate, and organized forces to stop his popular election to the U.S. House. That failed, ultimately, and Madison pushed the legislative package that became the Bill of Rights).
- Andrew Hamilton started writing a series of newspaper columns, with John Jay, to urge New York to ratify of the Constitution; but after Jay was beaten nearly to death by an anti-federalist mob, Hamilton invited Madison to step in and help. Madison ended up writing more than Hamilton and Jay put together, in that collection now known as The Federalist Papers.
- Madison backed down George Mason, and got the great defender of citizens’ rights to add religious freedom to the Virginia Bill of Rights, in 1776. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience became a life-long crusade for Madison, perhaps moreso than for Thomas Jefferson.
- A sort of protege of Thomas Jefferson, Madison pushed much of Jefferson’s democratic and bureaucratic reforms through the Virginia legislature, into law. Especially, it was Madison who stoppped Patrick Henry’s plan to have Virginia put preachers on the payroll, and instead pass Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom into law in 1786.
- Madison wrote the best defense of American religious freedom in the Memorial and Remonstrance, a petition to the Virginia legislature to get Jefferson’s bill passed.
- Madison sponsored and passed more Constitutional Amendments than anyone else in history. We have 27 amendments to our Constitution. Madison pushed through the first 10, now known as the Bill of Rights. In the original package proposed out of Congress were a dozen amendments. One of those became salient again in the late 20th century, and was finally ratified in 1992 — the 27th Amendment. Madison is the author of 11 of the 27 amendments, including the first ten and the last one.
- Yeah, James Madison was the defendant in Marbury v. Madison; he made history even when he didn’t do anything
- Madison is the only president to face enemy gunfire while president, commanding troops on the frontlines during the British invasion of Washington in 1814.
- Madison took over the creation of the University of Virginia when Jefferson’s death prevented his following through.
- Madison’s record as an effective, law-passing legislator is rivaled only by Lyndon Johnson among the 43 people we’ve had as president. Both were masters at get stuff done.
- Madison is the ultimate go-to-guy for a partner. In his lifetime, to the great benefit of his partners, he collaborated with George Washington to get the convention in Philadelphia; he collaborated with Ben Franklin to get Washington to be president of the Philadelphia convention, without which it could not have succeeded; he collaborated with Hamilton on the Constitution and again on the Federalist papers; he collaborated with Jefferson to secure religious freedom in 1776, 1786, and 1789; Madison collaborated with Jefferson to establish our party political system (perhaps somewhat unintentionally), and to get Jefferson elected president; Madison collaborated with Jefferson and Jay to make the Louisiana Purchase; Madison took James Monroe out of the Patrick Henry camp, and brought Monroe along to be a great federalist democrat, appointing Monroe Secretary of State in Madison’s administration, and then pushing Monroe to succeed him as president. Also, Madison was a prize student of the great John Witherspoon at what is now Princeton; Witherspoon took Madison, studying for the clergy, and convinced him God had a greater calling for him than merely to a pulpit.
As the ultimate Second Man — when he wasn’t the First Man — Madison’s role in history should not be downplayed, not forgotten.
March 16 is Madison’s birthday (“new style”).
What would be fitting ways to celebrate Madison’s life and accomplishments, on his birthday? Nothing done so far in the history of the Republic adequately honors this man and his accomplishments, nor begins to acknowledge the great debt every free person owes to his work.
Still, there are encouraging stirrings.
- Newspapermen and reporters call the week of the anniversary of James Madison’s birth, “Sunshine Week,” honoring Madison and freedom of information. The Lakeland (Florida) Ledger explains in this commentary. The Stillwater (Oklahoma) News Press takes note of Sunshine Week, asking Oklahoma’s governor to get off the dime and start honoring freedom of information requests. Madison would have approved of such hell-raising, I think.
- David O. Stewart has a book out, recently: Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America. In the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Free Lance-Star he argues that Madison still shapes our politics today. See also this short piece in the Appeal-Democrat (in Yuba City, California?) in which another author describes the “Madison Miracle.“
- SunshineWeek.org helps organize First Amendment and freedom of information rallies in the week, a project of some of the usual suspect supporters of press freedoms, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg News, The Gridiron Club and Foundation, American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Actually, there is a great deal of information available there at the Sunshine Week Toolkit, especially for news organizations. See Tweets at @SunshineWeek.
(Dolley Madison? There are two topics for other, lengthy discussions — one on their marriage, and how they worked together; one on Dolley, a power in her own right.)
Previously, at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:
- James Madison, “go-to” guy — text of a presentation I made to the North Texas Church of Freethought
- James Madison, Father of the Constitution, March 16 (2009)
- James Madison’s birthday, 2008
- “Tagged by Myers to do history – Meet James Madison,” from 2008
- Happy Madison’s Birthday! Nation expresses revulsion at Texas education follies, Part I
- How will you celebrate James Madison’s Birthday? What happened to Madison Week at JMU?
- Madison’s home at Montpelier, Virginia, will feature activities through the day in 2015: “James Madison’s Birthday Celebration will feature a wreath-laying by the U.S. Marine Corps and remarks by author and historian Alan Taylor in the Madison Family Cemetery, and special tours and an appearance by “Mr. Madison” at Montpelier, at 2 p.m. Monday at 1350 Constitution Highway in Orange. www.montpelier.org. (540) 672-2728, Ext.450.”
- James Madison’s 262nd birthday celebration (2013 at James Madison University)
- James Madison on Facebook
- March 16 – Happy birthday James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” (molinahistory.wordpress.com)
- “Why I’m Celebrating Madison’s Birthday,” Steve Walman on religious freedom, in The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2009
- History for Kids – Today is James Madison’s birthday (marabird.wordpress.com)
- ALA Will Posthumously Award Aaron Swartz With James Madison Award (infodocket.com)
- Happy Birthday Jemmy! (virginiaplantation.wordpress.com)
- Federalists and Anti-Federalists – What is the Difference? (hankeringforhistory.com)
- Today in Legal History: Constitution Goes into Effect (lawlibraryblog.seattleu.edu)
- The American Library Association Has Given Aaron Swartz Its First Ever Posthumous Award (businessinsider.com)
- Culpepper, Virginia, Chamber of Commerce note on celebrating at Montpelier in 2013
- “Happy Birthday, James Madison,” Alex Gary in the Rockford (Illinois) Register-Star (business section)
- Washington Post notes the Montpelier celebration for 2013, with an AP story based on a story in the Culpepper (Virginia) Star-Exponent
- Can anyone find a text of the speech James Madison University President Jonathan Alger gave, “Return to Madison?”
- James Madison Museum in Orange, Virginia
- “Celebrating James Madison’s Birthday,” by James Best, at What Would the Founders Think?
- “Iowa City makes the grade on Transparency,” Iowa City Press-Citizen.com: “This weekend marks the end of Sunshine Week, an annual initiative meant to bring attention to public information issues. The observance was started by the National Society of News Editors in 2005 and coincides with former U.S. President James Madison’s birthday each year.”
- “Partying for Madison,” the Sunlight Foundation; Sunshine Week events (going for a couple of months after March 16) (See especially the list of blog posts for Sunshine Week at the end); slideshow of cocktail reception, with a really bad picture of Madison on a chocolate cake