Tagged by Myers to do history! Meet James Madison


One of those memes. I’ve got a couple of them hanging fire still, I really do badly at this stuff.

So I have to start chipping away at them. Latest first.

P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula tagged me. As he describes it, it’s a meme of history; here’s what I’m to do:

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

Okay, #1 is out of the way.

Now the trouble. A favorite “historical” figure? Maybe for Myers, a biologist, that’s easy. But I teach history. I like teaching the quirky stuff. The universe of possibilities is so enormous! Whom to choose? How to choose? Which seven little snippets?

Here are some of the possibilities — you may as well share in my misery.

I could designate Douglas Stringfellow. You’ve never heard of him, most likely. He was known most famously as a congressman from Utah’s 1st District in the 1950s. Stringfellow rose to prominence on the strength of his stories of behind-enemy-lines work, kidnapping physicist Otto Hahn, losing the other 29 members of his squad, escaping to France and losing the use of his legs from a land mine there. He was elected to Congress, joined the anti-Communist faction, and was zooming on the way to re-election when one of his old Army buddies got off the train in Salt Lake City, read the story, and blew the whistle. Stringfellow spent the war in the U.S. He wasn’t a spy, not a hero. His wounds were not from combat. Stringfellow resigned his candidacy at the insistence of the Mormon Church and Utah Republicans (perhaps the last time an organized religion and the Republicans acted nobly, together). It’s a story that should be made into a movie. There’s a good account published by the Taft Institute of Public Policy at the University of Utah, but it’s difficult to get (funding f0r the Taft Institute ran out, I hear, and it was replaced by the Huntsman Seminars on Politics — but that may be erroneous information, too).

Or I could talk about Richard Feynman, an inspiration to me, and to our two sons, both of whom fully enjoyed his books, and one of whom seems destined to follow Feynman into physics (the other works to understand neuroscience, still inspired by Feynman to do science). Everybody knows the story of Feynman, though.

Millard Fillmore is already covered pretty well here; adding more would be gilding the lily, or covering tracks, or something. I could write about one of my modern heroes of history, Mike Mansfield, one of the best bosses I ever had – but trying to find seven items that could be explained quickly might be difficult. I could write chapters about one of my other bosses, too, Orrin Hatch. Or I could write about Jefferson.

I’ll try to go right down the middle on this one: James Madison it is.

Seven items about James Madison, our fourth president, and “the Father of the Constitution”:

  1. See that scar on his nose? It’s from frostbite. When Gov. Patrick Henry blocked Madison’s appointment to the U.S. Senate, in order to fulfill his commitment to James Madison create a bill of rights, Madison had to run for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Henry thought he could block that, too, by picking James Monroe to run against Madison, and getting lots of support for Monroe. In the last debate, a good buggy ride away from their homes, the two men decided to share the fare. Monroe said Madison won the debate handily; Madison wasn’t sure. On the buggy ride back to their homes, at night on a very cold winter, the two got involved in a long discussion about the new government, the new nation, and their hopes and dreams about the future. Discussion was so engrossing that Madison failed to notice his nose was freezing. Fast friends ever after, Madison won the election; Madison introduced Monroe to Jefferson. Patrick Henry’s plan to frustrate the Constitution and the new government was thwarted. And Madison bore the scar the rest of his life.
  2. Good government as religion — Long before the concept of an American secular religion, Madison attended the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton), aiming for a career in the clergy. College President John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, urged Madison to take not just any calling, but the highest calling. Madison went into politics and government. Religionists try to paint Madison as a secularist; early on, his drive for religious freedom was fueled by his faith. It’s an example more church people should follow.
  3. Egalitarian trends — On his trip to New York for the inauguration and opening of the 1st Congress, Madison stopped off at Mt. Vernon. (See notes about ghosting below — it was an eventful trip.) One of the topics of conversation was what form of address to use for the chief executive. Two camps were forming, one favoring “Your Highness,” the other favoring “Your Excellency.” Asked for his opinion, Madison suggested “Mr. President.” Some tried to make a more formal, more stuffy title official later in the year, but we still call our chief executive today by the unroyal sobriquet Madison suggested, “Mr. President.”
  4. Romance with George and Martha as cupids – Madison’s bachelorhood was a challenge to George and Martha Washington. Once the government got underway in Philadelphia, and after Aaron Burr introduced Madison to the woman, George and Martha worked to match up Madison with a vivacious widow, successfully. James Madison and Dolley Payne Todd were married in 1794.
  5. Great Madison’s Ghost! – Madison played ghost writer for George Washington, and others. On his way to the first inauguration, at his courtesy stop at Mt. Vernon, Madison was asked to draft a speech suitable for a president at inauguration. He happily complied. With some irony, whether it was known or not, once Washington delivered the address, Congress designated Madison to write Congress’s reply. Madison’s writing shows up under many other names, including that of “Publius,” in the Federalist Papers. Madison also contributed major parts of the farewell essay Washington planned to use in 1792; Madison and Washington were not on such good terms when Washington actually bid farewell in 1796. Alexander Hamilton got the last crack at ghosting the piece, and added some barbs aimed at Thomas Jefferson. Madison’s own ghosting had come back to haunt him, and John Adams won the election of 1796. (Madison got revenge, if you can call it that, in 1800, when Jefferson won the rematch, but not until the House of Representatives had to break a tie between Jefferson and his vice presidential slate-mate, Aaron Burr; it was Hamilton who finally had to eat some crow and urge the Federalists in the House to go for Jefferson over Hamilton’s more bitter enemy, Burr.)
  6. Offending the great man — Madison was off getting married when Washington and Hamilton headed the army and put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Madison suggested to Washington that alternative resolutions would have been possible. Washington took offense. It is unclear whether they ever spoke to each other after that, but that event breached the once-warm and cordial relationship that had produced the Constitution and got the new government off to a fine start, not to mention got Madison into a good marriage.  It’s fascinating Washington would show such pique, and fascinating that Madison stood for it.
  7. America’s greatest collaborator? Madison got to the Virginia Assembly late in the Virginia Bill of Rights process, but collaborated with George Mason to add a clause on religious freedom, helping to secure George Mason’s reputation. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson, pushing Jefferson’s legislative ideas while Jefferson was in France, getting immortality for Jefferson with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He collaborated with Washington to resolve the Chesapeake dispute between Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; he collaborated with Washington and Alexander Hamilton to get the Continental Congress to call the Philadelphia convention. He collaborated with Ben Franklin to convince Washington to attend the convention, and to get Washington elected president of the convention. When John Jay was physically beaten badly at a demonstration for ratification, Madison stepped in to collaborate with Hamilton on what we now call the Federalist Papers. He collaborated with Washington on the formation of the new government; collaborated with Jefferson on a bill of rights and foreign affairs. In an era when one did not run for office one’s self, Madison got Jefferson on the ballots in 1796 and 1800, essentially managing the campaigns that put Jefferson into office. He was with Jefferson on the butt-kicking they got from John Marshall on the Marbury v. Madison decision. At the end of their lives, and especially after Jefferson’s death, Madison followed through on the establishment of the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s prize project. In each case, Madison’s collaboration improved the project, and in several cases, the projects would have failed but for Madison’s work. Madison may take the title of the most successful legislator ever in U.S. history (competing perhaps with LBJ), but he definitely takes the crown as the best collaborator for the public good. Had Madison not been the collaborator on these things, would they have happened? In all of these projects, the people with whom he collaborated achieved their highest aims. Who wouldn’t want to collaborate with Madison?

Let’s get some good stuff in here in the tagging. Let’s tag some diverse blogs and bloggers who write a fair amount. I tag Pam at Grassroots Science, Bug Girl, Miguel at Around the Corner, Ron at Route 66 News, Curious Expeditions, Dorigo at Quantum Diaries Survivor, and Barry Weber at The First Morning.

Whew!  There’s good reading at those places even if they don’t do anything new.

Thanks, P.Z., for the kick in the rear to think about Madison, and to think about seven (out of dozens) of good blogs to refer people to.

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5 Responses to Tagged by Myers to do history! Meet James Madison

  1. [...] “Tagged by Myers to do history – Meet James Madison,” from 2008 [...]

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  2. [...] Bigamy, and History Millard Fillmore (or his bathtub, anyway) tagged me with a historical meme. I’m supposed [...]

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  3. Bug Girl says:

    oh. Er.

    Apparently I still haven’t done this.

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  4. [...] March 3, 2008 Posted by dorigo in physics. trackback Ed Darrell tagged me in one of those games who keep bloggers busy -as if we did not have other things to take care of! But seriously, I like [...]

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