Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

10 fascinating birthday facts about James Madison

March 16, 2019 by Scott Bomboy


James Madison, the father of the Constitution, has a birthday today. How much do you know about the fourth President?

Madison, who was born on March 16, 1751 in Virginia, was one of the most influential of all the Founding Fathers. He was a driving force behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and presented the first version of the Bill of Rights to Congress.

Madison and Alexander Hamilton also wrote most of the Federalist Papers, which played a key role in getting the Constitution ratified.

Serving as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state, Madison helped to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. And as President, Madison served two terms and held office during the War of 1812.

But what else do we know about Madison?

1. Madison was introduced to his wife Dolley by Aaron Burr. Yes, in yet another Founding Father connection to Burr, Madison was taken with the young widow Dolley Payne Todd. Burr was staying at the Payne boarding house in Philadelphia (about three blocks from the current National Constitution Center) and asked Burr to arrange an introduction. The rest is history.

2. Madison and Burr were Princeton classmates. Madison graduated one year before Burr. The men were in rival debating societies at Princeton. Madison graduated in 1771; his roommate was poet Philip Freneau.

3. There was a 17-year difference in age between James and Dolley. The couple dated for just four months before their marriage in 1794. James was 43 years old; Dolley was 26. The couple was inseparable after the marriage.

4. Madison didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War. Small in stature and sometimes sickly, Madison served briefly in the Virginia militia and then entered politics at a young age. He was also the youngest delegate at the 1780 Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

5. Madison really was the Father of the Constitution. He arrived 11 days early for the event, presented his Virginia plan of checks and balances as the foundation of the Constitution, and then worked tirelessly to get the Constitution ratified. Toward the end of his life, a modest Madison said the Constitution “ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.”

6. Madison wasn’t keen on writing the Bill of Rights—at first. Madison feared that actually listing individual rights in the Constitution would possibly limit other, unlisted rights. He had a change of heart when it became apparent that a Bill of Rights was needed to get the Constitution ratified. During the 1st Congress, Madison presented the first draft of the Bill, which he had written. It had nine articles with 20 amendments.

7. Madison retired for about four years at the height of his political powers. After serving in the House for eight years, Madison walked away from national politics in March 1797 and returned to his estate at Montpelier. But Madison, along with his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, had formed an opposition party to the Federalists, and Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution (in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts) during his time off.

8. Madison’s likeness did appear on U.S. currency. If you have a Madison in your purse or wallet, it is a very rare $5,000 bill. Some are still in circulation; a bill in very good condition went for more than $100,000 at an auction in 2010.

9. We really don’t know what Madison liked to eat. Biographers know a lot more about the meals that Dolley Madison served at social functions. One theory is than Madison liked Virginia ham. But he only weighed about 100 pounds and stood about 5 feet 4 inches tall.

10. Madison was a man of few hobbies. Unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who had numerous pursuits outside of work, Madison stuck with playing chess and reading Latin and Greek literature in their original languages.


Sign up for our email newsletter