Madison biographer Irving Brant described the fifty-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as a "perfectly balanced friendship," and certainly there are many parallels in the lives of these two men — not only in their political careers, but in their private interests as well.1
Like Jefferson, Madison was born into the Piedmont gentry. Born March 16, 1751, on his maternal grandparents' plantation in King George County, Madison was named for his father, James Madison, Sr. As the eldest of seven siblings, he was heir to his father's plantation, which began to be called "Montpelier" in the 1780s.2 Rather than attending the College of William and Mary as most young Virginia gentlemen did, Madison came under the influence of his tutor, the Reverend Thomas Martin, a Scottish New Light Presbyterian, and so chose the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) for his higher education. He set out for Princeton in 1769 accompanied by his slave, Sawney, and proceeded to complete a four year course of study in only thirty months, graduating in September 1771. However, his practice of sleeping only five hours per night in order to pursue his studies had taken a toll on his health, and the following spring, Madison returned to his father's plantation to rest and decide upon a career. Throughout his life, Madison considered himself to be in frail health. He was small, standing 5'6", of a slight build, and has been variously described as "feeble," "pale," and "sickly," yet he lived to the age of 85 years. During this period of recuperation following his graduation, he studied law, though he never intended to practice and never qualified as a counsel-at-law.3
Madison had become interested in public affairs while still a student at Princeton, and at the age of 25 was elected to serve as one of two delegates from Orange County to attend the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776 in Williamsburg. The convention replaced the House of Burgesses during the revolution as the colony's legislative body, and it would have been here that junior member Madison was introduced to Thomas Jefferson, who was returning to Williamsburg from the Continental Congress in the fall of 1776. However, the two men did not become well acquainted until 1779 when Jefferson was serving as Governor of Virginia, and Madison as a member of the Council of State. As the Governor could do little without the advice and consent of the Council, Madison and Jefferson began to come into almost daily contact, and it was then that a mutual admiration and friendship began to grow.4
Madison was instrumental in pulling Jefferson back into the public arena after the bitterness of the legislative inquiry into Jefferson's term as governor in 1781 and then his wife's death in 1782. It was Madison who nominated Jefferson as one of the negotiators of a peace treaty with England in November 1782 with unanimous support from Congress.5 Jefferson accepted the appointment and arrived in Philadelphia with daughter Martha in January 1783, in anticipation of leaving for Paris; however, the treaty was concluded before Jefferson could leave.
While in Philadelphia, Jefferson lodged in the same boarding house as Madison.6 Among other boarders were New York Congressman William Floyd and his family, including his teenaged daughter, Kitty. With Jefferson's encouragement, Kitty Floyd and Madison became engaged, even though Madison was twice the age of the 16-year-old Kitty. In regard to the courtship Jefferson wrote, "I wished it to be so as it would give me a neighbor whose worth I rate high, and as I know it will render you happier than you can possibly be in a single state. I often made it the subject of conversation, more exhortation, with her and was able to convince myself that she possessed every sentiment in your favor which you could wish."7 Jefferson's matchmaking activities did not end as he hoped, however, as after returning home to New York, Kitty Floyd broke off the engagement in July of that same year.8 It would be eleven years before Madison would enter into another serious romance, when in 1794 he courted and married a young Philadelphia widow named Dolley Payne Todd.
During the time that Madison and Jefferson were occupying the same Philadelphia boarding house, Madison was appointed to a committee to compile a "list of books proper for the use of Congress." As the nine-page report comprising 307 titles contains certain entries also in Jefferson's 1783 catalog of his own library, it is probable that the two men conferred on the compilation of this list.9 The proposal, however, was not acted upon by the Continental Congress and the Library of Congress was not realized until Jefferson's presidency. It was, of course, under Madison's presidency that Jefferson's personal library was purchased to begin the rebuilding of the Library after the original collection burned during the War of 1812.
Both men collected books throughout their lives for their own personal libraries. When Madison died in 1836, the library at Montpelier was known to have been quite extensive (though never as completely cataloged as that at Monticello) and rivaled in the Piedmont area only by Jefferson's library. Some of the Montpelier volumes had been obtained through Jefferson, as he had offered before leaving for Paris, "In the purchase of books, pamphlets &c. old and curious, or new and useful I shall ever keep you in my eye." In exchange, Jefferson asked of his friend that he take over the supervision of the schooling of his nephews and wards, Peter and Dabney Carr.10 Madison took up Jefferson's offer and requested "... treatises on the antient or modern fœderal republics, on the law of Nations, and the history natural and political of the New World; to which I will add such of the Greek and Roman authors where they can be got very cheap, as are worth having and are not on the common list of School classics."11
Madison immediately put to use the books he received from Paris and wrote to Jefferson from Montpelier, "Since I have been at home I have had leisure to review the literary cargo for which I am so much indebted to your friendship. The collection is perfectly to my mind."12 Madison was becoming more convinced that a stronger federal government was needed. Aided by the books received from Jefferson he compiled a paper, "Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies," and then a second essay, "Vices of the Political System of the United States."13 Through his careful study and preparation, Madison became a leading theoretician for constitutional reform, and it was Madison's ideas that formed the basis for the Virginia Plan, which in turn became the basis for the United States Constitution. Late in his life, when he was referred to as the "writer of the Constitution," he modestly replied, "You give me a credit to which I have no claim," and went on to say that the document "ought to be regarded as the work of many heads & many hands."14
Madison kept his colleague in Paris well informed on the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, and their correspondence reveals one of the few disagreements between the two men. Jefferson felt Madison was overreacting in his efforts to curtail the states' powers, mending "a small hole by covering the whole garment."15 Jefferson also felt strongly about the addition of a bill of rights: "Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference."16 However, even before receiving Jefferson's letter, Madison was realizing that a compromise would have to be reached for the Constitution to be ratified and was shifting his view on the addition of a bill of rights. During the debates on the Constitution, Madison's regular correspondence with Jefferson allowed him to assert, "I believe that were that gentleman now on this floor, he would be for the adoption of this constitution."17
Though the politics of founding the new republic occupied much of their attention, the friendship between Jefferson and Madison was built on many shared interests. Both men were very involved in the study of the natural sciences. Prior to leaving for Paris, Jefferson had recruited Madison to record weather observations and seasonal changes, and had nominated him for membership into the American Philosophical Society. Madison's name first appears in the membership roster of the APS in January 1785.
During his years in Paris, Jefferson supplied Madison with scientific instruments as well as books. For advancing his inspection of natural phenomenon on his walks or "in case of a ramble into the Western Country," Madison came up with the idea of a portable telescope fitted into a cane, and also requested a compass with "a spring for stopping the vibration of the needle when not in use."18 The next year he wrote to Jefferson that he had "a little itch to gain a smattering in Chymistry," and wished for a "good elementary treatise" along with "two Boxes, called Le Necessaire chemique."19 Jefferson was not able to fill these orders until February of 1787, and then not exactly as Madison had requested: "I send you by Colo. Franks your pocket telescope, walking stick, and chemical box. The two former could not be combined together. The latter could not be had in the form you referred to."20 The compass was not mentioned, but the following May Jefferson would send Madison a pedometer with very detailed instructions on its use.21 Other items shipped to Madison included a precise Swiss watch and "Phosphoretic matches," which Jefferson accompanied with a warning that, "Great care must be taken ... that none of the phosphorous drops on your hand, because it is inextinguishable & will therefore burn to the bone if there be matter enough. It is said that urine will extinguish it."22
The exchange was not one way, as Madison did his best to fill Jefferson's requests for plants and animals that demonstrated the uniqueness of the United States. He shipped Jefferson pecans, seeds of the sugar maple, pippin apples, and various other seeds and grafts of American fruit trees. He was unsuccessful, however, in supplying Jefferson's request for a live opossum. Madison's letter of June 19, 1786, is indicative of the major preoccupations of these two men, as it begins with a lengthy discussion of political philosophy, which Madison admits is turning into a "dissertation," and concludes with a very detailed account of his dissection of a female weasel and its comparison with its European counterpart.23 Jefferson and Madison were both intent on gaining a better understanding of North American and European fauna and conferred together to test and refute the Comte de Buffon's theory of the degeneracy of North American animals.
This interest in the natural sciences lasted throughout their lives, and in 1811 they joined together at Monticello to observe an annular eclipse of the sun. Due to a current political crisis, President Madison's Secretary of State, James Monroe, had suggested "a doubt of the propriety of your making a visit at this time to this neighbourhood," as it could be interpreted that Madison was conferring with Jefferson on governmental matters.24 Madison chose not to forego his regular visit to Monticello, and responded to Monroe, "I shall therefore yield to the feelings of personal esteem & friendship; and abide whatever may ensue."25 An account of the viewing of the eclipse was recorded by Jefferson in a letter to fellow American Philosophical Society member Henry A.S. Dearborn: "I used myself an Equatorial telescope, & was aided by a friend, who happened to be with me, and observed thro' an achromatic telescope of Dollond's."26 Jefferson did not name Madison specifically, perhaps due to Monroe's worry over the timeliness of the visit, but in a letter written two days after the viewing to Joseph Dougherty on another matter, he did confirm that the President and his secretary, Edward Coles, had been at Monticello.
Jefferson and Madison were on equal footing in areas of political philosophy and science, but on questions of architecture, Madison deferred to Jefferson. Madison seemed to find architecture interesting and occupied himself as a typical "gentleman architect" in the renovation of his own home, but never developed the passion that Jefferson expressed for architecture. Unlike Jefferson, Madison was not building from the ground up. The original mansion on the Madison estate in Orange County was built by James Madison, Sr., between 1755 and about 1765; however, during his lifetime, Madison did extensively enlarge and renovate the house begun by his father. The renovations began in the 1790s after Madison's marriage to Dolley Payne Todd. During the renovations, Madison relied on Jefferson for advice and assistance in procuring materials, and even purchased nails from Monticello's nailery. These initial renovations allowed the house at Montpelier to be comfortably divided among Madison's new family: his parents, his wife Dolley, her son Payne, and her sister Anna.
James Madison, Sr., died in 1801, leaving Montpelier to his eldest son. It was in the summer of 1808 that Madison began planning a more extensive enlargement and remodeling of the mansion that would continue over the next four years. Jefferson was at Monticello that summer and would have been available for consultation; however, it is Jefferson's master builder, James Dinsmore, who is credited with the major architectural changes at Montpelier. Madison had taken advantage of the expertise of Monticello workmen for the initial 1790s renovations, borrowing a brick mason named Richard Richardson, and another workman named Chilton; for the major renovations he was beginning in 1808-1809 he drew again from the talent at Monticello, requesting two of Jefferson's key builders, James Dinsmore and John Neilson. Apparently Jefferson was informed of Dinsmore's suggested architectural changes, as Jefferson wrote to Madison, "Dinsmore has suggested a very handsome improvement of your house, & I think the easiest by which you can make a fine room. it is to throw the middle room between your two passages out into a bow on the South side, taking a little from the passages to give it breadth, and with or without a portico there as you please. it will be somewhat in the manner of my parlour."27 Madison decided against the proposed bay, but the remodeling of the drawing room did include three triple-hung windows, a favorite style of Jefferson's, which overlooked the lawn. Subsequent correspondence between Dinsmore and Madison along with carpentry accounts indicate that Dinsmore served as architect for the Montpelier remodeling with Neilson as his chief assistant. How much of the architectural design was reviewed by Jefferson is not known, and during most of the actual work the Madisons were, of course, in Washington. It was through the renovations of the 1790s and the more extensive remodeling from 1808-1812 that Montpelier was transformed from the Georgian style into a larger and more refined Neoclassical structure. This transition was accomplished primarily by workmen who had worked closely with Jefferson during the building and remodeling of Monticello.
Not only can parallels be seen in the architectural taste of Jefferson and Madison, but in their views toward the visual arts as well. Margaret Bayard Smith, a visitor to both Monticello and Montpelier, said of Madison's art collection at Montpelier that it gave "activity to the mind, by the historic and classic ideas that it awakened."28 Like Jefferson, Madison never pursued art strictly for its visual qualities, but considered content and the intellectual stimulation it afforded as well. Thus it is not surprising that the collections at Monticello and at Montpelier were similar, often containing replicas of the same original master work. Engravings identical to both the collections of Jefferson and Madison are John Trumbull'sThe Battle at Bunker's Hill and The Death of General Montgomery, and John Vanderlyn's views of the falls at Niagara.29 In religious subject matter, the Magdalen now hanging in the Monticello parlor was originally at Montpelier.
In their retirement years, Jefferson and Madison were to join in one last major collaboration: the founding of the University of Virginia. Both men had been devoted to the idea of free public schools throughout their careers, as they saw education as essential to the success of a republican form of government. Madison expressed the belief that, "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both."30 Madison was still serving as President when Jefferson began initial planning for the University, but joined Jefferson and Monroe in 1816 on the initial Board of Visitors. As plans for the University proceeded, Madison worked closely with Jefferson in selecting and hiring the first faculty, and Jefferson conferred with Madison in the preparation of a book list for the University library. The last time they would see each other was at a Board of Visitors meeting in Charlottesville on April 3 and 4, 1826; in their last letters to each other, they conferred about the professors' teaching duties. Upon his death, Jefferson left the "care" of the University with his friend. Madison assumed Jefferson's post as Rector, and continued in this office until 1834, when his health became too frail to make the journey to Charlottesville for Board meetings.31
In a letter to Madison dated February 17, 1826, Jefferson reviewed their lengthy friendship: "the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me thro' that long period." He concluded the letter with a request: "to myself you have been a pillar of support thro' life. take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections."32 Indeed, Madison did take care of Jefferson when dead, not just in his care of the University, but in his guardianship of Jefferson's reputation as well. He outlined the highlights of Jefferson's career for biographers and historians, and urged the publication and use of Jefferson's grandson's edition of his grandfather's writings, published in 1829. In 1831 and 1832, when issues of states' rights were again at a fever pitch and the "nullifiers" continued to try to link Jefferson's name to their cause, Madison reentered the political arena, writing long letters, essays, and memoranda which reiterated Jefferson's belief in democratic majority rule: "That he ever asserted a right in a single state to arrest the execution of an Act of Congress, the arrest to be valid and permanent, unless reversed by 3/4 of the States, is countenanced [by] nothing known to have been said or done by him."33 As a memento to this long and true friendship, Jefferson had left to Madison in his will a gold-headed walking stick.
Madison died at Montpelier in 1836, outliving both Jefferson and Monroe. Dr. Robley Dunglison, who had cared for Jefferson during his final illness, came from his new home in Baltimore to attend the former President. Madison was attended also by his enslaved valet of sixteen years, Paul Jennings. Madison died on June 28 after refusing stimulants to extend his life the few days until July 4th, the sixtieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and was buried the following day in the family plot at Montpelier. The service was attended by his wife, Dolley, and other family members and friends, and approximately 100 of the Montpelier slaves. Several years before, Madison had written for posthumous disclosure his "Advice to My Country," in which he expressed his final concerns for the republic he and Jefferson had worked so hard to establish: "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished & perpetuated."34
- Gaye Wilson, 10/24/97; revised Anna Berkes 8/29/14
Brant, Irving. James Madison. 6 volumes. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941-61.
6. This boarding house belonged to Mrs. Mary House, mother of Elizabeth House Trist who was the grandmother of Jefferson's future grandson-in-law, Nicholas Trist. Eliza Trist became a long-term family friend and died at Monticello on December 9, 1828.
7. Jefferson to Madison, April 14, 1783, in PTJ, 6:262. Transcription available at Founders Online.
9. James Madison, "Report on Books for Congress," [January 23], 1783, in The Papers of James Madison, ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962- ), 6:62-115. Transcription available at Founders Online.
10. Jefferson to Madison, May 8, 1784, in PTJ, 7:233-34. Transcription available at Founders Online.
11. Madison to Jefferson, April 27, 1785, in PTJ, 8:111. Transcription available at Founders Online.
12. Madison to Jefferson, March 18, 1786, in PTJ, 9:332-33. Transcription available at Founders Online.
13. See The Papers of James Madison, ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962- ), 9:3-23, 9:345-58. Transcriptions of "Notes" and "Vices" available at Founders Online.
15. Jefferson to Madison, June 20, 1787, in PTJ, 11:480. Transcription available at Founders Online.
16. Jefferson to Madison, December 20, 1787, in PTJ, 12:440. Transcription available at Founders Online.
17. James Madison, General Defense of the Constitution, June 12, 1788, in The Papers of James Madison, Robert A. Rutland and Charles F. Hobson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), 11:130. Transcription available at Founders Online.
18. Madison to Jefferson, April 27, 1785, in PTJ, 8:111. Transcription available at Founders Online.
19. Madison to Jefferson, June 19, 1786, in PTJ, 9:661. Transcription available at Founders Online.
20. Jefferson to Madison, January 30, 1787, in PTJ, 11:97. Transcription available at Founders Online.
21. Jefferson to Madison, May 3, 1788, in PTJ, 13:132. Transcription available at Founders Online.
22. Jefferson to Madison, November 11, 1784, in PTJ, 7:504-05. Transcription available at Founders Online.
23. Madison to Jefferson, June 19, 1786, in PTJ, 9:659-65. Transcription available at Founders Online.