HOTSEAT- Hello, Dolley: James Madison dishes on the state of the union

James Madison

Talk about your tough interviews. Just getting on former President James Madison's calendar was a logistical nightmare, mainly because, well, he's dead. But with the help of those who know him best– and a little channeling– his exclusive interview with the Hook reveals that the Father of the Constitution is a remarkably modern man. 

Don't let his short stature fool you. Of the Founding Fathers, five-foot-four James Madison was the brains behind the most enduring republic ever and the architect of the Bill of Rights, with its brilliant simplicity that encapsulated in just a few words in the First Amendment what Americans cherish most– freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to complain to our government.

Two hundred years after he was elected fourth president of the newly United States, and 221 years after his baby, the Constitution, was signed on September 17, 1787, the Orange County resident is pleased that the principles upon which he constructed a lasting democratic government in his library at Montpelier have remained sound.

Not that he brags about it. He does mention the fate of the French constitution and its attempt to "reinvent mankind" that led to the French Revolution and Reign of Terror. He understood that government could be the greatest tyrant, and that without good government, you don't have liberty.

Madison is pretty shrewd in his understanding of human nature, and he expects people to act in their own self-interest. "There is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust," he says, quoting himself from the Federalist Papers.

He still likes the principles of "separation of powers" and "checks and balances," and he confesses that he finds it a bit worrisome how the executive branch bypasses Congress in some of its decisions on war and national security. "That is an imbalance," he warns.

On the other hand, he praises the Supreme Court's recent decision that prisoners held in Guantanamo cannot be held indefinitely without their day in court. He quotes with satisfaction Justice Anthony Kennedy: "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times."  

James Madison is a modest man. Even when he was president, he didn't sit at the head of the table– that honor went to first First Lady Dolley Madison, the bride he took when he was 43,  and he sat on the side. 

He explains why he was happy to let "Father of Our Country" George Washington lead the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787: He knew Washington's stature as a war leader would give credence to the constitution and government Madison envisioned.

Although he lived just 30 miles from the man at Monticello, Madison didn't meet his neighbor and mentor, Thomas Jefferson, until 1776 at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in Williamsburg, when the two began a 50-year friendship.

Jefferson was nine years older than Madison, and knew that his brilliant, Princeton-educated friend was the one to articulate the basis of government for the new nation. "If God is in the details, James Madison is right there to greet him," said Jefferson.

And like Thomas Jefferson, Madison has descendants of his slaves claiming that he fathered a child, although there were never the rumors of a slave mistress as there was with Sally Hemings. Did he or didn't he? Madison looks pained, and deftly changes the subject.  

He does admit to one disappointment: That Constitution Day never took off as a holiday the way Independence Day did. 

With his beloved home shorn of its pink stucco and finally coming back as he remembers– before Dolley had to sell it to cover his stepson's debts– and becoming the site of the Center for the Constitution, Madison says this is far better than having his picture on a coin or a big monument on the Mall.

Age: 257

Why here? There's no place like home.

What's worst about living here? Mr. Jefferson's shadow.

Favorite hangout? Mr. J's place (hey, he's still my best bud)

Most overrated virtue? Fame

People would be surprised to know: I tell a good joke and a few racy stories.

What would you change about yourself? Six inches taller; six-pack abs.

Proudest accomplishment? The Constitution and the Bill of Rights

People find most annoying about you: My stepson

Whom do you admire?  Paul Jennings, my manservant

Favorite book? Tom Jones, when I get tired of re-reading The Federalist Papers

Subject that causes you to rant? My height and weight being under estimated

Biggest 21st-century thrill? The Bill of Rights still going strong.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? No one studies Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

What do you drive? Liberty, my favorite horse

In your car CD player right now: 1787: the Musical (I commissioned it)

Next journey? The west coast.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? The War of 1812

Regret: Never took Dolley to Europe 

Favorite comfort food: Hostess Cakes

Always in your refrigerator: Sillabub (a milk-based alcohol concoction) and Dolley's ice cream in the freezer

Describe a perfect day: I tend to my grapes and figs at Montpelier while Dolley cuts flowers. Later, we sit on the front portico and sip Madeira while gazing at layers of blue-violet mountains.  

Walter Mitty fantasy: Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans before we negotiated the end of the War of 1812.

Who'd play you in the movie? I don't care as long as Angelina Jolie plays Dolley.

Most embarrassing moment? Being jilted by 16-year-old Kitty Floyd in 1783.

Best advice you ever got? Wait for the right woman to come along (she did). 

Favorite bumper sticker? Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

– with additional reporting from the Montpelier Foundation and A.E. Dick Howard.



Yours is an interesting reflection, but ... I might offer these observations.
1. No disrespect to Paul Jennings, I think Madison's tutor, Donald Robertson might have been his more immediate reply.
2. As to what he would change of himself, I think he would have been more inclined to discuss his physical ailments rather than his height or appearance.
3. His favorite book at least for leisure would have been the volumes of the Guardian, the Spectator, and/or the Tatler.
4. His favorite "hangout" more probably would have his library.
5. The subject which riled him more would have been unnecessary and counter-productive aquiescence to Great Britain in foreign affairs.

I like walking barefoot through fields of daisies in the springtime!

This made me laugh out loud -- thanks!