James Madison contributed significantly to the governance of his time. He studied ancient and modern confederacies and compared their failings, and put forth a detailed, insightful, and thoroughly researched proposal for a new form of government. He could only do all this as he was unencumbered by the demands of matrimony.
James Madison’s Home
The distance between James Madison’s home at Montpelier, in Virginia, and New York City, where he was sitting as part of the Virginia delegation to the Confederation Congress, consumes about five hours of travel time today. But in 1787, the 330 miles which lie between those two points would require a week over roads that John Bernard, an English actor visiting America, described as “sad comparison with the bowling-greens of England”.
“Very often,” wrote Bernard, “we surprised a family of pigs taking a bath in a gully of sufficient compass to admit the coach. As often, such chasms were filled with piles of stones that, at a distance, looked like the Indian tumuli. The driver’s skill in steering was eminent. I found there were two evils to be dreaded in traveling—a clayey soil in wet weather, which, unqualified with gravel, made the road a canal; and a sandy one in summer, which might emphatically be called an enormous insect preserve.”
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Freedom to Engage in Politics
Of course, strictly speaking, Montpelier was not James Madison’s home. It belonged to his father, James Madison Sr. At age 36, James Madison was in effect still living as a dependent.
This gave him the freedom to engage in politics and to begin sketching out his ideas for the convention to meet in Philadelphia before taking leave of Montpelier. But, as a bachelor in his thirties, Madison was an odd man out among the delegates who would be attending the Philadelphia Convention.
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The Marriage of James Madison
Well, in fact, Madison would not marry until 1794, and that to a widow named Dolley Payne Todd, and he would have no natural children of his own. Regardless, the behavior of Dolley’s son by her first marriage would provide him with all the anxiety he might have anticipated under other circumstances.
And it is worth wondering whether those best services to the public might have occurred in quite the way they did if Madison had been more domestically preoccupied. It is curious that the most important figures in moving the republic out from under the shadow of the Articles of Confederation were men with surprisingly tenuous connections to family and place.
The Matrimonial Life of George Washington
George Washington had married a widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, who brought her own two children, Patsy and Jacky, to the marriage, but who produced no others after marrying Washington. Patsy, who was subject to epileptic seizures, died in the summer of 1773 at age 17.
Her brother Jacky was a spoiled brat, who rushed from youthful infatuation to an early marriage, then rushed to join the Continental Army and died of a camp fever shortly after the British surrender at Yorktown. He left four children, two of whom the Washingtons would raise themselves at Mount Vernon—Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis. The latter, incidentally, would become the father-in-law of Robert E. Lee.
But this meant, in effect, that George Washington also had little in the way of family, something for which he compensated by creating a military family of his own around young Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, John Marshall, and James Monroe.
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Men like Madison and Washington came out of the Revolution unencumbered by vast family responsibilities, and so they were at liberty to think in broad, national terms. Men like Patrick Henry and George Mason, on the other hand, who had substantial families to care for and futures to promote, would turn out to be far more concerned with safeguarding their region, or state, or locality.
So, as Patrick Henry’s son-in-law Spencer Roane enviously observed, Madison, born to affluence and a competent fortune, and unencumbered with the cares of a family, was free to do a substantial amount of homework before leaving for Philadelphia.
Common Questions about the Private life of James Madison
John Bernard, on the road from James Madison‘s house, found there were two evils to be dreaded in traveling—a clayey soil in wet weather, which, unqualified with gravel, made the road a canal; and a sandy one in summer, which might emphatically be called an enormous insect preserve.
Men like James Madison and George Washington came out of the Revolution unencumbered by vast family responsibilities, and so they were at liberty to think in broad, national terms.
Spencer Roane enviously observed that James Madison, born to affluence and a competent fortune, and unencumbered with the cares of a family, was free to do a substantial amount of homework before leaving for Philadelphia.