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A Supposedly Mediocre President


From a Q&A with Jeff Broadwater, author of James Madison: A Son of Virginia & a Founder of the Nation, published this year by the University of North Carolina Press.

Q:  What impact did Madison’s wife, Dolley, have on his political career? What was their relationship like outside of the political realm?
A:  She was his most effective lobbyist with Congress while he was president. The socials she hosted allowed her to cultivate members of Congress, who, in her day, selected presidential candidates and probably helped him in the 1808 and 1812 elections. But even Dolley could not overcome the partisan divisions in Washington, and Madison had a hard time with Congress. On a personal level, Madison did not sweep Dolley off her feet before they married, but over time they grew devoted to each other. On one level, it was a case of opposites attracting, but they shared kind, gentle dispositions, and I think that allowed the marriage to flourish.
Q:  You describe Madison as “a supposedly mediocre president.” Why has Madison not been held in higher regard, especially since he had similar foundational ideologies as his friend and colleague, Thomas Jefferson?
A:  Jefferson was about eight years older, which put him at the right age to play a leading role in the American Revolution. Madison, on the other hand, did not enter Congress until 1780, so in a sense Madison was the junior partner in the relationship. The War of 1812 has damaged Madison’s standing among historians, and for all the problems he experienced as president, Jefferson at least avoided a major war. Most important perhaps, Jefferson wrote better. Madison thought Jefferson had a tendency toward overstatement, and he did, but Jefferson produced more compelling sound bytes. Madison, by contrast, wrote careful, precise, and sometimes overly technical prose.

IMAGES: James and Dolley Madison, both portraits by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1804

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