OF AMERICA’S founding generation, James Madison is often overlooked—sometimes quite literally. After all, he was short. He was skinny. He had a soft voice and disliked large public occasions.
At the inaugural ball celebrating his election as president in 1808, the pinnacle of his political career, he confided to a friend that he would prefer to be home in bed.
Yet his impact on the creation of the United States was second only to George Washington’s, a truth that Madison’s contemporaries understood. They named more cities, towns and counties after Madison than after any other American.
We don’t have to look far to find Madison’s continuing impact on the daily life in the nation he helped create.
Are the two political parties beginning to jockey for the presidential race of 2016? They’re just following Madison’s lead. He founded the nation’s first political party in the mid-1790s to challenge the incumbent Federalists. Then he mounted the campaign to elect Thomas Jefferson president, succeeding in that effort by 1800.
Do some Americans resent a federal health insurance mandate that requires them to fund medical activities that violate their religious views? Yes, and they brought a lawsuit to the Supreme Court charging that the First Amendment, which Madison wrote and championed, protected them from that mandate. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, they won.
Did congressional Republicans threaten to cut off funding for the Department of Homeland Security? Madison set the pattern for that sort of maneuver in 1796, as congressional leader of the then-Republican Party (later renamed the Democratic Party).
Back then, Madison was unhappy with the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, which he thought pandered to British interests and disfavored America. He led a tough fight in Congress to deny funds to implement the treaty. Though he lost, unable to overcome President Washington’s great prestige, his maneuver retains its vitality today.
Do media outlets complain that whistleblowers inside government are being throttled, preventing citizens from knowing what their own government is doing? They are taking up the cry raised by Madison in the last 1790s against government prosecution of newspaper editors. “To the press alone,” he wrote, “checkered as it is by abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
He may have been short and slight. He may not have stood out in a crowd. But James Madison stands conspicuous in history. When his 284th birthday rolls around on March 16, take a minute to remember him.
David O. Stewart is an award-winning author of several acclaimed histories. His most recent work is “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America.” He will be delivering a “Great Lives” lecture on that subject on Tuesday. (See sidebar.)