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16 Fun Facts for James Madison’s Birthday

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getty images (madison) / istock (party supplies)

At 5 feet 4 inches, Madison was America’s shortest commander-in-chief—but he left behind a towering legacy. To honor his 264th birthday, we’ve dug up some lesser-known details about this “Father of the U.S. Constitution” and the colorful life he led. Did you know...

1. That He Was the Oldest of Twelve Children And Prone To Sickness?

Madison wasn’t the healthiest kid—or adult for that matter. A frequent victim of nasty stomach aches, he’d also weather “attacks resembling epilepsy” throughout his life.

2. That Madison Fought—And Won—an Oratory Duel With Patrick Henry?

This was no small feat. Throughout their home state of Virginia, Henry was renowned as a public speaking heavyweight who wooed crowds wherever he went. Thomas Jefferson declared that the booming debater spoke “as Homer wrote.” Madison, in contrast, had a quiet voice and little talent for theatrics.

In 1788, a ratifying convention was held in Richmond to determine if Virginia would grant her approval to the Constitution Madison had helped engineer. Henry staunchly opposed this document, and loudly decried it for leaning “towards monarchy.” But though several people in attendance complained of Madison’s mumbling, he offered concise, well-articulated rebuttals to every argument. When the dust settled, his slow and steady approach paid off big-time: Virginia’s representatives voted 89 to 79 in favor of ratification.

3. That He Competed With James Monroe for a Seat in the Newly-Minted House of Representatives?

In 1789, both Monroe and Madison sought the job, with Madison decisively winning the election. Throughout their campaign, the two got along amicably and, every so often, would accompany each other en route to debates.

4. That He Once Thought America Should Rent Portugal’s Navy?

Congressman Madison suggested that the American government ought to guard its oceanic interests by hiring the Portuguese navy for anti-pirate protection instead of constructing one of her own.

5. That Aaron Burr Introduced Him to His Wife, Dolley, in 1794?

Alexander Hamilton’s future dueling opponent knew Madison through congress (where he also worked at the time) and had gotten acquainted with Dolley by virtue of her mother’s boarding house, which Burr frequently visited.

6. That He Fathered No Biological Children but Helped Raise a Stepson?

Dolley’s first husband and oldest child had both died the year before she married Madison. The statesman immediately took an active role in caring for her only surviving son, two-year-old John Payne Todd.

7. That Madison Loved Ice Cream?

Before freezers came along, ice cream was one labor-intensive treat, and during their tenure in the White House, the Madisons served several varieties of this chilly dessert at official functions. Apparently, the First Lady’s favorite flavor was oyster (don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it).

8. That He Employed a Number of Secret Codes?

Madison—like any good politician—was terrified by the idea that someone might intercept one of his private letters. Along with Jefferson and many mutual allies, Madison used complicated encryptions when relaying delicate info. “Having now the use of my cypher,” he informed Jefferson in 1784 after mastering a new system, “I can write without restraint.”

9. That When the British Burned Down His White House, They Also Ate His Dinner?

On August 24, 1814, an eerie emptiness fell upon the Presidential mansion. As British forces advanced towards Washington, Madison’s home and office was completely abandoned mere hours before it was besieged. After breaking in, the Brits set the place ablaze before discovering and gobbling up a beautifully-cooked meal that had been intended for the President. Apple, cider, and wine complemented the menu.

10. That Both of His Vice Presidents Died in Office?

George Clinton kicked the bucket in 1812. His short-lived replacement was former Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who’d redistricted that state to tip the political scales in his favor, a process we now call “Gerrymandering.” Gerry also died in office, and is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be buried in Washington, DC.

11. That He Had a Naughty Sense of Humor?

During his days as Secretary of State, Madison once had to cover the costs of a visiting Tunisian diplomat named Sidi Soliman Mellimelli. This honored guest was accompanied by several concubines whose expenses Madison lightheartedly justified to President Jefferson as “appropriations for foreign intercourse.”

12. That He Once Proposed a Brutal Hangover Experiment?

At an 1804 party thrown in Jefferson’s honor, journalist Samuel Harrison Smith spent part of his evening drinking with Secretary Madison, who voiced his desire to find out how many glasses of champagne would be necessary to trigger “a headache the next day.” It’s unknown if anyone present ever actually tried this experiment.

13. That He Helped Amend Virginia’s State Constitution at the Ripe Old Age of 79?

This event—which consisted of a 96-man assemblage—became his last public appearance as a politician.

14. That He Played a Big Role in Establishing the University of Virginia?

Among UVA’s original trustees, Madison later served as its second rector (“chairman”) from 1826 to 1836 and bequeathed most of his personal library to the school.

15. That He Was the Last Surviving Signer of the U.S. Constitution?

For months, the dying ex-President remained bed-ridden. On June 28, 1836, Madison found he couldn’t swallow his breakfast. “What is the matter, Uncle James?” asked his beloved niece, Nelly Willis. “Nothing but a change of mind, my dear,” he replied before death finally took him.

16. That His Face Appeared on a $5000 Bill?

The government stopped printing these in 1945.

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7 Things You Might Not Know About William McKinley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country—or removed from major mountains. Here’s a look at some facts about our 25th president, William McKinley, who was born 175 years ago today.

1. HE HELPED KEEP A GANG OF COAL MINERS OUT OF PRISON.

McKinley, born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, studied at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania and Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, but he didn’t graduate from either school. After the Civil War erupted, he volunteered for the Union Army, rose to the rank of second lieutenant, and received a brevet commission to major. Following the war he apprenticed under an attorney, studied law for less than a year at New York's Albany College, and was admitted to the bar back in Ohio in March 1867.

Nine years later, McKinley defended a group of striking coal miners who allegedly incited a riot at a mine in Tuscarawas Valley before tussling with the Ohio militia sent by Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. All but one of the miners was acquitted, and McKinley refused any compensation for his services.

2. AS PRESIDENT, HE BOOTED SPAIN OUT OF FOUR TERRITORIES.

Even though McKinley’s then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, allegedly claimed that his boss possessed “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair” while the situation with Spain was deteriorating, McKinley and Spain would eventually cut off diplomatic relations, and the United States supported Cuba in its struggle with the Spanish.

After the American battleship Maine exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Havana in February 1898, killing 266 sailors, McKinley demanded Spain grant independence to Cuba, and Congress authorized a declaration of war on April 25, 1898 (though they retroactively dated it to April 21). In the roughly 100-day Spanish-American War, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Cuba’s Santiago, seized Manila in the Philippines, and annexed Puerto Rico and Guam, ending Spain’s run of colonial dominance.

3. HIS HOME LIFE WAS TRAGIC.

McKinley married Ida Saxton, a cashier at her father’s bank, in 1871, and she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, on Christmas Day the same year. A second daughter, Ida, was born in 1873, but died four months later. Katherine passed away from typhoid fever in 1875, and his wife’s health deteriorated due to phlebitis and undiagnosed epilepsy. During their time in the White House, Ida often needed sedation to enable her to sit through official functions as First Lady, and McKinley would throw a handkerchief over her face when she suffered an epileptic seizure.

4. HE ANNEXED THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAII.

McKinley reversed the policy of his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, and advocated for Hawaii to become a U.S. territory. After the Spanish-American War, the strategic importance of the islands’ location in the Pacific Ocean became more apparent, and an annexation resolution supported by McKinley passed the House and Senate in 1898. The episode marked an end to a lengthy battle between native Hawaiians and white American businessmen for control of the local government. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown in 1893, and Benjamin Harrison actually sent a bill to the Senate to approve the annexation. But Grover Cleveland became president before it was passed, and he withdrew the bill. When McKinley became president, he tried to reintroduce the bill, but was stymied by the Hawaiian Patriotic League, who kept the U.S. at bay until the events of 1898.

5. AN ANARCHIST SHOT HIM JUST MONTHS INTO HIS SECOND TERM.

During a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sept. 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the torso while the president greeted guests in a receiving line. McKinley allegedly uttered, “Don’t let them hurt him,” as the angry mob descended on Czolgosz. Later, at the Emergency Hospital on the Exposition grounds, McKinley said of his assassin, “It must have been some poor misguided fellow,” and “He didn’t know, poor fellow, what he was doing. He couldn’t have known.”

6. AN OB/GYN PERFORMED THE EMERGENCY SURGERY THAT FAILED TO SAVE MCKINLEY'S LIFE.

Matthew Mann, a physician and professor of gynecology at the University of Buffalo, was chosen by a hastily assembled group of doctors to perform surgery on McKinley, but the team could not find the second bullet inside the President’s body. A brand-new X-ray machine sent by Thomas Edison arrived in Buffalo but was never used, as it was thought McKinley’s condition was improving. Instead, his health declined as gangrene set in around the path of the bullet. McKinley died on September 14, 1901, eight days after being shot and just six months into his second term as President.

7. MOUNT MCKINLEY LOST MORE THAN 80 FEET IN 2013, AND THEN LOST HIS NAME.

McKinley never set foot in Alaska and never saw the peak named for him by prospector William Dickey, a designation that was made official by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. That’s probably a good thing, because it’s been a rough few years for McKinley’s spot on the mountain.

First, the mountain shrank. On September 12, 2013, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell announced that North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, was 20,237 feet tall, 83 feet shorter than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey and Alaska’s Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative used new radar technology to correct the earlier height of 20,320 feet, which had been recorded in 1952 using photogrammetry.

Then, the mountain cut its ties to McKinley. Although the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain in 1975 to Denali, a name used by the Koyukon Athabaskan people, for decades Ohio representatives had been blocking name-change requests sent by the Alaskan state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names. Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 that reverted the name of the area to the Denali National Park and Preserve, but the name of the mountain itself had remained steady until 2015. Associate director for the National Park Service Victor Knox said in June of that year that he had “no objection” to a January bill submitted by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski that would rename the peak Denali. The change became official in 2015, stripping the 25th president’s name from the highest peak in North America.

But, you should use a non-permanent marker on those atlases—the Ohio delegation, including Speaker John Boehner and Representative Tim Ryan, were quick to denounce the decision and have said they're exploring legal avenues to challenge the decision. And in late 2017, Donald Trump considered reversing the decision, though the Alaska senate told him thanks but no thanks.

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Rutherford B. Hayes, National Hero of Paraguay
iStock // Wikimedia Commons

Following a traffic accident in 1998, 15-year-old Griselda Servin spent two years in a coma. When she awoke, the Paraguayan was excited to find out that a regional television show, Tell Me a Dream, would be making one of her wishes come true. Servin would have an opportunity to fly to America, which she had always wanted to see, with all expenses paid.

There was one condition. Instead of heading for New York City, which she preferred, the show would be sending her to Fremont, Ohio. Servin would be honoring her country by visiting the resting place of its greatest hero—the 19th American president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

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How Hayes—by most historical accounts, a man who chaired an unremarkable presidency from 1877 to 1881 that was remembered mainly for introducing telephones and Easter Egg rolls to the White House—wound up becoming an icon for a small South American country is remarkable. Not because of the geographical divide, but because Hayes himself might have had virtually nothing to do with it.

In 1864, Brazil had tried to intervene in a civil war in Uruguay; Paraguay was worried that this would destabilize the entire region, and ultimately declared war on Brazil, which enlisted Argentina and Uruguay to overtake the Paraguayans. Paraguay was so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the opposing soldiers that they began painting sticks to look like guns and putting them in the hands of children wearing fake beards. After six years of bloodshed, the country had seen up to 60 percent of its population killed in combat or dead of disease.

Sensing easy prey, Argentina swooped in to claim Chaco, a desolate slice of land roughly the size of Colorado that made up 60 percent of Paraguay's total territory. Losing it meant Paraguay would be in danger of ceasing to exist.

In an attempt to settle the land issue without bloodshed, the countries agreed to arbitration by a neutral third party: the United States. Both submitted reams of documents and testimony arguing why their side should be awarded Chaco.

On November 12, 1878, Hayes released a written decision. It read, in part:

…Be it known that I, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States of America, having duly considered the said statements and the said exhibits, do hereby determine that the said Republic of Paraguay is legally and justly entitled to the said territory between the Pilcomayo and the Verde rivers, and to the Villa Occidentals situated therein…

Although Chaco was and would remain largely destitute and semi-inhabitable—Paraguayans like to refer to it as the “Green Hell” despite a productive cattle ranching industry—it didn’t matter. To them, Hayes had rendered a just decision that offered some ray of hope after a devastating three-pronged attack, one that had left just 29,000 adult males alive—many still with battle wounds.

Over the next several decades, Paraguay’s reverence for Hayes swelled. It named a state Presidente Hayes, with the town at the mouth of Chaco dubbed Villa Hayes. A museum was erected in his honor; a bust of him greets schoolchildren at Villa Hayes Elementary. The date of his decision, November 12, is a provincial holiday.

Amid the monuments, soccer teams, and postage stamps honoring him, Paraguayans often express disbelief whenever they're confronted with the idea that Americans don’t spend much time thinking about Hayes.

Ricardo Nuñez, mayor of Villa Hayes, was astonished to be told by a U.S. journalist that Hayes’s contemporaries once referred to him as “Rutherfraud” because his office was preceded by a Constitutional crisis, and he had lost the popular vote.

“Rutherfraud? Wow!” Nuñez told NPR in 2014. “That’s amazing!” He could not conceive of such a slur.

Given Paraguay’s history of malevolent rulers, it’s not surprising that they placed a lot of emotional stock in Hayes, who served just one term and died in 1893. The dictator who antagonized Brazil, General Francisco Solano Lopez, once demanded that his Catholic bishops declare him a saint. If they refused, they were executed. Once he took office, he had his elderly mother flogged in public.

While there’s no record of Hayes ordering the courtyard whipping of his mother, the truth is that no one is quite sure just how much he had to do with the decision to allow Paraguay to keep Chaco. Historians don’t know what criteria was used, or if Hayes simply endorsed the decision made by his staff. It’s likely low-level subordinates pored through paperwork and that Secretary of State William Evarts merely gave the ruling to Hayes for a signature.

For a matter that may have occupied just a couple of hours of his life, Hayes has received infinitely more credit for it than for his entire tenure in office. In Delaware, Ohio, his childhood home was torn down to make room for a commercial development. Those wishing to pay a pilgrimage to Hayes’s birthplace will be greeted by a BP gas station with a memorial plaque out in front.

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