16 Fun Facts for James Madison’s Birthday

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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 “somewhat 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 died.

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

The government stopped printing these in 1945.

11 Everyday Tasks That Are Tricky for Left Handers

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In Medieval times, left-handed people had more to worry about than smudging their own handwriting: Being a lefty was associated with demonic possession. While those with southpaw tendencies aren't likely to be labeled as the devil's puppet today, life for those in that 10 percent of the population can still be a struggle. In honor of International Left Handers Day, check out some common tasks that lefties rarely get right.

1. USING SCISSORS

Unless you special-order left-handed scissors, the act of cutting up paper can quickly become an exercise in frustration. Scissors typically have blades with distinct handles, including one for the thumb—a lefty’s thumb will usually get stuck in the finger hole because they’re holding it upside-down. Fortunately, most operating rooms are equipped with scissors for both hands.

2. WRITING

A spiral notebook poses problems for a left-handed writer
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Because a lefty’s hand is running through everything being written, signatures, notes, and other scribblings often turn into a smeared mess. Writing in three-ringed binders or notebooks is even worse, since the spine makes it difficult to rest your hand against a smooth surface. The worst part? Gripping the pen cap with your left hand forces it to loosen up, making for a writing utensil that comes apart while you’re trying to use it.

3. HAVING DINNER COMPANY

If you know anyone who prefers to eat alone, ask about their dominant hand. It might be because using their left arm to dig into food means engaging in a constant battle for table real estate with a person on their left who is eating with their right arm. It also means their drinking glasses will be parked next to one another, with spillage always a looming threat.

4. WALKING

A man walks along a stretch of road
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Even sober, a lefty’s locomotion is affected. Why? Because when they cross paths with someone walking in the opposite direction, both tend to lean into their dominant side—putting them in front of each other yet again.

5. BANKING

To make sure their pens don’t wind up lost or stolen, most banks will tether them to a flimsy chain on the table. It’s non-invasive for right-handed people, but lefties are forced to try to sign checks with a chain constantly pulling against their hand movement.

6. PUTTING ON CLOTHES

A jeans zipper appears on the right side
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The fly on jeans, zippered coats, and other apparel usually opens on the right side, creating a barrier of entry for lefties. Buttons escalate the difficulty. Some women’s clothing reverses this, putting closures on the left. The tradition is thought to have started when servants would dress their charges in the Victorian era: Left-sided buttons would be to their right.

7. USING CELL PHONES

Although Apple is a prime culprit, many cell phones can be problematic for lefties. For one thing, cradling the device with your left hand can sometimes obscure the antenna, affecting reception. For another, control blocks can default to the right side in landscape mode, putting them out of reach.

8. MEASURING FOOD INGREDIENTS

A measuring cup that looks to be designed for right-handed use
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Glass or plastic measuring cups frequently print serving amounts to the left of the handle, meaning lefties who pour with their left and hold the cup with their right will either see nothing at all or the metric system side. 

9. HYDRATING AND DRIVING

Most lefties get used to shifting with their right hand, but it’s still awkward to try and fetch a (non-alcoholic) drink from the cup holder on the right side of the driver’s seat.

10. OPENING CANS

A can opener made for right-handed use
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Manual can openers favor right-handed operation, meaning lefties are forced to either obscure the knob with their left or move in the opposite direction. (Pull-tab cans have saved the sanity of many a lefty.) The same holds true for potato peelers, which are engineered for the right-handed majority. Fortunately, a few stores sell mirror-imaged kitchen tools.

11. PAINTING NAILS

Most day-to-day tasks can be modified or at least tolerated by lefties, but those who opt to paint their nails find that their left hand winds up a mess. The same is true for right-handed people, too—all the better to give them a taste of lefty life.

11 Sharp Facts About Annie Oakley

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Getty

You probably know that Annie Oakley was an outstanding sharpshooter who became famous while performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But if your knowledge of her life is limited to Annie Get Your Gun, we’ve got you covered. In honor of her birthday, here are 11 facts about Oakley, the Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.

1. SHE MADE HER FIRST SHOT AT 8 YEARS OLD.

Born on August 13, 1860 in a rural part of western Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses grew up poor. Her father’s death in 1866 meant that she had to contribute to help her family survive, so she trapped small animals such as quail for food. At eight years old, she made her first shot when she killed a squirrel outside her house. “It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side. My mother was so frightened when she learned that I had taken down the loaded gun and shot it that I was forbidden to touch it again for eight months,” she later said.

2. SHE USED HER SHOOTING SKILLS TO PAY OFF HER MOM’S MORTGAGE.

Despite Oakley’s top-notch shooting skills, her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. She sent Oakley to work for another family in exchange for her daughter getting an education. As a teenager, Oakley returned home (after working as a servant for an abusive family) and continued to hunt animals. She sold the meat to an Ohio grocery store, earning enough money to pay her mom’s $200 mortgage. She later wrote: "Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to mother and told her that I had saved enough to pay it off!"

3. SHE BEAT HER FUTURE HUSBAND IN A SHOOTING MATCH.

At 15 years old, Oakley participated in a shooting match on Thanksgiving with Frank Butler, an Irish-American professional marksman. The match, which happened in Cincinnati, was a doozy. To Butler’s surprise, the teenage girl outshot him by one clay pigeon, and he lost the $100 bet he had placed. Rather than feel embarrassed or emasculated by his loss, Butler was impressed and interested, and the two married the following year.

4. DESPITE HER PROFESSION, SHE EMPHASIZED HER FEMININITY.


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At the end of the 19th century, shooting was a predominantly male activity, and Oakley certainly stood out. But rather than dress or behave like a man to fit in, she emphasized her femininity. She wore her own homemade costumes on stage, behaved modestly, and engaged in "proper" female activities such as embroidery in her spare time.

5. SHE WAS ONLY FIVE FEET TALL.

In addition to Oakley’s gender, her diminutive stature made her stand out in the world of sharpshooting. In 1884, the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull befriended Oakley when the two performers were traveling across the country. Acknowledging both her height and her shooting skill, Sitting Bull nicknamed Oakley Watanya Cicillia (English translation: Little Sure Shot). The American Indian warrior liked Oakley so much that he gave her his special moccasins to "adopt" her as his daughter.

6. SHE PERFORMED FOR KINGS AND QUEENS IN EUROPE.


Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although the concept of the Wild West is firmly rooted in Americana, Oakley showed off her shooting skills across Europe as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1887, she performed for Queen Victoria at the American Exposition in London, and the queen reportedly told Oakley that she was a "very clever little girl." In 1889, Oakley performed at the Paris Exposition and traveled to Italy and Spain. The press loved her, the king of Senegal wanted her to come help control the tiger population in his country, and Italy’s King Umberto I was a fan.

7. SHE OFFERED TO LEAD FEMALE SHOOTERS IN WORLD WAR I.

Wanting to use her shooting skills to serve her country, Oakley wrote a letter to President McKinley in 1898. She offered to provide 50 female sharpshooters (with their own arms and ammunition) to fight for the United States in the Spanish-American War, but she never got a response. Similarly, in 1917, she contacted the U.S. Secretary of War to offer her expertise to teach an army unit of women shooters to fight in World War I. She didn’t hear back, so she visited army camps, raised money for the Red Cross, and volunteered with military charities instead.

8. SHE SUED THE PRESS FOR PUBLICIZING HER (NONEXISTENT) DRUG ADDICTION.

In August 1903, two of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in Chicago reported that Oakley was a cocaine addict who was arrested for stealing a black man’s pants. Other newspapers ran the story, and Oakley—who was neither a drug addict nor a thief—was horrified. "The terrible piece … nearly killed me … The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character," she said.

The woman who had been arrested in Chicago was a burlesque performer whose stage name was Any Oakley. Most newspapers published retractions, but Hearst didn’t. He (unsuccessfully) hired a private investigator to uncover anything sordid about Oakley. Oakley sued 55 newspapers for libel, ultimately winning or settling 54 of them by 1910. Despite winning money from Hearst and other newspapers, costly legal expenses meant that she ultimately lost money to clear her name.

9. THANKS TO THOMAS EDISON, SHE BECAME A FILM ACTRESS.

In 1888, Oakley acted in Deadwood Dick, a financially unsuccessful play. At the Paris Exposition the next year, though, she met Buffalo Bill Cody’s friend Thomas Edison. In 1894, Oakley visited Edison in New Jersey and showed off her shooting skills for the inventor’s Kinetoscope. The resulting film, called The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West, featured Oakley shooting a rifle to break glass balls. Although she didn’t continue acting in film, she did act in The Western Girl, a play in which she portrayed a sharpshooter, in 1902 and 1903.

10. TWO SERIOUS ACCIDENTS HALTED HER CAREER.


Annie Oakley in 1922

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In 1901, Oakley was injured in a train accident while traveling between North Carolina and Virginia for a performance. Although reports differ about the severity of her injuries, we do know that she took a year off from performing after the accident. Two decades later, Oakley was injured in a car accident in Florida. Her hip and ankle were fractured, and she wore a leg brace until 1926, when she passed away from pernicious anemia in Ohio at age 66. Frank Butler, her husband of 50 years, died 18 days later.

11. HER NAME BECAME AN IDIOMATIC EXPRESSION.

You know you’ve made it when your name becomes an idiom. Because of her shooting skills, the phrase "Annie Oakley" acquired a meaning of a free ticket to an event. Performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Oakley shot holes in tiny objects, making targets out of everything from playing cards to a dime to a cigar dangling out of her husband’s mouth. Because free admission tickets for theatrical shows had holes punched in them (so they wouldn’t be sold to someone else), these tickets came to be called "Annie Oakleys."

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