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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 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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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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History
The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 14, 1912—105 years ago today—Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for another term. It was a tough race: Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent, and William Howard Taft, while unpopular, was the Republican incumbent. Roosevelt was running as a third-party Progressive, and in order to keep pace with his big-ticket rivals he had to work hard. By this point in the election season, he was giving 15 to 20 speeches per day, most of which stretched on for an hour or sometimes more. But this day, TR didn't feel too well. His throat was scratchy, he was tired, and so he planned a relatively quick stop.

What Roosevelt and his security team didn't know was that a man with a .38 caliber revolver had been trailing the campaign since they departed New Orleans. For a thousand miles, he rode quietly, just waiting to get his shot at the Colonel.

John Schrank was a Bavarian-born saloon-keeper from New York. He'd had some strange and troubling dreams in recent months, mostly about President McKinley, whose assassination resulted in Roosevelt's first term. In his dreams, Schrank said that President McKinley asked him to avenge his death and protect democracy from a three-term president. All Schrank had to do was kill Roosevelt before he could be reelected.

"BUT FORTUNATELY I HAD MY MANUSCRIPT"

Roosevelt stood in the seat of his automobile to wave at the crowds and Schrank, who was standing in the front row of the crowd, had his shot. He took aim: point-blank, right at Roosevelt’s head. Then three things happened at the same time. A bystander hit Schrank’s arm; Roosevelt’s security detail spotted the gun and leapt from the car; Schrank pulled the trigger. The shot landed squarely in Roosevelt’s chest just as Schrank was tackled and put in a headlock by the bodyguard. Roosevelt is said not to have noticed he was hit until he reached into his overcoat and felt the blood on his fingers.

But it turns out that Teddy’s long-winded speeches saved his life that day: The bullet traveled through a 50-page copy of his prepared speech and the steel eyeglasses case he carried in the same pocket. The bullet was slowed enough not to reach his lung or heart, which Teddy deduced from the absence of blood when he spoke or coughed. He refused to go to a hospital and insisted on giving his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he began. He spoke for at least 55 more minutes (though some estimates say 90), still wearing his blood-soaked shirt. (You can read a stenographer’s report of his speech here.)

The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book.
The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book, which—along with the eyeglasses case and the shirt TR was wearing—can be seen at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.
Erin McCarthy

Roosevelt would spend the next eight days in the hospital. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall and removing it was deemed too unsafe. The wound healed and he never reported trouble from the injury again. Despite having lived through his assassination attempt, the presidency would not be Teddy’s again: Woodrow Wilson’s 41 percent of the vote meant the office would be his, though Roosevelt did beat out incumbent Taft, marking the only time a sitting president has come in third place in a reelection bid.

Schrank, in the meantime, was apprehended immediately. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, and died of pneumonia in 1943.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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