CLOSE
getty images (madison) / istock (party supplies)
getty images (madison) / istock (party supplies)

16 Fun Facts for James Madison’s Birthday

getty images (madison) / istock (party supplies)
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
arrow
History
The Funky History of George Washington's Fake Teeth
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo

George Washington may have the most famous teeth—or lack thereof—in American history. But counter to what you may have heard about the Founding Father's ill-fitting dentures, they weren't made of wood. In fact, he had several sets of dentures throughout his life, none of which were originally trees. And some of them are still around. The historic Mount Vernon estate holds the only complete set of dentures that has survived the centuries, and the museum features a video that walks through old George's dental history.

Likely due to genetics, poor diet, and dental disease, Washington began losing his original teeth when he was still a young man. By the time he became president in 1789, he only had one left in his mouth. The dentures he purchased to replace his teeth were the most scientifically advanced of the time, but in the late 18th century, that didn't mean much.

They didn't fit well, which caused him pain, and made it difficult to eat and talk. The dentures also changed the way Washington looked. They disfigured his face, causing his lips to noticeably stick out. But that doesn't mean Washington wasn't grateful for them. When he finally lost his last surviving tooth, he sent it to his dentist, John Greenwood, who had made him dentures of hippo ivory, gold, and brass that accommodated the remaining tooth while it still lived. (The lower denture of that particular pair is now held at the New York Academy of Medicine.)

A set of historic dentures
George Washington's Mount Vernon

These days, no one would want to wear dentures like the ones currently held at Mount Vernon (above). They're made of materials that would definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. The base that fit the fake teeth into the jaw was made of lead. The top teeth were sourced from horses or donkeys, and the bottom were from cows and—wait for it—people.

These teeth actually deteriorated themselves, revealing the wire that held them together. The dentures open and shut thanks to metal springs, but because they were controlled by springs, if he wanted to keep his mouth shut, Washington had to permanently clench his jaw. You can get a better idea of how the contraption worked in the video from Mount Vernon below.

Washington's Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the life of George Washington, but perhaps the most salient is this: You should definitely, definitely floss.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
11 Famous Men Who Used to Be Cheerleaders
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When cheerleading was “born” on November 2, 1898, it looked a lot different than it does today. There were no tiny outfits, no wild stunts and—surprise!—no women. University of Minnesota student Johnny Campbell rallied a football crowd with the ad-libbed cheer, "Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-u-mah, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-So-Tah!” and unwittingly became the father of cheerleading. (The school, by the way, still uses Campbell’s original cheer to this day.)

Soon after Campbell’s performance, the University of Minnesota organized a six-man “yell squad” and other colleges followed suit. Women didn’t really enter the picture until 1923. Although male cheerleaders are the minority today, there was a time when they were the vast—and loud—majority. Here are 11 famous examples of them.

1. GEORGE W. BUSH

Future president George W. Bush wasn't just a cheerleader at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts in the 1960s: he was head cheerleader. And he’s in good company ...

2. AARON SPELLING

Aaron Spelling may have made his name behind the scenes as one of television's most prolific—and successful—producers, but he was front and center when he was head cheerleader at Southern Methodist University.

3. JIMMY STEWART


Getty Images

Iconic actor Jimmy Stewart was also head cheerleader during his tenure at Princeton.

4. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER

When he was no longer able to play football at West Point, Eisenhower decided to continue supporting his team by cheerleading instead.

5. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

FDR cheered for Harvard football in 1904, notably rallying the crowd for a particularly heated game against Brown.

6. SAMUEL L. JACKSON

Samuel L. Jackson lent his legendary voice to the squad at Riverside High in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

7. STEVE MARTIN


NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Steve Martin tried to write cheers for the squad he was on, but has said “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs” didn’t go over too well.

8. TRENT LOTT

Former Mississippi senator Trent Lott was a cheerleader at Ole Miss.

9. RONALD REAGAN


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan cheered on his basketball team at Eureka College in Illinois.

10. AND 11. KIRK DOUGLAS AND MICHAEL DOUGLAS

Before he was an actor, Kirk Douglas honed his performance skills as a cheerleader at Amsterdam High School in Amsterdam, New York. As with acting, Kirk's son Michael also followed in his dad's footsteps in cheerleading; he was on the squad at Choate.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios