Term: March 4, 1809 – March 4, 1817
Vice President: George Clinton & Elbridge Gerry
Home State: Virginia
Wife: Dolley Payne Todd
Children: John Payne Todd (stepson)
One of the most well-known events of the Revolutionary War was the surprise attack of the Continental Army, led by General George Washington, on a Hessian garrison in Trenton, New Jersey. The Battle of Trenton, preceded by Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River on that very cold, snowy Christmas night in 1776, included the brave actions of platoon leader Lieutenant James Madison, the man who would become the fourth president of the United States as well as one of our Founding Fathers.
James Madison, born March 16, 1751, was one of 12 children (of whom nine survived) of James, Sr. and Nelly Conway Madison. Growing up in Virginia’s Orange County, young Madison’s family was well off financially from his father having inherited an estate (called Montpelier) as well as securing vast amounts of valuable property. Although there is no historical information regarding the Madison family’s traditional celebrations of the Christmas holiday during this time period, it can be assumed that because of their wealth, they most probably followed the customs and habits of similar families. James and his younger siblings would have had plum pudding and candied fruits on their Christmas table, along with displays of holly, ivy, mistletoe, and even perhaps the singing of songs. Certainly, there were no Christmas cards exchanged with friends or relatives since that practice did not become a custom in the United States until many years later.
As a student preparing for college, James excelled in languages, geography, and mathematics. At 18, he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). It is somewhat ironic that young Madison, who graduated in 1771, would attend a school only a short distance away from where, five years later, he would distinguish himself as a soldier on Christmas Day fighting his new country’s German adversaries. Upon his return to Montpelier after graduation, Madison became a lawyer, a politician, and an active member in the Virginia Assembly. In the early 1780s, following the end of the war, he returned to the Virginia legislature, where he worked and learned under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson. As a member of the Continental Congress, Madison was a major contributor at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 of the writing and ratification of the Federalist Papers, a precursor of the American Constitution. In addition, he was instrumental in the writing of the Bill of Rights. A shy man, Madison rejected a title bestowed upon him by admirers – Father of the Constitution – claiming credit should be given to many who contributed to the document’s existence.
It was in the spring of 1794, as a leading figure in the House of Representatives under President Washington, that Madison met Dolley Payne Todd, a widow with a young son. The vivacious, colorful, and friendly Dolley would marry the inhibited, often frail Madison after a short courtship of only a few months. Her sociability would become an asset for her husband as well as for the country itself in the coming years.
Following Thomas Jefferson’s ascendency to the presidency following the election of 1800, James Madison was selected by his political colleague to serve as the country’s fifth Secretary of State. Under his aegis, Madison oversaw the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, was a sponsor of the Embargo Act of 1807, and was a party to the historic Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison. It was during these years that Dolley acted as an official hostess for President Jefferson, a widower. At Christmas of 1805, Dolley invited six of Jefferson’s grandchildren and 100 of their friends to what became a joyous holiday party where the President played the violin while the children danced. These Christmas celebrations, hosted by the charming Dolley who made sure delicacies were enjoyed by all, continued through the years Jefferson was president.
When her husband succeeded his mentor as the master of the White House in 1809, the tradition of celebrating Christmas with White House parties – hosted by none other than Dolley – continued. Her holiday attire would usually include some purple peacock feathers atop a turban or cap covering her hair, along with her dress of lace and pink satin. Although there were neither White House Christmas cards exchanged nor a decorated Christmas tree in those years, the holiday tradition would include wonderful things to eat, as she would oversee the serving of seafood, stuffed goose, Virginia ham, and pound cake, as well as spirits such as sherry, bourbon, wine, and scotch. She would lift her glass with the heartfelt toast, “Merry Christmas! God Bless America!” Her lavish dinner parties, not just at Christmas but also during other times of the year, established Dolley as a central figure of Washington society and certainly helped her husband get re-elected in 1812.
During the time in which Madison served as president, the most remembered event is the War of 1812. Trade restrictions imposed by Great Britain on America’s trading with Britain’s perennial enemy, France; British support for Native Americans against frontier expansion; as well as forced recruitment of American citizens into Britain’s navy were all causes of a war termed by many as “Mr. Madison’s War.” Although fighting occurred in Canada, in the Northwest Territory, and on the frontier, the sacking of Washington, D.C. and the burning of both the Capitol and the White House by the British in August, 1814 is what most people remember about the war. In fact, it was the courageous Dolley, with the British army on the verge of entering the capitol, who stayed behind, ensuring that important state documents as well as a famous portrait of George Washington were safely removed before safely fleeing and joining her husband and government officials in the hills of Virginia.
After two years of conflict with neither side a clear victor, both the United States and Britain were weary that there seemed to be no end in sight. Finally, on the day before Christmas in 1814, officials from both countries met in the Netherlands to sign the Treaty of Ghent, which restored relations between the two adversaries as it had been two years previously, ending the war. Because communication back then was not what it is today, the negotiators’ special “Christmas card” with the good news of the war’s end did not reach President Madison until several weeks into the new year.
Following the ratification of the treaty in February of 1815, the citizenry of America was thrust into a sense of euphoria. The rest of Madison’s years as president were known as the “Era of Good Feelings” because Americans were relieved that there finally was an end to the British attempt at dominance against the U.S. since the Revolution. Indeed, a most wonderful Christmas present to the American people from their President!
After the end of his presidency in 1817, James and Dolley retired to their beloved Montpelier. Following the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826, Madison succeeded his longtime friend as president of the University of Virginia, the last occupation he would hold. In 1829, he would also serve as a representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention, his last appearance as a legislator.
Even during the years after her husband’s presidency had ended, Dolley continued to entertain guests in her always cheerful and gregarious manner, especially at Christmastime. There would be dancing and partaking of good food – often received as gifts – from Christmas right on through New Year’s Day. Even though the yearly tradition of sending Christmas cards was unheard of at that time, the Madisons and their relatives and friends wrote letters to each other wishing the best sentiments of the holiday season. Here is a note written by Dolley Madison for her nieces early in 1836: “A thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come!”
It was later that year, on June 28, that the former president passed away at the age of 85; he was the last of the Founding Fathers to die. Because of financial difficulties, Dolley Madison a year later was forced to sell the tobacco plantation and return to Washington. Still friendly and outgoing, the former First Lady continued to partake in social and political events, during the year as well as at Christmas, and was beloved by everyone who knew her. In 1849, at the age of 81, she passed away. She was buried at Montpelier, next to her husband.