MADISON, Wis. - James Madison is often forgotten in the scheme of presidents, but I'm not saying he was a great or a good one, for he was not.
He was charisma-challenged and fled the British when they came marching to burn down his house late in the summer of 1814. General Ross and John Bull still felt bitter about the upstart American Revolution.
But as I live and breathe on a family porch in Madison, the state capital, on the Fourth of July holiday week, here goes. A postcard from Madison on Madison. Everything they never told you, starting with his status as a planter - southernspeak for slaveowner – and a congressman in the 1790s. The slight "Jemmy" Madison was Thomas Jefferson's right-hand man and his write-hand man.
At the behest of Madison's wife Dolley Madison, Jefferson's slave mistress Sally Hemings named one of their sons Madison Hemings. There you have pretty close proof that Jefferson's 40-year conjugal relationship with a slave, a secret in Washington, was known to close friends and associates who came to call at Monticello, his mountaintop plantation.
The Virginian fourth president, considered the father of the Constitution, was a brilliant political writer and thinker on federalism. But he was too cerebral for his most famous line of work, just like someone else we know who lives in the same house 200 years after President Madison.
If Madison were to meet Barack Obama, once he got over the shock of his origins, they would have a true meeting of elegant minds. They could discuss the Second Amendment gone awry on gun ownership - and what did Madison really mean about militias, anyway?
Obama could tell him how well federalism has worked out - and how we had to to fight a little war over slavery. That "peculiar institution" was the unresolved fundamental flaw in our Founding Fathers' documents, and Madison would have known that as well as anyone.
Madison suffered the most ignominious fate of any American president ever. While he was hiding out in a secret place, much like George Bush went underground on 9/11, Mrs. Madison's dinner for 40 was laid out on the table, but never served. The word went out that the British were coming that moment! The entire household fled.
In fact, the entire city of Washington hastily packed and evacuated. When British General Robert Ross and his army troops burst into the presidential mansion to see a still-warm dinner on the table, they had a jolly time before setting it ablaze. The reason we don't hear much about Madison as president is because of this disgrace. The War of 1812 literally came home to haunt him, but he wasn't there to answer the door.
Madison met a comely Quaker woman in Philadelphia when he was a congressman and that city was the capital in the early republic period. Dolley Payne Todd was a young widow living with her mother, who kept a boardinghouse in Philadelphia. One gentleman boarder, a congressman with a silky voice and manners, told Dolley he had a friend who wished to meet her: Mr. Madison. Speaking strictly for me, I'd rather have the matchmaker: elegant Aaron Burr of New York. But Dolley wasn't his cup of tea.
Thus it came to pass that shy Jemmy Madison, a bachelor of about 40, wed a widow 15 years younger. In a sign of the turbulent times to come, the new Mrs. Madison was expelled from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia for marrying a slaveowner. The Friends, a.k.a. Quakers, were the first religion to officially oppose slavery, since colonial times. They were later the backbone of the abolitionist movement.
Just remember that not even the father of the Constitution ever got anti-slavery religion, not even when he married into it! That helps explain a few things, like the Civil War.
From the porch, wishing everybody a happy Fourth of July, especially immigrants and gay couples. Progress comes to this land of ours - at times in the wake of terrible struggle. But it comes. A look at the life of Madison tells us that.
- Read Susan Milligan: NSA Leaker Snowden's Search for Asylum in Russia and Ecuador
- Read Stephanie Slade: Opponents of Obamacare Think Health Care Costs Will Rise
- Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad