The case for finally building a memorial to James Madison

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A presidential portrait of James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth president of the United States, who served from 1809 to 1817, hangs in Bowdoin College Museum of Art. (Photo: Burstein Collection/Corbis)

This July 4, let’s reflect on why we have memorials in the first place.

Memorials are, as ever, a hot topic. The $10 bill is about to be redesigned to include not only Alexander Hamilton but also an (as yet undecided) American female leader. Meanwhile, the Eisenhower family is trying to kill the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial, which includes confusing, abstract allusions to the trees — yes, trees — of Eisenhower’s youth.

These battles, of course, are not only about how we remember Eisenhower or Hamilton. They are about how America remembers, and defines, itself. With that in mind, Congress should seize this moment to authorize a real memorial to the most unheralded of our nation’s founding figures: James Madison. In the process, our nation could also revive interest in what was long known as the cornerstone of the American experiment: statesmanship.

The 5-foot-4, 100-pound Madison designed the intellectual framework for the Constitution, including federalism and the so-called Virginia Plan — the blueprint that determined the structure of our government that emerged from the Constitutional Convention, with its strong executive, bicameral legislature and independent judiciary. He was a strategist who helped assemble the alliances and map out the plan necessary to the Constitution’s implementation, including the campaign of editorials later known as the Federalist Papers, the battle to ratify the Constitution in the crucial state of Virginia and the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1789.

But despite these nation-shaping accomplishments, try to find a memorial to the Father of the Constitution and the fourth president of the United States in Washington. No luck? That’s because America’s official memorial is the Library of Congress’ bland, glassy, modern third building, which is almost laughably overshadowed by the breathtaking Jefferson Memorial and the epic Washington Monument.

We have, in fact, a long history of ignoring the central role of this Founding Father. After Madison died, his widow, Dolley, was forced to sell the family estate of Montpelier in Orange County, Va., for financial reasons. For two decades afterward, Madison’s grave there was not even marked.

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Restoration specialist James Quade works on the triple-hung windows in the drawing room of Montpelier, the restored home of former President James Madison, in Orange, Va. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

While George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello are carefully preserved, by the early 2000s, Montpelier was more of a duPont family horse-racing center than a presidential memorial. The first time I visited it in 2001, I vividly remember seeing an old, dirty mop leaning in the corner of a dilapidated kitchen filled with peeling Formica, just off the main entryway.

The image of that mop has lingered with me for 14 years. Over a decade of renovations and a recent $10 million gift from philanthropist David Rubenstein are helping to change things, but the fact remains that Montpelier is too often overlooked and overshadowed in our pantheon of memorials to the framers.

The choice not to venerate Madison says more about us than it does about Madison. A proper memorial in Washington would recognize the central place not just of soaring idealism (like Jefferson’s) or military might (like Washington’s) or wartime leadership (like Lincoln’s), but also of statesmanship — an architectural political virtue that is foundational to all the others.

Our nation is experiencing a crisis of statesmanship. In interviews conducted over the last several years for my new book on Madison and statesmanship, current and former elected officials, senior Capitol Hill aides, journalists and academics struggled to define what statesmanship means today.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Madison spoke about how the Senate would be home to “enlightened statesmen” and would “consist in its proceedings with more coolness” and with “more wisdom” than the House. In the convention to ratify the Constitution, he emphasized that the new nation would depend on the “circulation of confidence,” which would be better even than the circulation of money. He believed deeply in the affirmative power of faith in leadership, in optimism about the possibility to choose wise leaders who would pursue the common good.

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“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention of 1787; oil painting on canvas by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. The painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

The last year alone has seen four books (including mine) about Madison, with more to come. Richard Brookhiser (himself the author of another recent book on Madison) called this “Madison mania.” What’s it about? I believe the answer is our newfound hunger — in a time of profound gridlock and deep popular cynicism about political leadership — for Madisonian statesmanship.

Madison illustrated statesmanship with his very life. As a newly elected congressman, he stayed home all winter rather than leave, as was the custom, before the snows arrived. He did this so that he could study the country’s galloping inflation crisis. After plowing through dozens of books and writing a private memorandum on public confidence, he arrived in Philadelphia. After surveying the debauched scene, he wrote Jefferson that the country’s problem was its “defect of adequate statesmen.”

In the years to come, his greatest actions — such as fighting a proposed tax to fund Anglican churches through his anonymously published “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” still the Western world’s greatest testament to the wall between church and state, or the Virginia Resolution he authored to combat President John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, which curtailed freedom of speech — stemmed from his own brand of statesmanship.

It was a fusion of conscience, reason, preparation, self-control and commitment to challenging Americans, rather than just playing to their prejudices.

And he was remarkably uninterested in his own fame. Madison always seemed committed to his mentor John Witherspoon’s statement that “ostentation and confidence” were an “outrage upon providence.” Indeed, in contrast to contemporaries like Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin and Adams, who were constantly seeking to polish their legacies in an epochal time, Madison seemed to try to disappear into the background. It is the cruelest of ironies that history rewards a truly selfless leader by, well, ignoring him.

In the end, Madison was really an underdog — the greatest of American archetypes. Raised by a smothering mother and a father of strong but repressed emotion, from a young age he was exquisitely sensitive and had anxiety attacks that were mistaken as epileptic seizures.

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A miniature portrait of James Madison at Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale. (Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

His notable failures include his collapse when practicing for the first time with the Orange County militia; the embarrassing failure of his engagement to the 15-year-old daughter of a colleague in Philadelphia; and his crippling anxiety attacks at least twice during the convention in Richmond to ratify the Constitution in 1788, facing off against his nemesis, the anti-Federalist Patrick Henry. He struggled to find a profession for his entire life and was never financially successful.

Yet he overcame all of this to shape a country and change the world, not only in theory but also as a fighting politician.

A proper memorial would also recognize Madison’s complexities. Every leader has strengths and weaknesses, and Madison was no exception. He was a poor executive, whether running his Cabinet or administering the War of 1812. He did not free his slaves in his will, seemingly genuinely committed to the notion that they were better off under his family’s ownership than in freedom. Yet as a young man in Philadelphia, he angrily freed a slave named Billey against his father’s will, and in his old age, he led the American Colonization Society, which helped found Liberia.

Complicated, yes. But think of what this true story offers: for a time of unbearable shallowness, depth; for a time of false heroes, reality; for a country grappling to rediscover leadership, a statesman.

At long last, Congress should celebrate our democracy with a Madison memorial in Washington that recognizes the Father of our Constitution as the unlikely — and for that reason, all the more inspiring — hero that he was.

Michael Signer, a Virginia author and attorney, is the author of Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father.”

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