Maybe Don Draper would have appreciated James Madison, the only president to have a prominent New York City avenue named for him.
That Madison Avenue would become home to the new nation’s advertising industry represents an unlikely tribute to the attention-averse founding father. Madison didn’t like receiving credit for helping organize the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which prevented the infant United States from perhaps splitting into three smaller confederacies. He also drafted the amendments that became the Bill of Rights.
“There’s such a mismatch between what Madison achieved and the attention he gets today,” David O. Stewart, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and author of “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America,” said recently.
“He is ignored.”
Many of Madison’s contemporaries also shrugged him off. A fellow Virginian, John Randolph, derided Madison for being “always some great man’s mistress … first Hamilton’s, then Jefferson’s.”
The British burned the Executive Mansion on Madison’s watch. He also remained conflicted about slavery, on both a presidential and personal level. Madison once wrote that “where slavery exists the republican theory becomes still more fallacious…” Still, as president, Madison housed his own slaves in the Executive Mansion’s cellar and later in life sold slaves to reduce his debt.
But if Madison’s modern legacy is listless, he likely wouldn’t mind. Stewart describes Madison’s “gift” as his skill at building consensus among more vivid personalities such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.
“Madison was a brilliant collaborator, and he played well with others,” Stewart said.
In that context, Madison’s marriage to Dolley Payne Todd was wise as well. Those attending Madison’s inaugural reception at the Executive Mansion monitored the path of the woman known as “The Presidentress” by noting the progress of her feathered silk turban through the crush of guests.
“They made a great team,” Stewart said. “Dolley would wear this bright costume that you couldn’t miss, and James would be off in the corner, discussing business.”
Stewart speaks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. His appearance is co-presented by the Truman Library Institute. For more info, go to KCLibrary.org.