James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, at Port Conway, Virginia; he died at Montpellier, in that State, on June 28, 1836. Mr. John Quincy Adams, recalling, perhaps, the death of his own father and of Jefferson on the same Fourth of July, and that of Monroe on a subsequent anniversary of that day, may possibly have seen a generous propriety in finding some equally appropriate commemoration for the death of another Virginian President.
For it was quite possible that Virginia might think him capable of an attempt to conceal, what to her mind would seem to be an obvious intention of Providence: that all the children of the "Mother of Presidents" should be no less distinguished in their deaths than in their lives--that the "other dynasty," which John Randolph was wont to talk about, should no longer pretend to an equality with them, not merely in this world, but in the manner of going out of it. At any rate, he notes the date of Madison's death, the twenty-eighth day of June, as "the anniversary of the day on which the ratification of the Convention of Virginia in 1788 had affixed the seal of James Madison as the father of the Constitution of the United States, when his earthly part sank without a struggle into the grave, and a spirit, bright as the seraphim that surround the throne of Omnipotence, ascended to the bosom of his God." There can be no doubt of the deep sincerity of this tribute, whatever question there may be of its grammatical construction and its rhetoric, and although the date is erroneous. The ratification of the Constitution of the United States by the Virginia Convention was on June 25, not on June 28. It is the misfortune of our time that we have no living great men held in such universal veneration that their dying on common days like common mortals seems quite impossible. Half a century ago, however, the propriety of such providential arrangements appears to have been recognized almost as one of the "institutions." It was the newspaper gossip of that time that a "distinguished physician" declared that he would have kept a fourth ex-President alive to die on a Fourth of July, had the illustrious sick man been under his treatment. The patient himself, had he been consulted, might, in that case, possibly have declined to have a fatal illness prolonged a week to gratify the public fondness for patriotic coincidence. But Mr. Adams's appropriation of another anniversary answered all the purpose, for that he made a mistake as to the date does not seem to have been discovered.
It was accidental that Port Conway was the birthplace of Madison. His maternal grandfather, whose name was Conway, had a plantation at that place, and young Mrs. Madison happened to be there on a visit to her mother when her first child, James, was born. In the stately--not to say stilted--biography of him by William C. Rives, the christened name of this lady is given as Eleanor. Mr. Rives may have thought it not in accordance with ancestral dignity that the mother of so distinguished a son should have been burdened with so commonplace and homely a name as Nelly. But we are afraid it is true that Nelly was her name. No other biographer than Mr. Rives, that we know of, calls her Eleanor. Even Madison himself permits "Nelly" to pass under his eyes and from his hands as his mother's name.
In 1833-34 there was some correspondence between him and Lyman C. Draper, the historian, which includes some notes upon the Madison genealogy. These, the ex-President writes, were "made out by a member of the family," and they may be considered, therefore, as having his sanction. The first record is, that "James Madison was the son of James Madison and Nelly Conway." On such authority Nelly, and not Eleanor, must be accepted as the mother's name. This, of course, is to be regretted from the Rives point of view; but perhaps the name had a less familiar sound a century and a half ago; and no doubt it was chosen by her parents without a thought that their daughter might go into history as the mother of a President, or that any higher fortune could befall her than to be the respectable head of a tobacco planter's family on the banks of the Rappahannock.
This genealogical record further says that "his [Madison's] ancestors, on both sides, were not among the most wealthy of the country, but in independent and comfortable circumstances." If this comment was added at the ex-President's own dictation, it was quite in accordance with his unpretentious character. One might venture to say as much of a Northern or a Western farmer. But they did not farm in Virginia; they planted. Mr. Rives says that the elder James was "a large landed proprietor;" and he adds, "a large landed estate in Virginia ... was a mimic commonwealth, with its foreign and domestic relations, and its regular administrative hierarchy." The "foreign relations" were the shipping, once a year, a few hogsheads of tobacco to a London factor; the "mimic commonwealths" were clusters of negro huts; and the "administrative hierarchy" was the priest, who was more at home at the tavern or a horse-race than in the discharge of his clerical duties.
As Mr. Madison had only to say of his immediate ancestors--which seems to be all he knew about them--that they were in "independent and comfortable circumstances," so he was, apparently, as little inclined to talk about himself; even at that age when it is supposed that men who have enjoyed celebrity find their own lives the most agreeable of subjects. In answer to Dr. Draper's inquiries he wrote this modest letter, now for the first time published:--
MONTPELLIER, _August 9, 1833_.
DEAR SIR,--Since your letter of the 3d of June came to hand, my increasing age and continued maladies, with the many attentions due from me, had caused a delay in acknowledging it, for which these circumstances must be an apology, in your case, as I have been obliged to make them in others.
You wish me to refer you to sources of printed information on my career in life, and it would afford me pleasure to do so; but my recollection on the subject is very defective. It occurs [to me] that there was a biographical volume in an enlarged edition compiled by General or Judge Rodgers of Pennsylvania, and which may perhaps have included my name, among others. When or where it was published I cannot say. To this reference I can only add generally the newspapers at the seat of government and elsewhere during the electioneering periods, when I was one of the objects under review. I need scarcely remark that a life, which has been so much a public life, must of course be traced in the public transactions in which it was involved, and that the most important of them are to be found in documents already in print, or soon to be so.
With friendly respects, JAMES MADISON.
LYMAN C. DRAPER, Lockport, N. Y.
The genealogical statement, it will be observed, does not go farther back than Mr. Madison's great-grandfather, John. Mr. Rives supposes that this John was the son of another John who, as "the pious researches of kindred have ascertained," took out a patent for land about 1653 between the North and York rivers on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The same writer further assumes that this John was descended from Captain Isaac Madison, whose name appears "in a document in the State Paper Office at London containing a list of the Colonists in 1623." From Sainsbury's Calendar we learn something more of this Captain Isaac than this mere mention. Under date of January 24, 1623, there is this record: "Captain Powell, gunner, of James City, is dead; Capt. Nuce (?), Capt. Maddison, Lieut. Craddock's brother, and divers more of the chief men reported dead." But either the report was not altogether true or there was another Isaac Maddison, for the name appears among the signatures to a letter dated about a month later--February 20--from the governor, council, and Assembly of Virginia to the king. It is of record, also, that four months later still, on June 4, "Capt. Isaac and Mary Maddison" were before the governor and council as witnesses in the case of Greville Pooley and Cicely Jordan, between whom there was a "supposed contract of marriage," made "three or four days after her husband's death." But the lively widow, it seems, afterward "contracted herself to Will Ferrar before the governor and council, and disavowed the former contract," and the case therefore became so complicated that the court was "not able to decide so nice a difference." What Captain Isaac and Mary Maddison knew about the matter the record does not tell us; but the evidence is conclusive that if there was but one Isaac Maddison in Virginia in 1623 he did not die in January of that year. Probably there was but one, and he, as Rives assumes, was the Captain Madyson of whose "achievement," as Rives calls it, there is a brief narrative in John Smith's "General History of Virginia."
Besides the record in Sainsbury's Calendar of the rumor of the death of this Isaac in Virginia, in January, 1623, his signature to a letter to the king in February, and his appearance as a witness before the council in the case of the widow Jordan, in June, it appears by Hotten's Lists of colonists, taken from the Records in the English State Paper Department, that Captain Isacke Maddeson and Mary Maddeson were living in 1624 at West and Sherlow Hundred Island. The next year, at the same place, he is on the list of dead; and there is given under the same date "The muster of Mrs. Mary Maddison, widow, aged 30 years." Her family consisted of "Katherin Layden, child, aged 7 years," and two servants. Katherine, it may be assumed, was the daughter of the widow Mary and Captain Isaac, and their only child. These "musters," it should be said, appear always to have been made with great care, and there is therefore hardly a possibility that a son, if there were one, was omitted in the numeration of the widow's family, while the name and age of the little girl, and the names and ages of the two servants, the date of their arrival in Virginia, and the name of the ship that each came in, are all carefully given. The conclusion is inevitable: Isaac Maddison left no male descendants, and President Madison's earliest ancestor in Virginia, if it was not his great-grandfather John, must be looked for somewhere else.
Mr. Rives knew nothing of these Records. His first volume was published before either Sainsbury's Calendar or Hotten's Lists; and the researches on which he relied, "conducted by a distinguished member of the Historical Society of Virginia" in the English State Paper Office, were, so far as they related to the Madisons, incomplete and worthless. The family was not, apparently, "coeval with the foundation of the Colony," and did not arrive "among the earliest of the emigrants in the New World." That distinction cannot be claimed for James Madison, nor is there any reason for supposing that he believed it could be. He seemed quite content with the knowledge that so far back as his great-grandfather his ancestors had been respectable people, "in independent and comfortable circumstances."
Of his own generation there were seven children, of whom James was the eldest, and alone became of any note, except that the rest were reputable and contented people in their stations of life. A hundred years ago the Arcadian Virginia, for which Governor Berkeley had thanked God so devoutly,--when there was not a free school nor a press in the province,--had passed away. The elder Madison resolved, so Mr. Rives tells us, that his children should have advantages of education which had not been within his own reach, and that they should all enjoy them equally. James was sent to a school where he could at least begin the studies which should fit him to enter college. Of the master of that school we know nothing except that he was a Scotchman, of the name of Donald Robertson, and that many years afterward, when his son was an applicant for office to Madison, then secretary of state, the pupil gratefully remembered his old master, and indorsed upon the application that "the writer is son of Donald Robertson, the learned Teacher in King and Queen County, Virginia."
The preparatory studies for college were finished at home under the clergyman of the parish, the Rev. Thomas Martin, who was a member of Mr. Madison's family, perhaps as a private tutor, perhaps as a boarder. It is quite likely that it was by the advice of this gentleman--who was from New Jersey--that the lad was sent to Princeton instead of to William and Mary College in Virginia. At Princeton, at any rate, he entered at the age of eighteen, in 1769; or, to borrow Mr. Rives's eloquent statement of the fact, "the young Virginian, invested with the _toga virilis_ of anticipated manhood, we now see launched on that disciplinary career which is to form him for the future struggles of life."
One of his biographers says that he shortened his collegiate term by taking in one year the studies of the junior and senior years, but that he remained another twelve-month at Princeton for the sake of acquiring Hebrew. On his return home he undertook the instruction of his younger brothers and sisters, while pursuing his own studies. Still another biographer asserts that he began immediately to read law, but Rives gives some evidence that he devoted himself to theology. This and his giving himself to Hebrew for a year point to the ministry as his chosen profession. But if we rightly interpret his own words, he had little strength or spirit for a pursuit of any sort. His first "struggle of life" was apparently with ill-health, and the career he looked forward to was a speedy journey to another world. In a letter to a friend (November, 1772) he writes: "I am too dull and infirm now to look out for extraordinary things in this world, for I think my sensations for many months have intimated to me not to expect a long or healthy life; though it may be better with me after some time; but I hardly dare expect it, and therefore have little spirit or elasticity to set about anything that is difficult in acquiring, and useless in possessing after one has exchanged time for eternity." In the same letter he assures his friend that he approves of his choice of history and morals as the subjects of his winter studies; but, he adds, "I doubt not but you design to season them with a little divinity now and then, which, like the philosopher's stone in the hands of a good man, will turn them and every lawful acquirement into the nature of itself, and make them more precious than fine gold."
The bent of his mind at this time seems to have been decidedly religious. He was a diligent student of the Bible, and, Mr. Rives says, "he explored the whole history and evidences of Christianity on every side, through clouds of witnesses and champions for and against, from the fathers and schoolmen down to the infidel philosophers of the eighteenth century." So wide a range of theological study is remarkable in a youth of only two or three and twenty years of age; but, remembering that he was at this time living at home, it is even more remarkable that in the house of an ordinary planter in Virginia a hundred and twenty years ago could be found a library so rich in theology as to admit of study so exhaustive. But in Virginia history nothing is impossible.
His studies on this subject, however, whether wide or limited, bore good fruit. Religious intolerance was at that time common in his immediate neighborhood, and it aroused him to earnest and open opposition; nor did that opposition cease till years afterward, when freedom of conscience was established by law in Virginia, largely by his labors and influence. Even in 1774, when all the colonies were girding themselves for the coming revolutionary conflict, he turned aside from a discussion of the momentous question of the hour, in a letter to his friend in Philadelphia, and exclaimed with unwonted heat:--
"But away with politics!... That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and, to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such purposes. There are at this time in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter; for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about it to little purpose that I am without common patience."
These are stronger terms than the mild-tempered Madison often indulged in. But he felt strongly. Probably he, no more than many other wiser and older men, understood what was to be the end of the political struggle which was getting so earnest; but evidently in his mind it was religious rather than civil liberty which was to be guarded. "If the Church of England," he says in the same letter, "had been the established and general religion in all the Northern colonies, as it has been among us here, and uninterrupted harmony had prevailed throughout the continent, it is clear to me that slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us."
He congratulated his friend that they had not permitted the tea-ships to break cargo in Philadelphia; and Boston, he hoped, would "conduct matters with as much discretion as they seem to do with boldness." These things were interesting and important; but "away with politics! Let me address you as a student and philosopher, and not as a patriot." Shut off from any contact with the stirring incidents of that year in the towns of the coast, he lost something of the sense of proportion. To a young student, solitary, ill in body, perhaps a trifle morbid in mind, a little discontented that all the learning gained at Princeton could find no better use than to save schooling for the six youngsters at home,--to him it may have seemed that liberty was more seriously threatened by that outrage, under his own eyes, of "five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments," than by any tax which Parliament could contrive. Not that he overestimated the importance of this wrong, but that he underestimated the importance of that. He was not long, however, in getting the true perspective.
[Footnote 1: Dr. Draper has kindly put into our hands the correspondence between himself and Mr. Madison, and we copy these genealogical notes in full, with the letter in which they were sent, as all that the ex-President had to say about his ancestry:--
MONTPELLIER, _February 1, 1834_.
DEAR SIR,--I have received your letter of December 31st, and inclose a sketch on the subject of it, made out by a member of the family. With friendly respects,
"James Madison was the son of James Madison and Nelly Conway. He was born on the 5th of March, 1751 (O. S.), at Port Conway, on the Rappahannock River, where she was at the time on a visit to her mother residing there.
"His father was the son of Ambrose Madison and Frances Taylor. His mother was the daughter of Francis Conway and Rebecca Catlett.
"His paternal grandfather was the son of John Madison and Isabella Minor Todd. His paternal grandmother, the daughter of James Taylor and Martha Thompson.
"His maternal grandfather was the son of Edwin Conway and Elizabeth Thornton. His maternal grandmother, the daughter of John Catlett and ---- Gaines.
"His father was a planter, and dwelt on the estate now called Montpellier, where he died February 27, 1801, in the 78th year of his age. His mother died at the same place in 1829, February 11th, in the 98th year of her age.
"His grandfathers were also planters. It appears that his ancestors, on both sides, were not among the most wealthy of the country, but in independent and comfortable circumstances."]
[Footnote 2: _Calendar of State Papers_, Colonial Series, 1574-1660, Preserved in the State Paper Department of Her Majesty's Public Record Office, edited by W. Noel Sainsbury, Esq., etc. London, 1860.]
[Footnote 3: The letters to a friend, from which we have quoted, were written to William Bradford, Jr., of Philadelphia, afterward attorney-general in Washington's administration. They are given in full in _The Writings of James Madison_, vol. i.]