November 14, 2009

Madison, the Early Years

Ironically, James Madison had a weak constitution.

Centuries before Jimmy Carter bemoaned America's Crisis of Confidence, and Bill Clinton Felt Your Pain, Madison was the country's first emoter-in-chief. Starting in his college days Madison had a weird form of what was then called epileptoid hysteria, and what we would now call panic attacks. Madison described it like this: "a constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling Epilepsy, and suspending the intellectual functions." Madison took medicine for his disorder, but it seems to have been more in his head than body---the hysteria only appeared before sea voyages and other activities that involved intense physical or intellectual labor. When Jefferson invited him to Europe once, Madison wrote to his mentor, "I have some reason to suspect that crossing the sea would be unfriendly to a singular disease of my constitution." Throughout every step of his life, people close to Madison were always worried that whatever responsibility he was about to take would finally overwhelm his fragile health. He was too weak to become a farmer, and too stressed out to become a lawyer. Even studying for finals proved too difficult for him, and he had to stay at Princeton one summer because he was too drained to make the journey home after exams.

He was also shy. Whereas John Adams could not shut up about his love for Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson sent saucy letters to women happily married to his friends, Madison seemed almost embarrassed by his clumsy attempts at romance. For example, the world didn't know until 1948 that he had been engaged to a woman named Kitty Floyd (no relation to Kitty Boyd, happy birthday). Why? Because Madison had inked out every reference to her in every letter. After a couple hundred of years, the ink had faded sufficiently that historians could set to work deciphering the code that Madison used to write about his betrothed. The engagement ended when she cheated on him with a med student, as women will.

Even Madison's attempts at mischief seem virginal (Don't think I didn't see the opportunity for a joke about the Non-Intercourse Act of 1810. I just passed). At Princeton, he became involved in a flame war with a rival student association. About its leader, Moses Allen, Madison composed this attempt at bawdy humor: Great Allen founder of the crew/ If right I guess must keep a stew/ The lecherous rascal there will find/ A place just suited to his mind/ May whore and pimp and drink and swear/ Nor more the garb of Christians wear/ And free Nassau from such a pest/ A dunce a fool an ass at best.

Marshall Mathers he wasn't. But from this sensitive youth emerged the finest diplomatic mind America had known. In the early days of the country, America faced a choice between allying with Britain, whose economic and political interests best aligned with ours, and France, who had bailed us out during the Revolutionary War. In the midst of partisan profane discourse that would make Billy Martin sound like Judith Martin, it was Madison who forged a compromise that allowed France to save face. He was worried about their feelings. This deft maneuvering later served as a model for President Kennedy (another man who felt) in dealing with Khrushchev's bombastic ego during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Madison used the occasion of his first inaugural address to share his nuanced view of how the psyche affected politics: "Indulging no passions which trespass on the rights or the repose of other nations, it has been the true glory of the United States to cultivate peace by observing . . . the respect of the nations at war . . . . If there be candor in the world, the truth of these assertions will not be questioned."

And that's how far I am in the book. Can't wait to see how this guy reacts when the Brits burn down the White House. I will let you know.

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