James Madison and George Washington: A Presidents' Day Connection

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James Madison’s most publicized friendship is undoubtedly with his colleague from neighboring Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson. Madison also found a companion and mentor in another founding father—George Washington. Following their initial meeting in 1781, the two politicos collaborated during the next decade to shape the new nation and its government.1

Washington considered Madison a trusted political confidant so much so that when Washington contemplated his retirement from public office, he relied on Madison to draft his farewell address.2 Madison’s notes on their ensuing conversation illustrate Washington’s intimate trust in Madison: “[Washington] wished to advise with me on the mode and time most proper for making known that intention [of retiring from the presidency]. He had he said spoken with no one yet on those particular points, and took this opportunity of mentioning them to me, that I might consider the matter, and give him my opinion.”3 Madison acquiesced and the 1792 draft served as the foundation for Washington’s eventual farewell address (as edited by Alexander Hamilton), which he made public in September 1796, near the end of his second term as president.

The two men not only collaborated in a political capacity, but also shared a more personal relationship. Madison visited Mount Vernon and the President’s Houses in both New York and Philadelphia. In September 1785, Madison stopped by Mount Vernon on his way to Philadelphia and New York, where he found Washington in perfect health.4 In June 1788, Washington invited Madison to Mount Vernon for a vacation, which Washington suggested was indispensable to Madison’s ailing health; Washington also prescribed “moderate exercise, and books occasionally, with the mind unbent” as the “best restoratives.”5

Madison’s relationship waned during the final months of Washington’s presidency, following tense political disagreements. However, Madison demonstrated his long standing admiration for the “Father of his Country” when he addressed the Virginia General Assembly soon after Washington’s death in December 1799: “Death has robbed our country of its most distinguished ornament, and the world of one of its greatest benefactors.” Madison went on to describe Washington as “the Hero of Liberty, the father of his Country, and the friend of man.” In memoriam, members of the Assembly unanimously voted to wear a badge of mourning for the remainder of the session.6 Later in life, Madison often spoke fondly of Washington, noting that “The strength of his character lay in his integrity his love of justice his fortitude, the soundness of his judgement, and his remarkable prudence to which he joined an elevated sense of patriotic duty, and a reliance on the enlightened & impartial world as the tribunal by which a lasting sentence on his career would be pronounced.”7

In celebration of President’s Day, the relationship between James Madison and George Washington, and of another crowning achievement of Montpelier’s ongoing Presidential Detective Story, a set of ten chairs attributed to Jean Baptiste Lelarge, similar to those owned by both Madison and Washington, have recently been installed in the Montpelier Drawing Room.

Notes:

1. For an in-depth analysis of the Washington-Madison relationship, see Stuart Leibiger’s Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1999). 

2. George Washington to James Madison, May 20, 1792, Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York; James Madison to George Washington, June 21, 1792, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

3. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 3, 1785, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

4. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 3, 1785, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

5. George Washington to James Madison, June 23, 1788, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey. 

6. Death of George Washington, December 18, 1799, House of Delegates, Bills, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. 

7. Detached Memoranda, ca. January 31, 1820, Rives Collection, Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

Newly installed French chairs by a game of loo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montpelier Staff