How tall was Madison, really?
If you saw Richard Brookhiser’s recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” you might have been surprised to hear him say that James Madison was 5′6″. The height of America’s fourth president is a recurring topic of interest to visitors and readers. So, how tall was Mr. Madison? To be sure, Madison—Father of the Constitution and architect of the Bill of Rights—was a “small man,” but his contributions to the establishment of the United States government are tall in comparison.1
In his lifetime, friends and foes alike commented on Madison’s height, though often in very vague terms like little, small featured, and short. However, some extant records contain specific descriptions of Madison’s height. In two separate documents, Edward Coles described Madison’s height explicitly. Coles, Dolley’s second cousin and Madison’s private secretary (1809-1815), wrote in his “Notes on the life and ancestry of James Madison, based on an interview with Madison in 1828,” that “James Madison’s height is between 5 feet 6 inches & 5 feet 6 ½ inches.”2 Later, in a letter to Hugh Grigsby, Coles claimed that Madison “was about 5 ft. 6 in., of a small & delicate form.”3 In her memoir, Mary Cutts described Madison as “five feet, six inches, and he appeared shorter in contrast with Mrs. Madison.”4 It is likely that as Madison’s rheumatism progressed in his later years, his posture was adversely affected and he stooped; likewise, many visitors in Madison’s later life sat beside his bed, never seeing him upright.
Dolley, by contrast, was more often described by her contemporaries as plump, handsome, tall, and striking. Mary Cutts’ describes her height as exactly “five feet, seven inches and three quarters.”5 Therefore, according to Cutts, Dolley was nearly two inches taller than her husband. Furthermore, she often wore turbans with high plumes, which naturally exaggerated the couple’s height difference.
While it is possible that Madison’s political friends may have overestimated his height, it is equally plausible that his political foes did the same, describing Madison as smaller-statured. However, with little else to go on beyond period physical descriptions of Madison, research historians rely on documentary evidence.6 Madison biographers Irving Brant and Ralph Ketcham, and Dolley Madison biographers Richard Côté and Catherine Allgor all believe that Madison was five feet, six inches tall.7 No matter his height, Madison’s legacies cast long, impressive shadows.
1. Jane C. Slaughter, “Anne Mercer Slaughter: A Sketch,” Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine (July 1937): 30-44.
2. Edward Coles, Notes on the life and ancestry of James Madison, based on an interview with Madison in 1828, n.d., box 1, folder 4, Edward Coles Papers, MS C0037, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey.
3. Edward Coles to Hugh Blair Grigsby, December 23, 1854, box 1, folder 1854, Coles Family Papers, MS 1458, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
4. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
5. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, Memoir I, [1849-1856], Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
6. John Payne Todd, according to his passport, was five feet, eleven inches tall. Because neither President nor First Lady Madison traveled abroad, we have no official documentation. See John Payne Todd, passport, June 26, 1815, box 104, folder Todd, John Payne, Miscellaneous Personal Name File , New York Public Library, New York, New York.
7. Irving Brant, The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1970), 30; Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 89; Richard N. Côté, Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison (Mt. Pleasant, SC: Corinthian Books, 2005), 114; Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 12.