Madison Folklore


As with many famous folks, the internet abounds with questionable folklore, spurious quotes, and outright falsities concerning James and Dolley Madison. It has long been repeated that James Madison, notoriously diminutive in stature, stood 5’4”. However, in documentary records, which provide the only verifiable extant evidence, Madison’s contemporaries described him as “between 5 feet 6 inches & 5 feet 6 ½ inches” and “five feet, six inches, and…shorter in contrast with Mrs. Madison.”[1]

Recently, a particularly hard-to-shake rumor resulted in a flood of research queries to the Montpelier Curatorial Department. According to several online sources, President James Madison proposed a national brewery and the cabinet position of Secretary of Beer. Despite the persistence of the story, no evidence, documentary or otherwise, can support these claims. The story seems to have grown from a misinterpretation of Joseph Coppinger’s 1810 proposal to create a national brewery. In a December 16 letter to the president, Coppinger requested Madison’s assistance to establish a brewing company in Washington as “‘a National object’ in order to improve the quality of malt liquors and to ‘counteract the baneful influence of ardent spirits on the health and Morals of our fellow Citizens."[2]

No response from Madison survives, nor do any documents linking such a cabinet position to his presidency. Given his views of limited executive powers, it seems unlikely that Madison would have endorsed a governmental brewing or distillation operation. If anything, Madison scholars believe he was probably more interested in Coppinger’s scientific methods for production.

As early as 1820, Madison advocated caution when interpreting the founding generation. In a letter to Tench Coxe, Madison wrote: “Facts even the most easily traced, when not remembered, seem in many instances to be entirely misunderstood or misapplied.”[3] Simply put, in spite of the presence of verifiable evidence, facts are often misconstrued.

For more on Madison and beer, see Brian Abrams’ recent article on the subject. Stayed tuned for more as we continue to debunk myths about the Madisons.

[1] 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; Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[2] Joseph Coppinger to James Madison, December 16, 1810, The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, J. C. A. Stagg, editor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010.

[3] James Madison to Tench Coxe, November 24, 1820, Private collection.


Tiffany Cole