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James Madison and Pi. And Pie.

March 14 (3-14) is Pi Day, celebrating that fascinating ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle (3.14… carried out to an infinite number of digits). Remember your math teacher telling you that you could use that information in the real world one day? Well, March 14 is that day.

Pi Day was established by physicist Larry Shaw at the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1988. The whimsical and creative festivities, which expanded over the years, celebrated both the circular ratio and the circular dessert, and drew flaky fun out of crusty old mathematics. (Help yourself to A Slice of Pi Day History.)

We know that James Madison was a language nerd (he had at least a reading knowledge of seven languages), and a political history nerd (studying a couple of trunk loads of books to prep for the Constitutional Convention) – but was he enough of a math nerd to appreciate Pi Day?

Probably not. Madison wrote in 1782, “Mathematics & astronomy did not make the principal branch of my academic studies, they have made no part of them since I have been engaged in a different sphere, & the little knowledge I originally had of them was merely theoretical.” 1

On the other hand, James Madison’s cousin,2 Bishop James Madison, could probably get into Pi Day. He was a professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College of William and Mary from 1773 to 1775, before becoming President of the College and the first Anglican bishop of Virginia.

But as for our James Madison, the retired U. S. President’s mathiest activity was recruiting for a new math professor at the University of Virginia, where he served as rector of the Board of Visitors. When the original professor of mathematics, Thomas Hewitt Key, returned to his native England in 1827, Madison reached out to colleagues for recommendations and came up with a short list of names of possible replacements. In the end, Madison and the Board of Visitors found a replacement close to home; Professor Charles Bonnycastle, professor of natural philosophy, was eager to move over into the mathematics professorship. Clearly Professor Bonnycastle was a man who would have enthusiasm for Pi Day!

“There was before us – soup, a roast turkey, boiled beef, chicken pie, potatoes fried with grease, turnips. Then cranberry pie, custards, preserves. There was toddy offered before dinner & wine.”

George C. Shattuck, diary entry describing a January 1835 visit to Montpelier3



Madison may have been more conversant with pie as a pastry than pi as a mathematical constant. Pies served at the Madisons’ table included apple pie, cranberry pie, and on one occasion, Perigord pie (a rich meat pie stuffed with partridges and truffles). The pie was named for Perigord, a region in France known for its large partridges; this 1806 English recipe includes partridges, veal, bacon, and truffles.)

The Madisons’ Perigord pie was a gift sent from William Lee, the U. S. commercial agent at Bordeaux, who wrote, “These pies are in great estimation in Europe and are to be served up cold. They are eaten of sparingly and will keep some time after being open if the top which is taken off is used as a cover to shut out the air. Without being opened they will keep four months.” 4



“The Dessert good; much as usual, except two dishes which appeared like Apple pie, in the form of the half of a Musk-melon, the flat side down, top creased deep, and the color a dark brown.”

Rev. Manasseh Cutler describing at 1804 dinner at the Washington residence of Secretary of State James Madison5

While James Madison, of course, could not have celebrated a holiday that was established in 1988, Pi Day gives us a fun opportunity to consider Madison’s experience of both mathematics and dessert. Whether you prefer P-I or P-I-E, we wish you plenty of it on March 14!