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The Mischievous Mr. Madison

James Madison usually appeared reserved, even dour, in public. To Scottish traveler Alexander Dick, who met Madison at the White House, the President was “a very Small thin Pale Visag’d Man of rather a sour reserved & forbidding Countenance. He Seems to be incapable of Smiling, but talks a great deal & without any Stiffness.”1

Friends and colleagues, who encountered Madison in more relaxed settings, saw a side of the man that was entirely different from his public persona. They described him as a delightful conversationalist, full of witty epigrams and entertaining anecdotes. Writer James K. Paulding described Madison as

a capital story teller … a man of wit, relished wit in others, & his small bright blue eyes would twinkle most wickedly, when lighted up by some whimsical conception or [exposition].2

Edward Coles, Madison’s former secretary, recalled his “great … fund of amusing anecdotes, wh. were made the more interesting from their being well timed & well told.”3 Writer Margaret Bayard Smith noted during a visit, “Some of Mr. M.’s anecdotes were very droll, and we often laughed very heartily. I wish my letter was large enough to contain a few of them, which I am sure would make you laugh too.”4 George Tucker noted that Madison’s “abundant stock of racy anecdotes were the delight of every social board” during the 1829 Virginia Constitutional Convention.5

Banter, Wit, and Wordplay

Madison’s sly sense of humor came out in mischievous exchanges with friends and family. On learning that friend Margaret Bayard Smith was having a new well dug, Madison told her: ‘Truth is at the bottom of a well, is the old saying, and I expect when you get to the bottom of yours, you will discover most important truths. But I hope you will at least find water,’ continued he, smiling.”6

Madison regularly engaged in flirtatious banter with his sister-in-law Lucy Payne Washington Todd. Lucy recalled that whenever James kissed Dolley in front of Lucy, he had said “he was always so fearful of making my mouth water.” The newly-remarried Lucy told Dolley to “tell him I get kisses now that wou’d make his mouth run over.”7 On another occasion when Dolley opened a bottle of champagne and the cork flew off, James teased Lucy, “if you drink much of it, it will make you hop like the cork.”8

Madison made the occasional droll remark in personal letters, as when he thanked niece Mary Cutts for a gift of guava jelly:

Tell Mary that I am very thankful for her present of Guava Jelly as a soothing for my cold, and that I wish her to be as distinguished among the girls as the Guava is among the Jellies.9

Madison cleverly used a military metaphor to encourage his friend Nicholas Trist to visit in 1827: “As your Garrison will be in no danger of assault, we still hope you may grant yourself a furlough, and pass a few days with us.”10

Madison also found humor in repeating stories told by the enslaved community. Niece Mary Cutts recalled that enslaved workers attributed any open gate or other mischief to Madison’s horse Liberty, and that Madison “in his humorous way, often repeated these amusing and generally false tales of his disused horse.”11 James K. Paulding described Madison’s decision to supply beer, rather than the usual whiskey, to the enslaved laborers at harvest time. Paulding heard Madison ask one of the men how he liked the beer; the man replied that it was very fine, but a glass of whiskey would make it more “wholesome.” Madison “was excessively diverted at this supplement of the old fellow, and often made merry with it afterwards”—perhaps a humbling reminder that Madison could not change the harvesters’ established expectations.12


You Just Had to Be Then

Sometimes to appreciate an inside joke, “you just had to be there.” In Madison’s case, “you just had to be then,” meaning you need the everyday knowledge of a 19th-century gentleman to appreciate certain cultural references. Take, for example, a story about the British barrister Thomas Erskine, which Madison told to his guest, the Baron de Montlezun, during dinner at Montpelier in September 1816. To understand the humor, it helps to know that a sailing ship might need to put into port before doubling back around the southernmost cape of Africa. Even more important is knowing that cape wine was expensive and port wine was fairly cheap. Now you know enough to join in the dinner table merriment:

While we were at the table, Mr. Madison recounted to me a witticism of the famous Erskine. Dining with one of his [Erskine’s] friends who had some excellent Cape wine which he was very stingy in dispensing, they served a small bottle, which was promptly emptied. Mr. Erskine strongly suspected that the ration would not be doubled and said jokingly to his host, M: ‘Well, sir, if we cannot double the cape, we must get into port.’13

After dining with Madison on April 19, 1830, Jared Sparks wrote down a string of bon mots repeated by Madison. One particular anecdote requires an understanding of parliamentary procedure – that the presider would only “give the floor” to one Congressman to speak at a time:

Mr. Bland one day in Congress, as he was moving towards the door, struck his foot against a loose plank and fell. Just at that moment a member was rising to speak. ‘To order, Mr. President,’ cried Peters, ‘a gentleman is already on the floor.’14


Stories from Life

Several writers described Madison’s humorous recounting of stories from his own life. Both Jared Sparks and Nicholas Trist recorded a story that climaxed with Madison appearing at the Governor’s Palace in a ridiculous-looking hat, the only replacement he could find for one that was stolen from him. Trist preserved a sense of Madison as storyteller by relating the incident in the form of a conversation with Madison:

‘Did I ever tell you of the loss of my hat?’


‘Well sir, I was staying at Bp. [Bishop] Madison’s in Williamsburg (he was not yet Bp. by the by), and my hat was stolen out of a window in which I had laid it. It was about a mile from the house to the palace, and I was kept from going to the latter two days, by the impossibility of getting a hat of any kind. At last, however, I obtained one from a little Frenchman who sold snuff – very coarse – an extremely small crown and broad brim, and it was a subject of great merriment to my friends.’15

The broad-brimmed hat probably looked more like something a laborer would wear in the sun than a council member would wear to the Governor’s Palace – the equivalent of showing up today in the Senate wearing a baseball cap.

Among the Founders, James Madison is not always credited for his sense of humor.

Lost in Translation

Madison’s autobiographical sketch includes one personal anecdote, apparently a favorite: the story of his embarrassing attempt to converse with a French visitor at Princeton, when the student Madison had only a reading knowledge of French. The French visitor arrived when college president Dr. Witherspoon was out, and Mrs. Witherspoon found that none of the faculty or students knew French,

… with the single exception of himself [Madison, writing of himself in the third person], who conscious of his incapacity for a conversation, in the language endeavoured to decline the task. As nothing better, however could be done, it was insisted that he should meet the stranger. The meeting took place with a salutation & questions on his part which tho’ they would have been intelligible to the eye, were perfectly otherwise to the ear, especially from the rapid utterance of the Speaker. The scene was as awkward as possible; but fortunately after abortive efforts sufficiently repeated, the Doct. arrived to the great relief of all the parties, and not a moment lost in the escape of the discomforted interpreter.16

Madison apparently told this story on multiple occasions. Jefferson‘s biographer Henry S. Randall also captured the tale, which Madison had “narrated with that inimitable mixture of boyish fun and drollery in his eye, and sedateness of manner, for which he was so remarkable.” In Randall’s recollection, Madison gave this description of his French pronunciation being unintelligible to the visitor:

I might [said Mr. Madison] as well have been talking Kickapoo at him! I had learnt French of my Scotch tutor, reading it with him as we did Greek and Latin; that is, as a dead language; and this, too, pronounced with his Scotch accent, which was quite broad; and a twang of which my own tongue had probably caught, as regarded the pronunciation of those dead languages.17

A young Virginian at college in New Jersey, attempting to speak French with a Scottish burr… we can only imagine.

Although the adult Madison found humor in this incident from his college days, there was another instance of “boyish fun” at Princeton that he chose not to mention in his autobiography – his satirical poetry. As a member of the American Whig Society (a literary and debating society), Madison lampooned the rival Cliosophic Society in bawdy doggerel such as The aerial Journey of the poet Laureat of the cliosophic Society. Madison depicted a rival poet from the Cliosophic Society going in a dream to the home of Apollo and the muses, hoping “to steal a spark of wit” in order to compete with the much more gifted Whigs. As told by the rival poet, after Apollo cudgels him, the muse Euterpe flays him with a dishcloth soaked in boiling grease, the muse Urania throws a chamber pot at him, and finally the muse Clio

Then took me to her private room

And straight an Eunuch out I come

My voice to render more melodious

A recompence for sufferings odious.

At the conclusion of the poem Clio warns the rival poet that he will be turned into an ass if he vies with the Whigs, a warning with the poet promptly forgets:

And now he stands an ass confess[ed]

Of every scribbling fool, the Jest.18

Although the poem reflects a Madison’s sense of humor at a sophomoric stage, it does show the combination of cleverness and naughtiness that the adult Madison appreciated on a more sophisticated level.

Madison’s solemn appearance disguised a dry, witty sense of fun. (If you’d like to have some witty fun with your own presidential bobbleheads, visit our Museum Shop.)

Equipped with Quips

Madison’s personal stories often featured a witty one-liner or quip. James K. Paulding recalled Madison’s “arch” description of the wife of a foreign minister coaxing a valuable secret from a cabinet member: “’Mrs. Liston was a still greater diplomatist than her husband.’ She once got a state secret out of Timothy Pickering that was worth a million.”19

Jared Sparks set down Madison’s story of sharing cramped lodgings when Congress met in the town of Princeton in 1783:

Mr. Madison and one of his colleagues occupied a very small room, and both were compelled to sleep in one bed, which filled the room so completely, that one was obliged to lie in bed while the other was dressing. So says Mr. Madison, this was bringing the members of Congress into close quarters.20

While visitors to Montpelier delighted in hearing Madison’s humorous stories, they might unwittingly have provided the material for Madison’s next bit of storytelling. He quipped to abolitionist author Harriet Martineau that among the strangers who dropped in at Montpelier, “some were taxes and others bounties.” He also told her of an English geologist who went into raptures over finding a particular stone during a ride over the property, holding the specimen up to his eyes and crying “Graywacke, sir! graywacke, graywacke!”, much to Madison’s bemusement.21

Madison particularly found humor in visits from his nieces and nephews. Mary Cutts described her uncle as “A dear lover of fun, and children, whose follies amused him beyond measure, and they, child like, reciprocated this affection with interest. Among the many anecdotes which enlivened his conversation, their originalities were often repeated with most zeal.”22Aunt Dolley gave nephew Richard D. Cutts a preview of the kind of teasing he could expect from Uncle James on an upcoming visit: “He is very glad to hear you intend to make him a visit & says … you need not take the trouble to bring your appetite for bacon & chicken, nor for Warffle Butter, Custard nor hony–particularly you’d better leave behind, your relish for grapes figs, & waterMellons. … your Unkle sat by me & dictated this letter & inclosed a Cent. I add these a few words of my own & inclose you six peices to prepare you for his jokes & your jurney.” 23

A nephew, probably the same Richard, learned that there was a reward to answering his uncle’s perennial riddle, as Mary Cutts recalled: “One of his nephews was on a regimen and not allowed to eat meat, his seat being near Mr. Madison, when he wished to give him the indulgence, his question was ‘well R. if you can prove this meat is vegetable, you shall have some’—  The ready answer was ‘Lambs quarter Sir!’24 Apparently the meat was lamb, and Richard cleverly made the connection with the edible green called lamb’s quarters.

In his later years, Madison’s health declined but his humor was unchanged. In 1828 Margaret Bayard Smith, seeing Madison for the first time in ten years, noted “His little blue eyes sparkled like stars from under his bushy grey eye-brows and amidst the deep wrinkles of his poor thin face.  Nor have they lost their look of mischief, that used to lurk in their corners…”25 Mary Cutts noted that her Uncle James “was fond of puns, and often said ‘He could converse better lying,’ meaning while resting on the couch, a [repose] needed by his feeble frame.”26 Another visitor quoted Madison similarly:

Strange as it may appear, I always talk better when I lie.27

Madison was once was sent an arthritis remedy from a manufacturer hoping for a presidential testimonial. Madison replied “that I had used his liniment, that I did not know that it had done me any good, but I thought it not improbable that it might have prevented me from becoming worse.” Madison told this story to his personal physician with a smile, clearly pleased to have outwitted the manufacturer, by giving a reply that would be useless for advertising the product.28

Madison’s sense of humor relied on whimsy, mischief, and witty wordplay. Just as you might have to look past his somber clothing and reserved manner to notice his twinkling eyes, you might need to reread one of his lengthy paragraphs to spot the humor hidden within, as when he admonished his friend Nicholas Trist for writing the word “doubtlessly” when “doubtless” was the correct adverb:

As you may live long & write much, it might be worth while to save the reiterated trouble of two supernumerary letters, if they were merely such. But if there be no higher authority than the Lexicography of Johnston29, the ly. is apocryphal: and if not so, the cacophony of the elongated word ought to banish it; doubtless, being without doubt, an adverb, as well as an adjective…30

Was that written with a twinkling eye? Doubtless.