One of my favorite long anticipated visits at Colonial Williamsburg last week was meeting with James Madison! I had met him previously as Father of the Constitution and as President of the United States, however this was the first time I got to meet him before fame came to him. It may surprise some that Madison would be at Colonial Williamsburg, but he had served as a burgess in Williamsburg on that fateful day on May 15, 1776. As one of the youngest delegates in attendance, he not only contributed to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, he also voted for independence from Britain. This news was then carried to the delegates in Philadelphia as Thomas Jefferson to prepared to write the Declaration of Independence.
Madison began his meeting with us with great teasing, since he was far more appropriately dressed than we were! Then he told his story of growing up in Virginia, only to be later educated at Princeton in New Jersey instead of the nearby College of William and Mary. He confessed his attempt in college to pursue "how little sleep was necessary to complete the most amount of work." Hmmmm, my son has pursued that same goal. Some things never change.
As much as I had enjoyed previously meeting him in later years, I was glad to meet him before the writing of the Constitution. I was curious how much of his thinking had developed through the years. Many hints were given as he shared what he had learned from his various teachers, especially John Witherspoon. My investigative reasoning took ease when one of the audience members asked during the Q&A about his work on the Constitution. Of course he had no idea what she was talking about, which was great fun with his great humor, but in 1781 America was ruled by the Articles of Confederation. Undaunted, Madison knew exactly what the lady was speaking of, because none of the terminology was new. He reminded us of what he and his colleagues knew of ancient governments, of what worked and what didn't, then he explained some of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. He knew exactly what was needed to strengthen the weakness. With only a congress in place, there was nothing to balance the power with other branches of government. I think this is quite relevant in this day and age. To understand how our government should work today, we need to understand what our Founding Fathers knew. When Madison's ideas of the balance of powers were proposed at the Constitutional Convention, all of the delegates knew exactly what he meant. This was the Age of Enlightenment where an education meant to be widely read of the great thinkers and writers of the past. They knew how many of these thoughts played out in ancient governments and in England as they wrote the Constitution which was unique.
Madison ended his talk by inviting us to his boarding house in Philadelphia where the congress was currently meeting and where he was a delegate. His love of books played into the invitation, since he promised to share his many wonderful volumes. If only the 21st century could truely transport to the 18th, to read books with the real Madison and perhaps ask a question or two. Nevertheless, a visit with this terrific actor/interpreter who will blow you away with his amazing interpretation (how he keeps all of those big words straight is beyond incredible) which brings Madison to life is first rate. And the reading of the same books that influenced Madison is entirely possible between visits of time travel to Colonial Williamsburg where one might find James Madison walking down the street past 18th century architecture with book in hand...