Today is the birthday of our greatest Framer and the genius behind our Constitution: James Madison. He would have been 271 years old. We will be celebrating tonight with a traditional Virginia dinner (with the required Virginia ham), a three-layer cake (for the tripartite system), and Madison’s favorite dessert . . .
Despite being only 5’4” and barely above 100 pounds, Madison proved to be an intellectual giant who shaped constitutional theory for generations.
As a Madisonian scholar, today is a day of great celebration for the man who is most responsible for our constitutional system, not to mention the Bill of Rights and our 4th President. He was a brilliant writer whose contributions to The Federalist Papers still remain required reading for lawyers and laypersons alike, particularly Federalist No. 10 (in factions) and Federalist 51 (on the separation of powers).
This picture also features my new Madison bust (purchased at the National Archives after I testified yesterday in the Senate). My wife understandably questioned the need for a new bust but I have always told my students that you cannot have enough Madison busts. At a minimum, you need a car bust, a house bust, an office bust, and a travel bust. (That only puts me a couple over the minimum).
He died of congestive heart failure at Montpelier on the morning of June 28, 1836. He was 85 — an advanced age for the time. My favorite story from his death came from his niece who asked him, “What is the matter, Uncle James?” Madison simply responded “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” He then promptly passed.
Other than his final words, Madison was confident about what a nation required for a stable and just system. His confidence was well founded. He shaped a constitutional system that proved to be the most successful in the history of the world.
Now on to his favorite dessert. For those who wish to celebrate Madison, it is essential to serve copious amounts of ice cream. It is not true that Dolley Madison invented ice cream or that she was the first to serve the dessert at the White House. However, she loved ice cream and served it regularly as both informal and formal dinners. The billing records reflects the preference, including Madison’s chef and butler Michel Kromenacker billing $8.00 in June 1810 for “3 Ice cream Moulds and ladles and repairing” and 1812 invoices for $4.00 for four ice cream baskets or buckets as well $5.00 for four ice cream tubs. Notably, after the British burned the White House, ice cream molds were quickly replaced.
It is thankfully there is no clear evidence to support the claim that their favorite ice cream was oyster ice cream (which would make our annual celebration a painful exercise). The rumor appears to be based on the fact that a friend’s cookbook at Montpelier included the recipe with a number of other flavors. Nevertheless, some have claimed that “Dolley preferred oyster ice cream. She used small, sweet oysters from the Potomac River near her home to churn up an interesting dessert.” Similar reports have figures like Mark Twain as partial to oyster ice cream.
There is no definitive record of what flavor was preferred by Madison but I am hoping that the father of the Constitution had better taste in desserts. Besides the best choice is the tripartite Neapolitan.
So enjoy the day and celebrate in true Madisonian fashion. There is no need to be moderate. Madison understood our failings and inclinations. After all, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Just keep your friends checked and balanced.
Happy Birthday, Jimmy.