James Madison Crib Sheet

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Name: James Madison, Jr.

Lifespan: March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1809-1817

Vice President: George Clinton (1809-1812); none (1812-1813); Elbridge Gerry (1813-1814); none (1814-1817) 

Spouse: Dolley Madison

Historian Rank: 13

Why you may LOVE him…

James Madison is rightfully considered “The Father of the Constitution.” No single man deserves more credit for the painstakingly thorough compromise, dealing and negotiation that led to the United States Constitution. Long before the idea of even a Constitutional Convention was a foregone conclusion, Madison stood at the forefront on a mission to save his country from a mess. After completing the classic document, he exuded qualities of a statesman, teaming up with his philosophical foes John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, penning political classics in The Federalist. In a modern age where compromise and across-the-aisle divulgence is a dirty word, Madison frequently made strange bedfellows, simultaneously representing a staunch federal view while being seen as a champion for state’s rights. After forming the modern United States government, he served as Secretary of State during the grand Louisiana Purchase and rode his popularity to the Presidency himself. As president, he overcame the bitter snickering of “Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War,” by standing firm in the War of 1812 while fairly or unfairly riding the war’s end to a windfall of popularity. When he died in 1836, Madison rightfully looked back at a thriving University of Virginia which he ushered into greatness ten years after the death of his mentor Thomas Jefferson. He also saw a solid economy he had a  hand in forming for early 19th century America. Always the public figure, one can hardly go a mile in southern Virginia without seeing a testament to this American great.

Why you may HATE him…

Madison is either naive, a hypocrite or both. Not because he owned slaves while he extolled the virtues of equality. Not because he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase that conflicted with his constitutional views. Not even because he fancied himself a pragmatist despite the British a few miles away and burning DC to the ground. Madison did more to create his own oblivion than any other founder with the exception of Jefferson. An exhaustive list is unnecessary but a few examples can inspire hatred. When his nation almost went to war in 1798, he and Jefferson did not rally around the flag. Through the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions the two men went against their government, advocating the infant theory of nullification and secession. “We didn’t mean that!” they may have argued. It is hardly plausible that two educated men could have believed otherwise. The result was decades of southern hostility to the Federal government especially at times of war and ironically no more present than in the War of 1812. In fact, the Resolutions were used as a precedent for the Northern Secession movement before a general named Andrew Jackson bailed him out. During that war he has the awful distinction of being the only President to helplessly flee DC as a foreign foe burned the White House to the ground. An inept tactician, the War of 1812 was mismanaged from the start and mercifully ended two years later as barely a stalemate. His private life also exposed his seemingly endless inconsistencies. Once again, the unfortunate reality of slavery rears its ugly head. In a world where historians struggle to find Madison consistent, he appears more and more opportunist as scholars dig deeper. One could argue that he was a man of his times and we shouldn’t hold him to an impossible moral standard. Yet, Madison lived long enough to experience the rise of abolition. In fact, Madison held onto the mistaken notion of the relocation American Colonization Society even when it was dated and antiquated as an idea. Madison, like his other slaveholding brethren, loved to appear to be against slavery, yet actively sought to expand and increase his slave holdings throughout his life. While Jefferson spent eight years hiding the presence of slaves around the White House, Madison and his wife Dolley brought them out into the open, holding lavish parties all with slave labor. He was exposed to ideas about the freedom of slaves, considered the resolutions during the Convention, and wrote extensively on the subject. However, this “Father” made a decision. His slaves were not 3/5ths as his infamous compromise suggested. They were always his property.

Final Verdict in Five Words: A father important and inconsistent

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Thomas Jefferson Crib Sheet

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Name: Thomas Jefferson

Lifespain: April 13, 1743 (?) or April 2nd, 1743 (?) – July 4th, 1826. (Yet again, Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out… http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/quick_reference.htm)

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1801-1809

Vice President: Aaron Burr (1801-1805); George Clinton (1805-1809)

Spouse: Martha Wayles Jefferson

Historian Rank: 4

Why you may LOVE him…

Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential American Renaissance Man. His accomplishments and achievements are equal to some small countries. There was hardly any subject that Jefferson did not comment on in his life, from the five languages he spoke to the 6,000 books that became the Library of Congress. Kennedy once complimented the intellectual talent before him as the greatest collection of minds in the White House since Jefferson dined alone. He broke unbelievable ground when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and his classic The Notes on the State of Virginia. All of his works were well ahead of their time and excruciatingly relevant even in the 21st century. For better or worse, he did not invent the American Political Party but he came close to perfecting it. Just two decades after forming his Democratic-Republican Party, he swept himself into office as President and sent the Federalist Party to oblivion. If his political acumen is not impressive enough, Jefferson reigned during the Louisiana Purchase, one of the greatest land grabs in World History. He then was instrumental in launching the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a ecological masterpiece study of the American West. All of this while keeping the nation at peace. As England and France were engaged in the bloody lose-lose nature of the Napoleonic War, American commerce prospered more than ever. Finally, anyone who has walked the campus of the University of Virginia can marvel at the national treasure created by the greatest of American thinkers. He saw the American Revolution bigger than perhaps any contemporary refusing to be a small irrelevant pocket of the world but instead being the first step in a global revolution. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, become the first Secretary of State, second Vice President and finally, the third President. He ushered America out of the cradle and into the world. Was there anything he could not do?

Why you may HATE him…

Jefferson is one of those historical figures that many claim to be enamored with but surely would frown upon his actions. What a pity it will be for our right wing friends to find out that this Founder had nothing to do with writing the Constitution, never openly supported it, and stood idly by as it came dangerously close to being rejected. When the new government was formed the first Secretary of State hired Philip Freneau, a New Yorker who only knew English, as a State Department translator. Freneau would go on to be a partisan hack, writing a newspaper that would make MSNBC blush all while on the government dollar. Freneau’s National Gazette once led to an angry mob out to kill Washington and only then did Jefferson concede maybe they had gone too far. Jefferson frequently called Washington senile because he disagreed with him and concocted a bogus government scandal involving Alexander Hamilton which proved absurdly untrue. Shortly after leaving office his Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were cited as precedents for the 1832 Nullification Crisis and eventually the Civil War. Once President, Jefferson delighted in the fame he was garnered for the Louisiana Purchase even though he had nothing to do with it and his constitutional (he’s a fan now!) scruples almost killed the deal. Finally, in 1807 he launched a disastrous embargo policy that ruined New England’s economy, foolishly playing into French hands and probably handed his successor the War of 1812 by irrevocably exploding American-British relations. Finally, this lover of liberty, crusader for the rights of man and unabashed supporter of freedom owned people. He may have fathered children with one of them and actively thwarted abolition movements until the day he died. Historians almost universally gloss over slave ownership but as the self-proclaimed champion of liberty, Jefferson should have been better. He had to be better. Does this sound like a hero to you?

SOME BONUS JEFFERSON VITRIOL !!!

On August 16th, 2013, ousted Egyptian Prime Minster Mohamed Morsi semi-quoted Jefferson when he opined, “bloodshed irrigates the tree of liberty in Egypt.” He was not taking the Founding Father out of context. Jefferson was a worldwide revolutionary in the 18th Century, almost delighting in the deaths of monarchs, naively loving the French Revolution and patting himself on the back for a worldwide revolution that was not occurring. He would not turn on his beloved French. Not after the Reign of Terror. Not after the beheading of their King and Queen. Jefferson simply believed the bloodshed was somehow necessary to a liberty revolution. Jefferson was no friend of peaceful revolution in his time and continues to inspire violence to this day.

Final Verdict in Five Words: He should have known better.

John Adams Crib Sheet

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Name: John Adams AKA His Rotundity

Lifespain: October 30th, 1735 (?) or October 19th, 1735 (?) – July 4th, 1826. (Again, Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out… http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/quick_reference.htm)

Home State: Massachusetts

Served as President: 1797-1801

Vice President: Thomas Jefferson

Spouse: His third cousin Abigail Smith Adams

Historian Rank: 12

Why you may LOVE him….

John Adams is not your flawless, cherry treeing, key in the lightning, rhetorical master the elusive “founding fathers” seem to embody. He was a brash, rude, vain and irritable man passionate about the American cause. Most would take that. Mr. Adams’ life reads like the back of a hall of fame pitcher’s baseball card. He took on the impossible task of defending the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre. After securing a legal victory for the British, Adams was one of the first and most vocal colonists to move toward independence. He turned aside pleas for continued patience and put the colonies full speed ahead toward independence. He then left his family and all he knew to become the most traveled American of his era. What Franklin had on him in years, Adams had in diversity. In an age where men would barely leave their birth town, Adams visited France, Holland, and Great Britain in just a handful of years. He hated slavery, never owned one and wanted it banned in the infant nation. After the war, Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution that became the first constitution to be ratified by the people. He is credited with being the loudest and most persistent advocate for checks and balances. He never swooned over the French Revolution as a worldwide crusade for liberty. He was the first Vice President where he was roundly criticized for his insistence on making America as respected as possible (Spoiler Alert: It backfired on “His Rotundity”). Finally as the second President John Adams was a staunch supporter for the “evil” strong military, a strong central government and kept America out of an impossible European War that surely would have snuffed the candle in the cradle. Going to war would have secured his legacy, staying out of it probably cost him his job. One of his final acts as president was appointing John Marshall Chief Justice. Marshall would go on to establish American Judicial Review thus securing a true three branched government. Opt hated, never ignored, John Adams knew he wouldn’t be beloved and at the end of the day he didn’t care. Is that not the rebel we all claim to love?

Why you may HATE him…

John Adams was the most traveled American statesman of his era. He didn’t speak French then tried to lecture the French people. It seems he embarrassed himself and America in the Court of St. James. All of his travels solidified his arrogance. Surely not unlike his contemporaries, Adams did not actually think highly of the so-called common man. His letters are littered with references to the “unwashed” and “unlearned” and he was not shy about limiting access to the federal government. He was never the “high” federalist like his friend (or foe?) Alexander Hamilton but he certainly would have been comfortable in a monarchy. He was a bitter and sore loser, leaving DC at 4 AM rather than see Jefferson sworn in as Washington had so gracefully done for him. I must be forgetting something… Oh yes! He jailed, imprisoned and convicted  political dissenters. No president before and since has so openly rounded up and targeted political opponents like John Adams. What Nixon may have done behind closed doors, Adams did through the Alien and Sedition Acts. He certainly was no advocate for liberty as he made criminal the act of critical journalism, public opposition and simply being a foreigner. Some many argue that he did what he had to do with a European War looming, sadly it looks like he was not pushed into the extremity of his views. They seemed to be in line with his thinking all along. He was the condescending and elitist guy that will always be better than you no matter what. Hey Mr. Adams, who decided to make you king?

Final Verdict in Five Words: Overlook at your own peril.

George Washington Crib Sheet

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Name: George Washington AKA Father of His Country

Lifespain: February 22nd 1732 (?) or February 11, 1731(?) – December 14, 1799. (Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out… http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/quick_reference.htm)

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1789-1797

Vice President: John Adams

Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Historian Rank: 3

Why you may LOVE him….

You do not get a nickname like “Father of His Country” for birthing heirs (George was impotent). Washington could have died in 1783 and would still hold legendary status in many circles. He married one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia and he owned upwards of 20,000 acres. By all accounts he was top dog in an era of gallant horsemen. Washington received rave reviews on the dance floor and attended the theater well above the rate of his contemporaries. He may have fired the first shot of the French and Indian War (AKA the first truly world war) and he led a cobbled group of militia (plus the French let’s be real) to defeat the greatest army in the world. However, Washington did indeed live beyond 1783, played an instrumental role in decrying the ineffective Articles of Confederation, helped build a new government and then was unanimously elected its first President. He would go on to establish a new political power out of thin air. He led nation from the cradle on a track toward becoming the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. He could have been King, but instead he carefully and knowingly set truly American precedents and forever cemented his nation on a republican path. His greatness was the only thing Jefferson and Hamiltion could agree on. Yet, despite a certain third term at hand he walked away. He retired on top, battled and bruised but never beaten. What’s not to love?

Why you may HATE him…

Washington claimed to be constantly and steadfastly cognizant of the precedents he set as the first hero in an infant nation. And no, I am not going to bury this slaveholding and Indian scalping warrior. Certainly in light of the 21st Century these are undesirable but surely risk-free when it came to precedent. No one saw equality like we do today. Heck, women haven’t even been voting for 100 years. The reason you may hate Washington is he was more British than American at almost every turn. In fact, his support of the American cause may have just been an outlet of petty grievances with British creditors. He hosted exclusive levees, decked out his slaves in pretentious regalia, drove around in a horse drawn carriage, was president of the Primogeniture Cincinnatus Society, and openly expressed his love for all things British. History is never as clean as our high school courses would lead us to believe, but taking off your rose colored glasses would reveal a very vain and thin skinned man. Washington is someone who many historians believe passed over a third term because the press finally insulted him. He never thought of himself or America in general in the exceptional ways that Jefferson or Franklin did. He saw the young nation as Britain’s kid brother and in many ways set precedents toward that aim. Why else did he insist on being called His Excellency?

Final Verdict in Five Words: The right man to start.