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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Historical Comprehension: Reading Documents for What They Reveal about the Humanity of the Individuals Involved

Various documents in the collection reveal Madison's feelings toward other prominent Americans of the period. Like most people, Madison regarded people he knew with feelings that ranged from deep affection and respect to disdain.

Read portions of the extract from Madison's "Detached Memorandum," written shortly after his retirement from the presidency. Madison remarks on the character and accomplishments of General Washington. He also includes notes on memorable events in Washington's presidency, such as the authorization of the Bank of the United States.

  • What qualities does Madison see in George Washington?
  • According to Madison, what caused President Washington to favor the Federalist Party in the latter years of his presidency?
  • Why does Madison believe that Washington would refuse to sign the authorization of the Bank of the United States?
  • According to Madison, what factors contributed to the authorization of the Bank?

Madison wrote a letter to Jefferson on June 27, 1823, in which he discusses a number of issues, one relating to Washington's farewell address. As Washington approached the end of his second term, he asked Alexander Hamilton to assist in preparing his farewell address. Madison's letter to Jefferson expresses regret that the mention of ghostwriters would diminish respect for Washington and "…if particular passages be understood in new senses, & with application derived from the political doctrines and party feelings of the discovered Author."

Sketch of UVa.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 15, 1825. At the end of their lives, the two friends shared a passion for the newly established University of Virginia and exchanged a flurry of letters on the subject.

  • Why was Madison concerned that Washington had asked for assistance in preparing his farewell address? Do you think his concern was justified?
  • Do you think political leaders today have similar concerns about the work of speechwriters? Why or why not?

Read Madison's February 18, 1789, letter to Jefferson in which he contrasts the characters of former President Washington and President John Adams.

  • How does Madison characterize Adams?
  • What "rash measures" may have caused Madison to refer to Adams as "our hot-headed Executive"?
  • Why do you think Madison had such widely differing views of Washington and Adams?

Madison and Thomas Jefferson exchanged hundreds of letters over a 50-year friendship and political alliance. In a letter dated February 17, 1826, Jefferson recalls their long friendship and calls upon his colleague to insure that the University of Virginia prospered. Nicholas Trist, Jefferson's son-in-law, wrote to Madison on July 4, 1826, describing Jefferson's last hours. Read Madison's reply of July 6.

  • How does Madison describe his long relationship with Jefferson?
  • What honor does he pay to his colleague?
  • What can be discerned from the letter regarding Madison's values?