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James Madison (President of the United States, 1809-1817)

Madison as Poet

James Madison
James Madison, Fourth President of the United States
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Madison's brief stint as a "poet" resulted in three poems he wrote as an undergraduate in 1771 or 1772 at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). The poems were written as part of a paper war between the American Whig Society and the Cliosophian Society. As Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham explains:

Though no deep ideological differences divided them, Southerners and Pennsylvanians predominated among the Whigs; New Englanders among the Cliosophians. Furthermore, the Whigs generally assumed a condescending attitude toward what they conceived was the social inferiority of the Clios, and the Clios seem to have been rather more pious than the Whigs. The societies met separately for discussion and camaraderie, and directed their self-generated enthusiasm at each other in a "paper war" whenever the college authorities could be tricked or talked into permitting one.1

Madison's poems are recorded along with sixteen other American Whig Society satirical pieces in a notebook copy by William Bradford. Madison's "A poem against the Tories," which mentions several members of the Cliosophian Society by name, appears below.

     A poem against the Tories

Of late our muse keen satire drew
And humourous thoughts in vollies flew
Because we took our foes for men
Who might deserve a decent pen
A gross mistake with brutes we fight
And [goblins?] from the realms of night
Where Spring & Craig lay down their heads
Sometimes a goat steps on the pump
Which animates old Warford's trunk
Sometimes a poisonous toad appears
Which Eckley's yellows carcuss bears
And then to grace us with a bull
Forsooth they show McOrkles skull
And that the Ass may not escape
He take the poet Laureat's shape
The screech owl too comes in the train
Which leap'd from Alexander's brain
Just as he scratch'd his grisly head
Which people say is made of lead.
Come noble whigs, disdain these sons
Of screech owls, monkeys, & baboons
Keep up you[r] minds to humourous themes
And verdant meads & flowing streams
Untill this tribe of dunces find
The baseness of their grovelling mind
And skulk within their dens together
Where each ones stench will kill his brother;

Most readers of Madison's poetry would agree with Ketcham that the verses "demonstrate abundantly . . . what Madison never doubted: he was no poet."3


1. Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (New York, N.Y.: Macmillan, 1971).

2. Quoted from James Madison, Papers, ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M.E. Rachal, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 65.

3. Ketcham, 36.


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  March 16, 2022
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