Lynne Cheney shares her insights into James Madison

March 30, 2018
By Marcy Shortuse

Biographer Dr. Lynne Cheney, wife of former United States Vice President Dick Cheney, sailed up to the stage via the Boca Grande Community Center auditorium aisle Wednesday evening, March 21. The waiting audience cheered, aware that she’d been delayed for hours in the airport, held on the runway and then caught in the spectacular Placida Road backup we all dread.
She took her place in a bright coral wingchair, prepared to be interviewed by Boca Grande resident Dod Fraser onstage seated beside her. Composed and relieved to have the travel nightmare over, Cheney launched into the character she brought to light in her book “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.”
She discards traditional views of Madison as “a shy and sickly scholar,” arguing instead that the “Father of the Constitution” was a “reserved, modest” man, “a bold thinker,” eloquent and “a superb politician.” According to her research, James Madison (1751-1837) was a fit and, with one exception, healthy fellow.
In terms of accomplishments, the shortest president, 5’ 4” James Madison was in American history a big man. Cheney, at 5-feet-tall herself, said his height was “just fine with her.” As a Founding Father, he was key in getting delegates to agree on a constitution, much of which he authored. With James Monroe, he co-wrote the Bill of Rights. Madison’s detailed notes of Constitutional Congress procedures are its historical record.
He composed not only Washington’s inaugural address – the nation’s first, but also the responses to the address from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Madison gave birth to the national two-party system by forming the Democratic-Republican Party with Thomas Jefferson, Monroe and John Quincy Adams. He was an author of the Federalist Papers.
Madison was “indispensible” to the performance of his dear friends George Washington and Jefferson. As Jefferson’s secretary of state, Madison oversaw the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France. It doubled the size of the country. A two-term president (1809-1817) and the country’s fourth, Madison was in office during the War of 1812. It was, as Cheney notes, controversial, “the final step in the Revolution. It established the nation’s separation from England.”
Beginning with his election to the House of Representatives and continuing through years of getting legislation passed, it seems that Madison’s victories in the political arena belie claims that he could have been shy. Was he sickly? Fitness was a priority for him. He rode horseback for long days and routinely from Virginia to New England. But his letters do indicate that he had one known deviation from perfect health in “sudden attacks” that “suspended the intellectual functions.” Cheney’s research concludes that he had a mild form of epilepsy. His life of 86 years is a long span in any era and an exceptional one for the times.
Would a shy and sickly chap have asked Aaron Burr for an introduction to Dolley Payne Todd (1768-1849)? She was not only shapely and 17 years younger, but also four inches taller than the 43-year-old bachelor. Dolley “wore mulberry satin and yellow glass beads to greet James in her parlor, and he was thoroughly smitten.”
At 26, she was decidedly a head-turner. The marriage of a widow of modest means and with a son to a much older prominent figure seems to be one of “clear convenience.” Letters show, however, that Madison, married to her in 1794, found himself in a 42-year loving relationship. Dolley Madison’s well-acknowledged social grace made her a significant political asset.
Lively, flamboyant and known for wearing low-bodiced gowns, she was celebrated throughout Washington. Cheney described one First Lady outfit that included a “buff velvet dress and matching turban decorated with two bird-of-paradise plumes.” She is credited with helping White House architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe with choices of American-made furnishings – no doubt an all-around inspiration to later First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Interviewer Dod Fraser wound up the session, showing his granddaughter’s “A is for Abigail, An Almanac of Amazing American Women.” It is a best-selling Lynne Cheney children’s book that includes Dolley Madison as a women’s role model.
Dr. Lynne V. Cheney, United States Second Lady from 2001 to 2009, is author of 12 books on American history, five of them best-sellers for children. She was chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993 and a host of the former TV show “Crossfire.” Dr. Cheney is an alumna of Colorado College, University of Colorado with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin.
This lecture was part of the “American Presidents and Politics” series presented by the Friends of Boca Grande Community Center. For more information, contact 964-0827.