Two Gentlemen from Virginia: Surprising Facts about US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison

Thomas Jefferson

The third President of the United States had a personality that was similar to George Washington’s in many ways. Like Washington, Jefferson was fond of dancing at parties and tended to be shy. Instead of addressing Congress in person, Jefferson sent his messages in writing. This tactic showed off his writing skills and helped him avoid his fear of public speaking. Known as an intellectual for his scientific and architectural pursuits, he thought he was also a good violin player, though some people who heard him play thought otherwise!

Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1800

Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1800

Official dinners were conducted in a manner different from the presidents who preceded him. He insisted on dressing simply to the point that one guest thought he was a servant. The dinners were served on a circular table so that no guest would feel superior or inferior to another. Jefferson did not eliminate all luxury in the executive mansion, however. Fancy French food was served regularly during his presidency.

As many people know, he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore “Louisiana country” west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson and Lewis had been neighbors in Virginia, so Jefferson already knew how seriously Lewis would take the job. With Lewis and Clark’s help Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory. While Jefferson added land to the United States, he also scaled back on some government departments. In a move that would delight many people today, he temporarily got rid of the Internal Revenue Service.

James Madison

Like his close friend Jefferson, James Madison also tended to be shy in public. Madison had the additional disadvantage of being the shortest president in history (he was 5’4″). He was also one of the skinniest, which led some people to believe he was always at death’s door.

His personal qualities may not have made him noticeable to others, but his wife Dolley made up for Madison’s awkwardness. The outgoing Dolley was Thomas Jefferson’s hostess while the widower was president. This gave her opportunities to mingle with members of Congress who would decide whether or not to elect Madison when he ran for president. When Madison was elected, he and Dolley held the first inaugural ball at a hotel on Capital Hill.

Portrait of James Madison, 1815

Portrait of James Madison, 1815

In many ways Madison served as Jefferson’s junior partner. He kept Jefferson informed of political matters in the states while Jefferson served as minster to France by writing coded letters to his mentor. Madison told Jefferson, “I shall always receive your commands with pleasure.” Yet Madison had his own opinions. While Jefferson was away, Madison helped draft the U.S. Constitution. His belief in a strong central government ran in opposition to Jefferson’s preference for individual rights. Madison did, however, have a flexible personality, which allowed him to see both sides of an issue. Just as he helped write the Constitution, Madison helped create the Bill of Rights that supported Jefferson’s individualistic views.

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