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.

John Adams: The Independent President

John Adams, like George Washington, did not enjoy his inauguration either, though for somewhat different reasons. His wife and political confidant, Abigail, was at home in Quincy, Massachusetts caring for John’s dying mother. In addition much of the attention that day was focused on Washington as people wept over the first president’s departure. Adams was also on the outs with his long time friend and now political enemy Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams, 1823 by Gilbert Stuart

John Adams, 1823 by Gilbert Stuart

Adams had reason to feel lonely on his inauguration day, but most of his public career characterized him as a “loner.” While his daughter expressed concern over his narrow election victory in a letter (he won 71 votes to Jefferson’s 68), he wrote back that he didn’t believe in “extravagant popularity.” Adams never quite trusted public opinion and felt that the more unpopular an idea was, the more likely it was to be right. Before the presidency he never held an administrative position and tended to take on causes that were unpopular with the public, such as defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

Any politician who is unwilling to negotiate with others is unlikely to be successful for long, and Adams lost his re-election bid in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. At the time, however, Adams was more concerned about family matters than election results. His son Charles, an alcoholic, had died. Since he was no longer president, John and Abigail would have more time to care for Charles’ widow and their grandchildren. Adams did live long enough, however, to see his son John Quincy Adams elected as President of the United States.

Surprising Facts about President George Washington

Though respected as a great general in the Revolutionary War, Washington was very self-conscious about his lack of education. Unlike the other colonists with whom he served in the Continental Congress, Washington never attended college. In fact, Washington had only an elementary school education. He did, however, attend dancing school at age fifteen. His dancing skills certainly came in handy when he became the first President of the United States and had many parties to attend.

George Washington, 1795 by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington, 1795
by Gilbert Stuart

Dancing was one of the few parts of formal gatherings that he enjoyed. He hated small talk and did not have a strong public speaking voice. He also didn’t like people to stand too close to him, partly because he felt that his false teeth made his face look swollen. Washington always took great pains to control his faults, particularly his temper. His reputation was so important to him that even as a young man he copied out rules of etiquette such as “sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace.”

Although some of his successors relished the challenges of the office, Washington was a reluctant president. Despite his personal popularity and the large number of people who turned out to greet him on his journey from Virginia to New York, the idea of being president made Washington cringe. Before he was inaugurated, Washington said he felt like “a culprit who is going to his place of execution.”

As president, Washington invented the presidential cabinet, filling it with men he felt had the best qualifications rather than picking personal friends or allies. He called his cabinet members, which included Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, his “first characters.” Though he was the only president who never lived in the White House, Washington chose the site and the architect for the house. Before he died, Washington toured the nearly completed mansion.

The Childhood of Meriwether Lewis

Interesting facts about Meriwether Lewis’ Childhood

• Lewis was named after his mother, whose last name was Meriwether before she married William Lewis.

• A British prisoner of war camp surrounded the Lewis home in Albemarle County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Though widowed, Lewis’ mother Lucy knew how to shoot a gun, and she kept British soldiers away from the house.

• Lewis grew up close to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. Later, the fact that they were neighbors and shared an interest in natural science led Jefferson to make Lewis his personal secretary when he became president.

• Both Lewis’ father and stepfather were officers in the Revolutionary War. After her first husband’s death, Lewis’ mother remarried and the family moved to Georgia. Georgia had even more wooded areas than Virginia. While living in Georgia, Lewis learned to perfect his hunting skills until his mother sent him back to Virginia for school.

• Lewis’ cousin had this to say about Lewis when they went to school together: “He was always remarkable for perseverance…of a martial temper and great steadiness of purpose, self-possession and undaunted courage.” Characteristics like perseverance and courage would later help Lewis when Jefferson sent him and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase.

• Because his father died when Lewis was very young, he had more responsibilities than other boys his age. Though he enjoyed school most of the time, he had to stop his formal education so he could take care of the property he inherited as the oldest son. This meant learning to farm from his uncles, and managing the family slaves. Lewis thought he would always be a farmer or maybe a military officer until Jefferson asked him to be his secretary in the Washington, D.C.

• Lewis was a devoted son who wrote often to his mother whenever they were apart. His writing skills would be important when describing plants and other new things he saw during the Lewis and Clark expedition. His later writings were remarkable because he could make really boring topics interesting.

Building the White House

In 1790, the United States Congress decided that a new capital city should be built to accommodate the new federal government. Virginia and Maryland offered land along the Potomac River, but there were no buildings on the site. President George Washington took a personal interest in the planning for the Capital and the President’s House—the place where all future chief executives would live.

After firing the first architect hired to construct the house, Washington agreed to hold a contest for the best design. Ads in the major newspapers stated the requirements for the President’s home and promised payment of $500 to the winner. Though no architecture schools existed in America yet, the design of James Hoban, an Irish immigrant who already designed state buildings in South Carolina, caught Washington’s attention. The design called for a three- story house with stone columns in the front. Other features included large windows and high ceilings.

Washington wanted the home to be grand enough for European rulers to admire it, and he thought Hoban’s plan met that requirement. The President also believed the United States would become a great country, and its leader needed a house that could grow with the increasing power of the nation. “It was always my idea, that the building should be so arranged that only a part of it should be erected for the present, and…to admit of an addition in the future as circumstances might render proper,” Washington later wrote. Hoban’s box-like design with wings that could be expanded later was a perfect match.

The Modern White House

The Modern White House

Though Washington put Hoban in charge of the construction site, he remained so involved with the project that Hoban never made any changes without consulting him. One design element Washington insisted on was that the exterior of the house be made of stone. Though Hoban found just enough stone for a scaled down, two-story version of the original plan at Aquia Creek in Virginia, one problem remained. The sandstone from the creek absorbed water easily, which caused the stone to weaken. Hoban ordered his workers to apply a thick coat of white paint to the exterior walls. As work continued, people living in the area referred to the building as the White House—a nickname that eventually stuck.

By 1796, workers completed the interior walls of the White House. Stonemasons brought in from Scotland hand-carved flowers, medallions, and other decorations around the entrance and windows. Two years later, a roof was added.

The year 1800 was the deadline for the project’s completion. By then, John Adams was President and he moved in with his wife. Despite the grand exterior, the thirty inner rooms of the house were not complete. Abigail Adams wrote “Not one room or chamber is finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” In a few months, the Adams’ moved out when Thomas Jefferson became President. He and the next occupant, James Madison, made the inner rooms of the White House more comfortable.

Unfortunately, during the War of 1812 British soldiers burned the White House and everything inside was destroyed. A rainstorm helped preserve the exterior of the house, however. James Hoban was summoned to help with the rebuilding process so that the White House would look almost the same as when it was first constructed.

Why We Celebrate Independence Day on July 4th

In 1776 John Adams wrote to his wife: “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” As we know, Adams was a couple of days off in his prediction that American independence would be celebrated on July 2nd. He did have reason to believe his prediction would come true, however. On July 2, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress first voted to declare independence from Britain.

Their decision was based on the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the next two days were spent listening to Congress’ objections to certain aspects of the Declaration. Like a writer being criticized by a room full of editors, Jefferson sulked but said little as Congress chipped away at his writing. Among the passages it eliminated was one on the evils of the slave trade and another on the crimes the British people in general had committed against Americans. The most famous passage of all, however, remained untouched except for the substitution of one word:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

On July 4, 1776, Congress approved their revised version of the Declaration. No one in Congress at the time seemed to particularly note the occasion; Adams left no record of his thoughts on that date and Jefferson only wrote that he went shopping. The next day, however, broadside editions of the Declaration were available to the public and on July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the full text on its front page. That first year that the Declaration came out American patriots celebrated on July 8th because that is when most heard the news of the break from Britain. Since then, however, Americans have celebrated the day the revised Declaration was passed, with all the pomp and parade that Adams had hoped.