The illness of an American President is always cause for national concern. William Henry Harrison’s pneumonia in 1841 and Zachary Taylor’s “cholera morbus” (gastroenteritis) in 1850 led to their untimely deaths in office – and to the inauguration of new Presidents. Even non-fatal presidential illnesses have the potential to disrupt the process of governance. Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 stroke and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack raised worrisome questions. Was the President well enough to carry out his duties? Who was acting on the President’s behalf? (We’re looking at you, Edith Bolling Wilson.) How long would it be before things returned to normal in the White House?
President James Madison himself had a life-threatening bout of illness at a nationally-inconvenient time – during the War of 1812. Madison had been prone to various types of fever throughout his life, and tried to preserve his health by returning to the mountain climate of Montpelier each summer. However, Madison had worked relentlessly since the approach of the War of 1812. He had left Washington for only two weeks in almost two years. In the summer of 1813, he had a serious attack of remittent bilious fever – a term doctors used at the time for a recurring fever accompanied by diarrhea and/or vomiting of bile. Since the term is a simply a description of symptoms, it is difficult to say whether Madison’s symptoms were caused by malaria, typhoid, influenza, or another fever-inducing illness.1Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 560-565.
The contents of a drawer at Montpelier suggest Madison working tirelessly at his desk.
Curatorial Collections photo, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.
The Illness Begins
The first indication that Madison was unwell came on June 14, 1813, when Dolley Madison told Vice President Elbridge Gerry that “the President was sick in his chamber & could not meet his friends that day.”2Elbridge Gerry to Ann Gerry, June 15, 1813, Morristown National Historic Park, Morristown, NJ, quoted in The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, J. C. A. Stagg, editor (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010.) Madison may have anticipated a quick recovery when he wrote to a Senate committee on June 15, proposing a meeting at the President’s House the following day to discuss diplomatic appointments.3James Madison to William Hill Wells, June 15, 1813, Unlocated, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 33274, Montpelier Research Database. (Both the House and Senate had objected to Madison’s nomination of Jonathan Russell as minister to Sweden, as well as his nomination of Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin to the commission that would negotiate with Great Britain to end the war.)4Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 560.
Madison missed the June 16 meeting (blaming “the error of his watch, and the precipitancy of his servant”). His offer to reschedule to June 17 hinted that his symptoms lingered: “If the state of his health should not permit him to see the committee, he will apprize them of it in time.”5James Madison to William Hill Wells, June 16, 1813, Unlocated, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 33276, Montpelier Research Database. (Madison likely dictated this message to a secretary, although he often wrote formal notes in the third person.) On June 17, the President sent a message that, “James Madison being too much indisposed to see the committee this morning, is obliged to postpone it until to-morrow, at 11 o’clock.”6James Madison to William Hill Wells, June 17, 1813, Unlocated, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 33278, Montpelier Research Database. On June 18, the President gave up any attempt to reschedule:
“James Madison is sorry that a continuance of his indisposition will not permit him to see the committee of the Senate to-day, nor can he at present fix a day when it will be in his power.”7James Madison to William Hill Wells, June 18, 1813, Unlocated, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 33280, Montpelier Research Database.
In mid-June 1813, Madison took to his bed at the President’s House, sick with a bilious fever.
Benjamin H. Latrobe, View of the east front of the President’s House, 1807, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Congressman Daniel Webster noted Madison’s condition in his letters. “Madison has been several days quite sick – is no better – has not been well enough to read the resolutions [of] the Senate,” he reported on June 19. Madison was “still sick” on June 24 when Webster took the House resolutions to him in person: “the President was in his bed, sick of a fever – his night cap on his head – his wife attending him.”8Daniel Webster to C. March, June 19 and 24, 1813, Webster and March Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire, quoted in Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 560.
Secretary of State James Monroe described Madison’s situation to their mutual friend Jefferson on June 28: “the President has been ill of a bilious fever, of that kind called the remittent. It has perhaps never left him, even for an hour, and occasionally the simptoms have been unfavorable. This is I think the 15th day. … [The doctors] think he will recover. … [Dr. Elzey] reports that he had a good night, & is in a state to take the bark, which indeed he has done on his best day, for nearly a week.”9James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 41687, Montpelier Research Database. Peruvian bark, a source of quinine, was commonly used for recurring fevers. It apparently provided insufficient relief at this point, however, for on June 29 Webster observed:
“the President is worse today.”10Daniel Webster to C. March, June 29, 1813, Webster and March Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire, quoted in Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 560.
Rumors, Plans, and Plots
The National Intelligencer newspaper published regular bulletins on Madison’s condition, but speculation still abounded. John Adams reported hearing a rumor that Madison “lives by laudanum and could not hold out for four months.”11John Adams to Richard Rush, September 6, 1813, PMHB, LX (1936), p. 449, quoted in Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 561. Comte Louis Barbe Sérurier, the French minister to the United States, wrote:
“The thought of [his] possible loss strikes everybody with consternation. His death, in the circumstances in which the Republic is placed, would be a veritable national calamity.”12Sérurier to Bassano, June 21, 1813, quoted in Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 561.
James Monroe was well aware that plans were being made in the event that Madison died. Monroe wrote to Jefferson in late June, “The federalists aided by the Malcontents have done, and are doing, all the mischief that they can. … These men have begun to make calculations, & plans, founded on the presum’d deaths of the President & Vice President, & it has been suggested to me that [William Branch] Giles, is thought of to take the place of the President of the Senate, as soon as the Vice President with draws.”13James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 41787, Montpelier Research Database.
It may seem alarmist to imagine that Vice President Gerry might also die, but it was not entirely unrealistic. Gerry was in poor health at age 69, and only 16 months later, would suffer a fatal heart attack while in office. Gerry, however, made his own plan to thwart the Federalists and malcontents. Although it was customary for the vice president to withdraw as the presiding officer of the Senate during the summer recess, Gerry deliberately decided not to step down. In case both Madison and Gerry died, Gerry did not intend to leave the “malcontent” Senator Giles next in line for the Presidency.14David S. Heidler & Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 208.
The Turning Point
By early July, after three weeks of nearly constant fever, Madison seemed to have passed the crisis. Dolley Madison wrote to Edward Coles, her cousin who served as Madison’s private secretary, “I have the happiness to assure you my dear Cousin that Mr Madison recovers. for the last 3 days, his fever has been so slight as to permit him to take bark every hour, & with good effect. it has been three weeks since I have nursed him night & day – sometimes in dispair!” Dolley then confessed to feeling the stress of being a caregiver: “now that I see he will get well I feel as if I should die myself, with fatigue.”15Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Edward Coles, July 2, 1813, box 1, folder 13, Edward Coles Papers, MS C0037, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 24485, Montpelier Research Database.
Madison began to resume presidential business from his sickroom. On July 6 he dictated a letter expressing his views on Jonathan Russell’s contested nomination. Madison later noted on the draft letter: “written down by J.G. Jackson as dictated by J.M. sick in bed in 1813.” 16James Madison to U. S. Senate, July 6, 1813, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 7, 2020, MRD-S 15041, Montpelier Research Database.
Madison noted in the top line on this draft letter that he had dictated it to his brother-in-law, Congressman John G. Jackson while “sick in bed in 1813”.
James Madison to U.S. Senate, July 6, 1813, courtesy of Library of Congress, James Madison Papers.
Madison wrote a note to Monroe on July 19, remarking that “I am going forward, but very slowly in my return to health.”17James Madison to James Monroe, July 19, 1813, Monroe Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC., accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 33363, Montpelier Research Database. Dolley Madison also commented on the slowness of her husband’s recuperation in a letter to her friend Hannah Gallatin (wife of the Treasury Secretary): “You have heared no doubt, of the illness of my Husband but can have no idea of its extent, and the dispair, in which I attended his bed for nearly five weeks! even now, I watch over him, as I would an infant, so precarious is his convalessence – added to this, the disappointments & vexations, heaped upon him by party spirit.”18Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Hannah Nicholson Gallatin, July 29, 1813, Gallatin Papers, The New-York Historical Society, New York, New York, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 22877, Montpelier Research Database.
Two Months on the Mountain
The next phase of Madison’s recovery would take place at Montpelier, once Madison was well enough to travel. Madison wrote to Albert Gallatin on August 2, “I have just recovered strength enough, after a severe and tedious attack of bilious fever, to bear a journey to the mountains whither I am about setting out. The Physicians prescribe it as essential to my thorough recovery and security against a relapse at the present season.”19James Madison to Albert Gallatin, August 2, 1813, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 7, 2020, MRD-S 15053, Montpelier Research Database. The Madisons started the four-day journey on August 10. Madison wrote to Monroe from the road, “I bear the journey as well as I expected, tho’ my influenza is no better.”20James Madison to James Monroe, August 10, 1813, RG 59; Miscellaneous Letters, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed October 7, 2020, MRD-S 33380, Montpelier Research Database. Arriving home, Madison wrote to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, “I gained strength on the road, notwithstanding its fatiguing badness, and the continuance of my influenza, from which I am not yet entirely freed.”21James Madison to William Jones, August 14, 1813, William Jones Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed October 7, 2020, MRD-S 33383, Montpelier Research Database.
Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, a Philadelphia newspaper, reprinted a Washington DC news item regarding Madison’s arrival at Montpelier.
MRD-S 39657, Montpelier Research Database.
Congress had recessed shortly before Madison left for Montpelier. Madison had few presidential duties to attend to while at home, other than corresponding with his Cabinet members and staying abreast of war news. By the end of August, Madison found that his health was “greatly advanced towards its usual standard,” but continued:
“I am reminded however by occassional touches of fever, produced I believe by the dregs of the Influenza, that some precautionary attentions continue to be proper.”22James Madison to William Jones, August 29, 1813, William Jones Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed October 7, 2020, MRD-S 33396, Montpelier Research Database.
Dolley Madison seemed to agree, writing to Hannah Gallatin on August 30, “Mr. M is now perfectly well but will be the better for another Month on the Mountain.”23Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Hannah Nicholson Gallatin, August 30, 1813, Gallatin Papers, The New-York Historical Society, New York, New York, accessed October 3, 2020, MRD-S 22878, Montpelier Research Database. By September, Vice President Gerry was glad to hear that Madison’s “health was restored in so great a degree, as to enable you to mount a gay saddle horse, & to veiw your Plantation.”24Elbridge Gerry to James Madison, September 10, 1813, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 7, 2020, MRD-S 15099, Montpelier Research Database.
Madison left for Washington around October 20. Richard Rush wrote, “The little President is back, and as game as ever,” reporting with pleasure that Madison had ridden his own horse to watch a horse race at the race course with Monroe and others.25Richard Rush to Charles J. Ingersoll, October 20, 1818, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, cited in Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 565.
Madison’s personal health crisis was resolved, as was the challenge to his Presidency. Both he and Vice President Gerry had survived the summer, and no change of administration was necessary. Madison would not be the last President to face a life-threatening illness, but thanks to the Constitution which he helped to create, the United States would be prepared to meet the challenge of any future Presidential health crisis.
Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian
Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail and locating the perfect Madison quote for any occasion.