Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Madisonian Legacies


Several weeks ago there was a scholarly exchange on H-NET (the Humanities Network at Michigan State University) regarding the current obscurity of James Madison. One professor referred to Madison as one of the most "under-appreciated" members of the American Founding generation, while another observed that Madison, who was not only president but also the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, has no monument in Washington, D.C., appears on no coins or currency (except the long-retired $10,000 bill), and graces no best-selling biographies. Little remains of the fourth president, he remarked, except a small Midwestern state capital, a street in New York City, and a mermaid in an obscure comedy film.

Perhaps Americans have forgotten Madison's political accomplishments, and his presidency too (just as well, since it was a disaster), but we should note that his name has not been forgotten. On May 12th the Social Security Administration released its annual list of popular baby names for 2005, and I was pleased to note that Madison remains one of the most popular names for newborn girls in the United States -- No. 3 on the list, in fact. It has held that position since 2003, and was the second most popular name for baby girls in 2001-02. Why parents would name their female children for a short, neurasthenic male slave-owner from Virginia is something of a mystery, though I suspect it has something to do with the mermaid named Madison from the aforementioned 1984 film Splash (played by Daryl Hannah). I do know, however, that if Thomas Jefferson were to come back to America twenty years from now, and see how many hundreds of thousands of young women were named for his friend and contemporary, he would be jealous.

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