Presidential prompts about our Founding Fathers

Beat writer's block and learn historical fun facts at the same time with these writing prompts inspired by our nation's first five presidents.

James Madison

  • Some presidents have charisma, some are fiercely intelligent, and some are lucky enough to have both – but our fourth president wasn’t one of them. Weighing in at just 100 pounds and plagued with frequent illness, people strained to hear his speeches. One politician’s wife wrote that he was “the most unsociable creature in existence.”
    • Thankfully, his wife Dolley was blessedly social, thriving in her role as the White House’s hostess and throwing weekly receptions of “blazing splendor,” as writer Washington Irving once wrote.
  • His opponents often commented on his small size (he measured 5 feet, 4 inches), , but they couldn’t criticize his bravery: He is the only President besides Abraham Lincoln to rally troops when the British invaded Washington D.C. in the War of 1812.
    • Madison borrowed his treasury secretary’s dueling pistols and raced out the White House to join the fray – only to nearly run directly into British forces.
      • Sadly, the British forces succeeded in driving out the American troops, who fled with Madison in tow. This left the opposing army free to burn the White House and the U.S. Capitol, too.
      • Dolley Madison occupied the White House until the very last minute and is credited with saving the historic portrait of George Washington moments before the flames destroyed the building, ordering servants to destroy the eight-foot frame in order to quickly evacuate the portrait itself.

Imagine: In a political climate where speeches were incredibly important on the campaign trail, how might Madison have coped with his shortcomings? What might one of Dolley Madison’s weekly soirees have looked and sounded?

What was on Madison’s mind as he raced out of the building to join the war, armed with only a pair of dueling pistols? What might the owner of those pistols think of the decision? What did his wife think? Imagine the moments before Dolley fled the White House: How did she prioritize what to take and what to leave behind? What was on her mind when she found out the troops (along with her husband) had been forced to leave the city?