If our nation’s fourth president, James Madison, were alive today, he just might be jealous of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, for one key reason: Twitter.
As audiences of the smash hit and Tony-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton” have recently discovered, as a congressman, Madison was involved in securing Washington D.C. as the nation’s capital city in a deal brokered with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.
If he could have in 1789, Madison might have tweeted about “the puzzling question as to the precise jurisdiction of Congress over the permanent seat.” Madison secured some Southern votes for Hamilton’s finance plan in exchange for some Northern votes to place the nation’s capital between Maryland and Virginia in Washington D.C.
Because communication methods were slow and dependent on ships and horseback riders, Madison realized that the seat of government would be an advantage to those who were geographically closest to it. Though the telegraph had yet to be invented, Madison foresaw the need for instant communication to broadcast news about the federal government.
“If it were possible to promulgate laws by some instantaneous operation it would be of less consequence … where the government might be placed,” Madison concluded.
Hence, like Donald Trump, Madison would have loved the “instantaneous operation” of Twitter.
Mr. Trump has more than 11 million Twitter followers and his Twitter handle ranks 170th in the world. By comparison, when Madison was president 200 years ago, the U.S. population was only around 8 million.
After the burning of the White House and U.S. Capitol by the British military in 1814, which I write about in my new book, “The Burning of the White House,” President Madison might have tweeted that the enemy’s success “interrupted for a moment only the ordinary public business at the seat of government,” and wasn’t a permanent disruption.
Facing political pressure from Northern members of Congress to relocate the capital city to Philadelphia or New York, President Madison might have tweeted this argument for keeping and rebuilding Washington, D.C. as the nation’s capital.
“If the government begin to move, where will it stop?”
Madison would have also endured the vicious 140-character barbs thrown against him, such as this anonymous newspaper editorial rant: “If the dispatches from France and the news from the Chesapeake and Virginia don’t drive the poor little viceroy in the White House crazy, he must be as tough as a pine knot.”
His enemies would have tweeted graffiti such as, “The capital and the union lost by cowardice” or “George Washington founded this city after a seven years’ war with England — James Madison lost it after a two-years’ war.”
As a result, President Madison proclaimed that his greatest desire after the burning of the White House was “leaving my country in a state of peace and prosperity.” He did just that. A few months later in February 1815, Madison signed the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812.
Unlike Donald Trump, Madison was a policy wonk with a diplomat’s touch. He was a scholar, not a warrior. A physically small man with a giant mind, Madison wasn’t a showman or entertainer, though he was known by his friends to have a great sense of humor.
But if he could have, Madison would have loved to have been Twitter-in-chief while he was commander in chief. He just might have retweeted two of the most famous phrases born during the War of 1812: Captain James Lawrence’s “Don’t give up the ship” and Commander Oliver Perry’s “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
James Madison died in 1836. A year later in 1837 Samuel Morse received a patent for a new invention: the telegraph. A few years later in 1844 when testing the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, Morse fittingly selected President Madison’s widow, Dolley Madison, to become the first private citizen to send a message via telegraph: “Message from Mrs. Madison. She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered,” her cousin in Baltimore.
Because of the vision of Madison for instantaneous communication and the technical genius of Samuel Morse and all of the inventors since, you and I — and Donald Trump — can tweet or post a link to this and other articles in your social media circles.
• Jane Hampton Cook, a former White House webmaster, is the author of “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812” (Regnery, 2016.)