On Monday, Montpelier will celebrate James Madison’s 258th birthday. His tombstone records his birth as March 16, 1751, however, other documents, including several in Madison’s own hand, identify his birthday as March 5, 1751. In July 1827, a Mr. Phillips of New York wrote to Madison requesting information on what day Madison was born.1 Madison replied to Phillips on July 20, 1827 stating “J. Madison, with his respects to Mr. Phillips, informs him that the date asked for in his letter of the 9th inst. is March 5, 1751”.
So when was Madison actually born? March 16 or March 5? What explains an 11 day discrepancy between the two birthdates? In fact, both of the dates are correct! At the time of Madison’s birth, Great Britain and all of her colonies, including Virginia, were using the Julian calendar, also known as the “old style” calendar. In September 1752, the Gregorian or “New Style” calendar was adopted by Great Britain. This added 11 days to the current date to bring the calendar in step with the astronomical year and changed the date of New Years.2 Therefore, anyone born after 1752 would have recorded a birth using the Gregorian calendar. So, March 5 “old style” and March 16, “new style” are in fact the same date.
For people whose lifetimes spanned the transition, birthdates on their tombstones are often recorded with the suffix “O.S” following the date. A prime example of this practice is Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone at Monticello. It records that Jefferson was born April 2, 1745, O.S. and died on July 4, 1826.3 Madison’s own tombstone marks his birthday as March 16, 1751, but this obelisk was not placed on Madison’s grave until September 1857, more than twenty years after his death.
In an autobiographical sketch Madison prepared late in his life, he wrote,”James Madison was born on the 5th of March, (O.S.) 1751. His parents James Madison & N. Conway Madison resided in the County of Orange in Virginia. At the time of his birth they were on a visit to his mother, who resided on the Rappahannock, at Port Conway in the County of King George.”4
Regardless of which calendar you consult, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” was born 258 years ago Monday. As part of Montpelier’s annual celebration of Madison’s birthday, the United States Marine Corps will place a Presidential wreath at Madison’s tomb, in recognition of Madison’s role in the early history of the Marine Corps.5 Remarks will be made by William C. diGiacomantonio, the Associate Editor of the First Federal Congress project, and a new mural “James Madison Introducing the Bill of Rights, June 8, 1789” by artist William Woodward will be unveiled at Montpelier’s Visitor Center.
In celebration of Madison’s birthday, admission to Montpelier is free for all visitors on March 16.
– Montpelier Curatorial Staff
1 N. Phillips to James Madison, July 9, 1827, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.
2 The change from Julian to Gregorian was a complex one; for more information see this page from the Connecticut State Library.
4 Autobiography; with notes and chronological list, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.
5 For more information, see the State Department history of the Barbary Wars.