A bit of presidential trivia: What did the first five presidents of the United States NOT have in common?
A clue: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe.Obviously, not a middle name in the bunch.
A group of Salt Lake County students got that tidbit of information right from the mouth of someone who should know - James Madison himself.
Madison (who has another life as Ray Kartchner, a history buff who plays the fourth president to many audiences) told the youngsters he "recently attained my 240th birthday. I've worn well."
And that despite the fact that he lost 11 days in the first year of his life. Born March 5, 1751, in the colony of Virginia, he didn't turn a year old until March 16, 1752, having come along just in the time for the colony's change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.
Madison, speaking to junior and middle high school students gathered at Salt Lake Community College for a history fair, was distressed that someone seemed to have walked off with his willow switches - insurance that the children would "be seen and not heard" in good colonial style.
He talked of a time when real men wore lace - and wigs. And the stylishly coiffed headpieces and lacy hankies were more than vain fripperies, he assured the students.
In an era when bathing was considered unhealthy (it allowed germs to invade the body through the skin) a strategically placed handkerchief, liberally soaked with a perfume or snuff, was useful to dab at the nose when in close quarters with others between the fall and spring ablutions. As for the wig, it often covered a head shaved bald to remove any harbor for lice. As for the common folk who couldn't afford a wig - "they scratched."
His own light blue satin breeches showed off shapely calves as he struck a pose, displaying the pride of many a vain colonist. The breeches were topped with a dark blue velvet coat and ruffled jabot of the type he wore back then - when the U.S. Constitution was just being born.
Madison modestly acknowledged his sobriquet as "father of the Constitution" but protested that his friend, Jefferson, was really the most important man who ever lived.
Madison's toys were simple, he said, demonstrating a few. They consisted of a large wood button on a string - the well-known "buzz saw" that children sometimes play with still, and a "ball in cup" that was the center of many a tavern competition. "I would show off," Madison said, apologizing as the ball missed the cup that "that's the first time I've ever missed."
School in the colonies was primarily for rich young gentlemen, and they were expected to toe the line. Waiting for them if they didn't were tools that encouraged proper demeanor - the wonderful sting of the thin willow, the more resounding whack of the thick willow - a whisper stick that didn't allow a whisper, and the paddle. Slates were used because paper was too expensive and the usual reader was the family Bible.
Although proclaiming that the "natural tendency of children is to misbehave," Madison beamed as the majority of the students - and adults - in his audience chanted the preamble to the Constitution, making all the struggle of the 18th-century colonists worthwhile.
Kartchner has been playing James Madison for four years as part of Utah's observance of 200th anniversaries of the Constitution and the Bills of Rights. His performances are sponsored by the Utah Endowment for the Humanities.