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Madison: The Man and the City Named for Him

Madison, Wisconsin, is one of four state capitals that are named for U.S. Presidents. Now, our fourth President, James Madison, was known for a lot of things. He has been called the Father of the Constitution, for his contributions to that historic document. He co-authored The Federalist Papers, which helped convince the states to ratify the Constitution. He was a leader in the House of Representatives, drafting the Bill of Rights, and worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government. As Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, he supervised the Louisiana Purchase. And as President, he oversaw a period of prosperity, led the nation into the War of 1812 and dealt with the deaths of not one, but two Vice Presidents while in office. Further, at 5’4” tall, he was our shortest President, earning him the mocking nickname “His Little Majesty.”

But Madison was born and spent most of his life (when not in Washington, D.C.) in Virginia. So, why, then, was he honored in a Midwest state that he likely never visited – and didn’t even become a state until 1848, 12 years after he died?

The decision to name the city for President Madison was largely due to one man: James Duane Doty. Doty had been a former federal judge, and in 1829, he purchased over a thousand acres of swamp and forest land on the isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, with the intention of building a city. When the Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836, the territorial legislature convened in Belmont. One of the legislature’s tasks was to select a permanent location for the territory’s capital.

Doty lobbied aggressively for his planned city, which at that point existed only on paper. In order to convince legislators to vote in his favor, Doty had the city mapped out; he called it Madison in honor of the late President, who had died earlier that year. Further, he intended for streets to be named for each of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution. (It didn’t hurt that Doty also offered buffalo robes to the undecided – yet freezing – legislators, as well as the promise of choice land lots at discounted prices.)

On November 28, 1836, the legislature voted in favor of Madison as its capital. In addition to Doty’s influence, the city was also favored due to its strategic location – halfway between the new and growing cities around Milwaukee in the east and the long-established post of Prairie du Chien in the west, and between the highly populated lead mining regions in the southwest and Wisconsin’s oldest city, Green Bay, in the northeast.

The cornerstone for the capital was laid in 1837, and the legislature first met there in 1838. However, Madison itself was not incorporated as a village until 1846, when its official population was just 626. Today, it is home to approximately a quarter-million people. In 1996, Money magazine named it as the best place to live in the United States. To this day, it remains consistently ranked near the top of such lists.

To discover for yourself how the city of Madison perpetuates the President’s legacy, or to explore the history of any of our other 40+ destinations, drop us a line at

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