James Madison has often been described as one of the most important American political thinkers in the history of the United States. He was a Founding Father, is considered as the Father of the Constitution, and would go on to become the 4th President of the United States of America. He was one of the most important early American movers and shakers, working closely with Thomas Jefferson. His life was not without struggle however, as he suffered from epilepsy during a time in which the condition was highly demonised.
Madison was born in Virginia in March of 1751. Right from the start he appeared extremely delicate and fragile, and never displayed the energy and exuberance expected of youth. Despite expectations from both doctors and his family that he would not live to adulthood, at the age of 18 he was sent to college. Rather than send him down south to Williamsburg as was traditional for the well to do youth of Virginia at the time, he was sent north to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), as it was feared that the swampy malaria filled climate of the south would prove too dangerous for his delicate health. Despite his fragile health, Madison completed the three year course in just two years and is now hailed as Princeton’s first graduate student.
His poor health and short stature prevented Madison from seeing military action once he left college, and as such he didn’t fight during the Revolutionary War. However he did start his rise through politics here, overseeing the local militia. It was around this time however that his epilepsy first manifested. In 1775 he was overseeing a military drill when he collapsed without warning. From then on he would experience similar episodes throughout his life, marked by a loss of function, subsequent collapse, or the appearance of day dreaming and being unaware of his surroundings.
His family doctor diagnosed him with epilepsy. This would have been a worrying diagnosis if it hadn’t been for the fact that his family doctor was very progressive in his attitudes towards treatment. Rather than demonising the condition like most others and treating the patient with blood letting and leaches, he prescribed light exercise in an attempt to gradually build up his strength.
Madison described his ‘episodes’ in a journal in which he described “a constitutional tendency to sudden attacks somewhat resembling epilepsy which suspended all function… They continued throughout my life with prolonged intensity.” Many modern doctors and historians believe he was suffering from absence seizures, formerly called petit mal seizures. Absence seizures occur in a type of epileptic activity that occurs throughout the entire brain, beginning in both halves of the brain at the same time. They are often very brief, only lasting a few seconds and are often mistaken for day dreaming. Symptoms include, staring into space, smacking lips, fluttering eyes, suddenly stopping speech and movement, being motionless, being unaware of one’s surroundings or being touched. Typically patients will not remember anything after an absence seizure and may sometimes even collapse.
Whilst Madison lived with them his entire life, they very clearly didn’t diminish his intelligence and cognitive function. Madison helped to draft both the US Constitution, and the basis for the Bill of Rights which was added just after the Constitution had been ratified. Without Madison’s work the United States would look very different to how it does today. In a time where epilepsy was not supported but condemned, Madison not only managed to thrive but managed to make an impact on his country and the lives of those living in it.