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Did James Madison suffer a nervous collapse due to the intensity of his studies?

Question: While at Princeton, did James Madison suffer a nervous collapse due to the intensity of his studies?

The story of Madison’s supposed nervous collapse in the days before commencement and its place in Princeton lore are primarily the result of a brief note in MacLean’s “History of the College of New Jersey” which states that at commencement in 1771, “Mr. James Madison was excused from taking part in the exercises.” Many other sources which discuss the young Madison as a student attribute the very same statement to a commencement program, however if such a document exists it is not in the holdings of the University Archives. The closest such resource is a handwritten reproduction of an article from the “Pennsylvania Chronicle” documenting the event in Commencement Records, which lists Madison among the graduates but makes no mention as to whether he was present or not.

Nonetheless, in Madison’s “Autobiography” (actually an untitled manuscript written/dictated at the age of 80) he writes that “His very infirm health, had been occasioned not a little by a doubled labor, in which he was joined by fellow student Jos. Ross, in accomplishing the studies of two years within one…” At some point later historians must have made the connection between this passage and MacLean’s note that he missed commencement. Note that in his correspondence as a student (compiled in the Papers of James Madison) the young statesman makes no mention whatsoever of these health troubles or of missing commencement, although later in life he did suffer from periodic bouts of an unknown malady which some historians suspect may have been epilepsy (as discussed in the Madison biographies of Ralph Ketcham and Irving Brant).

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Brennan

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