Book explores ‘scandalous’ topic

Philip Bigler, a retired James Madison University professor and the 1998 National Teacher of the Year, stands beside portraits of Dolley Madison and her son, John Payne Todd, in the basement of his home in Quicksburg. Bigler has written a book on Todd. Rich Cooley/Daily

QUICKSBURG — Nationally recognized educator and scholar Philip Bigler has expanded a mere footnote of American history in his new book, “Scandalous Son: The Elusive Search for Dolley Madison’s Son, John Payne Todd.”

Named National Teacher of the Year in 1998, Bigler brings attention to the “dark side of the American Dream” through the story of James Madison’s stepson. “Scandalous Son” is Bigler’s 10th book and was released Sunday, the anniversary of Madison’s death more than 200 years ago.

While at James Madison University, Bigler was director of the now-closed James Madison Center for nine years. There he taught classes on the eponymous fourth president in depth and made Madison’s writings more accessible to students.

Bigler began writing “Scandalous Son” in 2010 while still at JMU, originally planning it as project of the center but turning it into his retirement project. Bigler had noted the lack of information on Todd, whom historians tend to ignore.

“It’s amazing to me because you’re basically reducing a human being’s life to a sentence or two in a book,” he said. “And I said, ‘this is a much bigger story than that.'”

While he said accusations of Todd being an alcoholic and opportunist are not without merit, his story is exemplary of an age-old trend that continues today.

Bigler coins that trend as the “dark side of the American Dream:” while one generation rises from rags to riches, their children tear that legacy down with indulgent self-destruction borne of their inherited namesake.

According to Bigler, this trend plagued other prominent American families such as the Adamses and the Jeffersons. Todd used his lineage in a big way, at one point cavorting royally about in Russia flaunting his name and flouting his responsibilities as peace commissioner.

“He’s a very refined character in terms of his manners … has very good taste in art and can use his charm to sway a lot of people,” Bigler said.

Todd’s alcoholism spelled his decline and destruction after various patchwork struggles to tame his vices. He died in 1852 and is buried in the infrequently visited Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., beneath a small chipped marker in the ground.

Searching and sifting through details about Todd’s life was “elusive” for Bigler in that Todd would disappear for long intervals and wrote sparse letters. Bigler said a true, extensive biography on the man would’ve been impossible.

“He’s hard to pin down,” Bigler said.

Todd’s memorandum dating from 1844 to 1848 was an invaluable resource for Bigler when writing “Scandalous Son,” alongside two volumes of Madison letters from James Madison’s retirement years.

Bigler gathered research through many visits to sites such as the Library of Congress and the Greensboro Historical Museum. Though Todd’s self-built Toddsberth estate in Orange County went to ruin during the Great Depression, Bigler visited the site to talk to the current owners and even interviewed a woman who had played in the ruins as a child.

Included in the book are frequent visual odds and ends: paintings, photographs, writings and political cartoons. Each chapter heading is written in a font created by patching together samples of Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting.

Bigler said he hopes readers will take away renewed appreciation for pre-Civil war figures and think about the life lessons exemplified in Todd’s untold story.

“I think it’s an interesting story,” he said. “And it’s designed to be read. It’s not bogged down in historical minutiae, it’s designed to be a book that people can read and enjoy.”

“Scandalous Son” is sold at Monticello and online through Apple Ridge Publishers. Bigler said he is trying to sell the book at Montpelier, the Madisons’ home.

He has no current plans for another book, needing to decompress after five years of researching and “painful” writing. He said he hopes to hold discussions and signings for the book in the near future.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com