Origins of Madison Street Names | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Origins of Madison Street Names

The Constitutional Convention's Influence on the City

Origins of Madison Street Names | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeMap of the east side of Madison from 1911.

Map of Madison

A map of Madison from 1911. View the original source document: WHI 36494

In 1836, James Doty named his imaginary city after former president James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitution, who had recently died. Doty named its main streets after some of Madison's colleagues from the summer of 1787 who had worked with him to frame the world's first blueprint for democracy.

We give below very brief notes on each of these people, extracted from the excellent National Archives site on the founders, where you'll find much more about them.

You can also read more about Madison's streets in the "Wisconsin State Journal" for Dec. 21, 1888 and in Daniel Durrie's "History of Madison" (1874).

BALDWIN STREET: Named for Abraham Baldwin of Georgia. The son of a blacksmith, Baldwin nevertheless made it through Yale and became a chaplain in the Continental Army. He missed most of the Constitutional Convention and never made a speech, but showed up at the end to sign the famous document.

BASSETT STREET: Named for Richard Bassett of Delaware, perhaps the least remarkable of the signers. He showed up all the time but made no speeches, served on no committees, and cast no critical votes.

BEDFORD STREET: Named for Gunning Bedford Jr. of Delaware, who played a minor role in Philadelphia and spent the rest of his life as a federal judge.

BLAIR STREET: Named for John Blair of Virginia, a radical lawyer who as early as 1774 called for a meeting of all the colonies to support the revolting Bostonians. Blair attended the Constitutional Convention religiously but seems to have never spoken a word there. He later became a Supreme Court justice.

EnlargeLooking north uphill on S. Blount Street toward Williamson Street, across the railroad tracks.

South Blount Street

Looking north uphill on S. Blount Street toward Williamson Street, across the railroad tracks. The Fauerbach Brewery is on the left. August 12, 1931. View the original source document: WHI 18931

BLOUNT STREET: Named for William Blount of North Carolina. According to the National Archives site, "He said almost nothing in the debates and signed the Constitution reluctantly -- only, he said, to make it 'the unanimous act of the States in Convention.'" He later moved west into frontier Tennessee, where he died.

BREARLY STREET: Named for David Brearly of New Jersey. During the war the British arrested him for treason, but a group of revolutionary friends liberated him and he rose from captain to colonel. He did not rank among the leaders of the Convention, but he attended the sessions regularly. He died three years later, at the young age of 45.

BROOM STREET: Named for Jacob Broom of Delaware. Broom was a rather lackluster revolutionary whose only recorded service during the war was to make some maps for George Washington. At the Constitutional Convention, he acted accordingly, and played a minor role.

BUTLER STREET: Named for Pierce Butler of South Carolina, one of the most aristocratic delegates. His father was actually a member of the Irish Parliament and a baronet. Butler himself served in the "British" military as a young man, and even did a tour in Boston in 1768 to help suppress the revolutionaries there. Ten years later he had switched sides, and in 1787 helped write the new Constitution.

CARROLL STREET: Named for Daniel Carroll of Maryland, a gentleman planter who was a friend of George Washington. Washington named him to survey the District of Columbia in 1791, since he already owned much of the land there.

DAYTON STREET: Named for Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey. When the war broke out he immediately enlisted, became a captain at 19 and served under Lafayette. After being captured and imprisoned, he was released in time to take part in the Battle of Yorktown. In 1806 he schemed with Aaron Burr to mount an expedition against the Spanish and create an empire in the Southwest, and was indicted for treason.

DICKINSON STREET: Named for John Dickinson of Delaware. Far from being a fiery radical, Dickinson hoped for a peaceful solution to the crisis, voted against the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and refused to sign it. He left the Constitutional Convention early and did not actually sign the Constitution personally but had a colleague append his signature.

FEW STREET: Named for William Few of Georgia, a rabble-rouser who as early as 1771 opposed the royal governor. As a result, his brother was hanged, his property destroyed and the family exiled to frontier Georgia. In 1787 he missed most of the proceedings and never made a speech to the Constitutional Convention.

EnlargeView looking east down 100 block of East Gilman Street, August 2, 1889.

Gilman Street

View looking east down 100 block of East Gilman Street, from the intersection of East Gilman and North Pinckney Streets. The Mears House, 116 East Gilman, is on the left. The old Governor's Residence (130 East Gilman Street) is the second home on the left. The hitching post and stone platform on the left side of the street were for the convenience of friends arriving by carriage. View the original source document: WHI 11030

GILMAN STREET: Named for Nicholas Gilman, who arrived late from New Hampshire due to money problems (his expenses were covered by John Langdon) made no speeches, and played only a minor part in the Convention.

GORHAM STREET: Named for Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts. Gorham lost his fortune at the start of the Revolution when British troops overran his property. By privateering (a kind of legal piracy sanctioned in wartime) and shrewd investments he managed to recoup most of his wealth, but later on he lost it a second time and went bankrupt.

HAMILTON STREET: Named for Alexander Hamilton of $10 bill fame, who helped set up the nation's banking system. In 1804, when his rival Aaron Burr took offense at something Hamilton had said, the two fought a duel in Weehawken, N.J., at which he was mortally wounded.

HENRY STREET: Named for James McHenry of Maryland, a Philadelphia doctor. The British captured him early in the war but he was exchanged in time to help the sick at Valley Forge. He served as secretary to George Washington until 1780, when he joined Lafayette's staff. McHenry missed much of the Constitutional Convention, but kept a detailed private journal that is one of main sources of information about what happened there.

INGERSOLL STREET: Named for Jared Ingersoll of Pennsylvania, who started the war with pro-British leanings and seemed to participate in the Constitutional Convention with some reservations, rarely speaking up or taking any public role.

JENIFER STREET: Named for Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer of Maryland. Although he attended almost every session of the Convention, he rarely had anything to contribute.

JOHNSON STREET: Named for William S. Johnson of Connecticut, perhaps the most conflicted of the signers. Although he opposed the Stamp Act in 1765, had reservations about the Townshend Duties of 1767, and couldn't see the wisdom in most of the British government's policies, he had so many ties to the mother country that he found it hard to side against her. Some of his best friends were British, after all, and Oxford had given him honorary degrees. Johnson was so "moderate" in his views that he was even accused of treason during the war, but cleared himself and ultimately signed the Constitution.

KING STREET: Named for Rufus King of Massachusetts, an influential lawyer, brilliant orator and opponent of slavery who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance, under whose provisions Wisconsin would be born 50 years later.

EnlargeArmory (Red Gym or Old Red) on Langdon Street on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. A boathouse is behind the Armory on Lake Mendota.

Red Gym on Langdon Street

Armory (Red Gym or Old Red) on Langdon Street on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. View the original source document: WHI 57047

LANGDON STREET: Named for John Langdon, who lived on the New Hampshire seacoast. A fiery patriot, before the Revolution even broke out he helped seize and confiscate a local supply of British munitions. When New Hampshire wouldn't cover his expenses to attend the Constitutional Convention, Langdon paid his own way and that of fellow-delegate Nicholas Gilman. By the time they arrived, much of the business had already been finished, but he nonetheless spoke up more than 20 times during the debates and helped engineer a compromise on slavery.

LIVINGSTON STREET: Named for William Livingston of New Jersey, who had already retired from public life when the Revolution broke out and tried his soul. He chaired the committee that reached a compromise on the issue of slavery.

MIFFLIN STREET: Named for Thomas Mifflin, a Pennsylvania Quaker. Despite his faith, Mifflin helped raise troops at the outbreak of the Revolution and became a major in the Continental Army, acts which led the Quakers to expel him. He served as an aide to Washington before taking over as Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. Mifflin started life wealthy but was a lavish spender and died in poverty, aged 56. As a Quaker, he might have been embarrassed had he known that 200 years later his name would be closely associated with a famously rowdy block party.

PATERSON STREET: Named for William Paterson of New Jersey, a leader of the state's revolutionaries. In the Convention he lobbied strongly to preserve the rights of the small states against that of the large ones. He later became a Supreme Court justice.

PINCKNEY STREET: Named for two men from South Carolina with the same surname. Charles C. Pinckney, although one of the youngest delegates, later claimed he wrote the draft of the final Constitution (not true). Charles Pinckney, no relation, was taken prisoner during the war, but survived to become one of the movers and shakers at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He later turned down offers to command the U.S. Army, join the Supreme Court, and serve as Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

SHERMAN AVENUE: Named for Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and fashion the compromise between the large and small states over representation.

SPAIGHT STREET: Named for Richard D. Spaight of North Carolina, one of the youngest members of the Constitutional Convention at age 29. Spaight was present every day and contributed to several debates. In 1802, at the age of 42, he was gunned down in a duel.

EnlargeA view looking west up the 500 block of East Wilson Street.

500 Block of East Wilson Street

A view looking west up the 500 block of East Wilson Street, 1918. View the original source document: WHI 55067

WASHINGTON AVENUE: Named for George Washington; you know who he was.

WILLIAMSON STREET: Named for Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a licensed Presbyterian preacher and a professor of mathematics. As befits a preacher and academic, he served on several committees and argued often in the debates during the summer of 1787.

WILSON STREET: Named for James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who was one of the more aristocratic and conservative delegates. A wealthy man, he feared mob rule, especially after one attacked his mansion in 1779. At the Convention he attended nearly all the sessions and was very persuasive.