Madison, James

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James Madison, Jr. (1751-1836): Fourth President of the United States.

Born on 16 March 1751, near Port Conway, Virginia, James Madison, Jr. was the eldest of twelve children. Madison’s father was a prominent tobacco planter, and his mother, Nelly Conway Madison, was the daughter of another prominent planter in Virginia. Being the son of a wealthy planter, Madison had educational opportunities that few in his day could afford. At the age of 11, Madison was sent away to study under the tutelage of Donald Robertson, a Scottish tutor well known throughout Virginia and the South. In 1769, at the age of 18, Madison enrolled at the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University, where Madison founded the American Whig Society, the oldest debate society in America. In addition to studying Greek, Latin, science, geography, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy, Madison stayed at Princeton for a short time after his graduation in 1771 to study Hebrew and political philosophy.

Shortly after graduation from college, Madison commissioned as a colonel in the Orange County militia. Madison, who suffered from poor health as a child, never took part in fighting during the American Revolution. Rather, Madison served as a delegate at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776. During this time, Madison and Jefferson, Thomas became close friends, and Madison became one of Jefferson’s closest advisers. Madison and Jefferson would maintain their friendship until Jefferson’s death in 1826. It was during this time that Madison gained a reputation for being hard worker and passionate about public service. After independence, Madison was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784. As a delegate, Madison fought Patrick Henry, who proposed a bill that would force Virginians to pay a tax to the church of their choice. Madison believed that even if Virginia sponsored all forms of Christianity, it would establish a dangerous precedent and could potentially lead to Virginia favoring a particular sect of Christianity over another.

Madison’s most important contribution to American politics grew out of the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and Shay’s Rebellion. James Madison had been arguing for a stronger central government since his time in the Continental Congress. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison distinguished himself as a leader for those delegates supporting a strong central government. Most of what historians know about the Convention today comes from his copious notes taken during the proceedings. James Madison’s worked extensively on what became known as the Virginia Plan. Many of Madison’s proposals about government eventually became part of the final draft of the Constitution. Madison’s original plan called for three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial. Through his tireless efforts, both during the Constitutional Convention and after, writing the Federalist Papers, James Madison earned the nickname “Father of the Constitution.”

During the Presidencies of both George Washington and Adams, John, Madison was a strong opposition figure to movements he saw as violations of the Bill of Rights. It was during his early career as a Congressman that James Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widower from Philadelphia with an infant son. Soon after, Thomas Jefferson appointed Madison as Secretary of State. In this role, Madison foresaw the coming between the United States and Great Britain. After his election to the presidency in 1808, Madison continued to stress American neutrality on the world stage.

Despite his best intentions, James Madison asked Congress to declare war and on June 18, 1812, Congress officially declared war on Great Britain. Though the War of 1812 was eventually seen as a victory, the beginning of the war was full of setbacks for the Americans. Immediately after the war began, the American forces invading Canada were defeated. Within a few months, most of the Northwest Territory fell to the British. In 1814, James Madison and his government was forced to flee Washington, D.C. as British forces burned most of the city, including the White House and Capitol building. His wife, Dolley Madison, saved most of the art from the White House, including a now famous portrait of George Washington. Despite the burning of Washington, the United State and Great Britain soon agreed to end the war, and the Treaty of Ghent whose chief negotiator on the American side was Adams, John Quincy was signed in December 1814. The end of the war ushered in a postwar economic boom.

After his presidency ended in 1817, Madison retired with his family to his childhood home, Montpelier. He kept busy by running the plantation and helping Thomas Jefferson to establish the University of Virginia. Later in life, a series of financial setbacks hit Madison. On 28 June 1836, James Madison died at Montpelier. Regarded as quiet, yet brilliant thinker, Madison was a key figure in the shaping of the United States government, and his legacy helped to fuel the establishment of representative democracies throughout the world.

Further Readings:

A. Burstein & N. Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, 2010.

K. R. Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America, 2012.

R. Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography, 1971.


Jeffrey A. Cain/ Scott Buchanan

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