James Madison – Life, Presidency & Legacy
Generally revered as the “Father of the Constitution”, James Madison was an 18th-century Virginian-born politician who rose to become the fourth president of the United States. Before taking up the presidency, he had achieved critical acclaim as a lawyer, a diplomat, and a statesman. In terms of his sheer work and effort put into drafting, ratifying and defending the U.S. Constitution, none of the Founding Fathers of the United States can hold a candle to James Madison.
His famous Federalist papers, which were co-authored with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, has shaped political science and constitutional law for over two centuries now. He was also chiefly responsible for drafting the First 10 Amendments to the Constitution (i.e. the Bill of Rights). In the article below, attention will be paid to the life, presidency, and legacy of James Madison.
James Madison’s childhood and early life
On March 16, 1751, James Madison Jr. was born to parents James Madison Sr. and Nelly Conway. James Madison’s exact place of birth was at Port Conway, Orange County, Virginia. His father, Madison Sr, was a very influential and successful Virginia plantation owner – a tobacco planter. The total acreage of land that the Madisons lived on was more than 3,500. As it was common practice back then, the Madison family had a reasonable number of slaves that tilled and slaved on the land.
The name of the house Madison lived in as a child was called Montpelier. He was the oldest of 11 siblings – seven brothers and four sisters. Sadly, only six of them grew into adulthood, the rest died at an early age.
What Schools did James Madison Attend?
As a child, Madison was tutored by the Scottish instructor Donald Robertson from 1762 to 1767. In his teens, he studied under the guidance of Reverend Thomas Martin.
Madison did not enroll at the famous Virginia College of William and Mary because of a fear of getting infected with a disease. Because his health was very fragile, his parents did everything they could to keep him protected. Hence, he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in 1769.
At college, he favored subjects such as classical Greek, Latin, Theology and Enlightenment Studies. And right of the bat, Madison attained some reasonable fluency in Latin. As an influential member of the American Whig Society, he loved debating and giving speeches.
Due to his hard work and tenacity, he graduated a year earlier than his classmates. Shortly after graduation, he proceeded to study (1771 to 1772 ) Hebrew and political philosophy under the guidance of John Witherspoon. The president of the school had a great influence on Madison. It was around this time that his passion for philosophy and Enlightenment thoughts was born.
James Madison’s Wife and Adopted Son
Madison met Dolley Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widow, in the spring of 1794. Interestingly, it was Aaron Burr who introduced Dolley to Madison.
After a few months of courting, James and Dolley got married on September 15, 1794. He later adopted Dolley’s child, Payne, from her first marriage. The couple made home in Montpelier, Orange County, Virginia. Dolley provided a lot of support to his political career. Madison and Dolley bore no children together.
How did he get into Politics?
After graduation, Madison privately tutored his siblings for a brief period of time. With the rising friction and sporadic fights between the colonists and Great Britain, Madison lent his voice to the independence course of the colonists. He was an avid critic of Britain’s tax policies on the colonies.
His first gig in politics came in 1774 when he was elected to be on the Orange County Committee of Safety, Virginia. Although he was never involved directly in battle, he did play an active role in the local militia. Within a short period of time, he had risen up to the rank of colonel in the Orange County militia.
As a delegate to the Fifth Virginia Convention, James Madison played a very vital role in drafting the state’s first constitution in 1776. After losing his seat in the Virginia Assembly, he served on the Virginia Governor’s Council of State from 1777 to 1779. It was around this time that he and Thomas Jefferson developed a close relationship.
Early years in the Continental Congress
Madison was elected one of the Virginia delegates to serve in the Second Continental Congress in 1780. As a member of Congress, He was primarily concerned with developing a strong alliance with France. He also focused on addressing the bad financial situation that the United States found itself in. His attention was cast to issues such as high inflation, poor cooperation among the states, and a weak federal government.
Back in his home state, Madison gradually became a vocal critic of the system of governance that allowed religion to be infused into state affairs in Virginia. He reasoned that having a state religion could create fertile grounds for intolerance, closed-mindedness, and blind obedience to authority.
His efforts culminated in the drafting of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. He did most of the drafting along with Thomas Jefferson. The Virginia Statute was designed to dissociate the Church of England from Virginia’s official affairs, granting religious freedoms to all other religious denominations.
The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom would later strongly influence Thomas Jefferson’s Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights.
The Philadelphia Convention in 1787
After several calls by several Congressmen and state politicians, Congress finally agreed to have a Constitutional Convention in 1787. The convention, which was held in Philadelphia, was aimed at modifying the grossly inadequate Articles of Confederation.
Many politicians and statesmen, including James Madison, reasoned that the Articles of Confederation hindered efforts of unity among the states.
Madison, along with several Federalists, called for an amendment or replacement to the Articles of Confederation. He argued in favor of a constitution that would benefit the nation in terms of stronger military, better tariff policies, and better foreign policies.
Backing him were the likes of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. He, along with other Virginia delegates such as Edmund Randolph and George Mason, proposed the Virginia Plan in support of a stronger federal government. It also included having a system of governance with checks and balances coming from the judiciary and the legislature. Madison’s ultimate goal was to prevent a situation where the executive branch of government run amok, infringing upon the rights of the people and states within the union.
The Federalist Papers
Amidst significant opposition from some delegates to the new Constitution, Madison joined forces with fellow Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Together, they pushed for the ratification of the Constitution. Furthermore, the three men wrote extensive articles in support of the new constitution. The articles, which appeared in various New York journals and newspapers, would later be termed as the Federalist papers. The goal of the essays was to counter the influence of anti-Federalists’ papers titled “Cato” and “Brutus”, which were mainly written by Patrick Henry.
Out of the 85 Federalist papers, it is estimated that Madison alone wrote about 29 of the essays. Collectively, they penned down those papers using the pseudonym “Publius”. The first 77 essays were mainly published between autumn of 1787 and the summer of 1788 in the Independent Journal and the New York Packet.
The most famous of the essays was Federalist No. 10, in which Madison admonished the system of majority rule or a commercial-styled system of government. He emphasized the merits of a strong central government.
In the end, the Constitution got ratified. The three arms of government were established—the executive branch; the judiciary; and the legislature (a bicameral parliament that composed of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate). In Madison’s home state, Virginia, the Constitution was ratified in June 1789.
Madison’s Return to Congress
From 1789 to 1793, he served on several Congressional committees in the First Congress of the United States. He supported the view that the United States would fare better if it aligned itself to France. He also developed a very close working relationship with then-President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Majority of the time, he served as an influential adviser to George Washington on matters of the Constitution. Madison was even consulted in the drafting of Washington’s presidential inaugural address.
In Congress, he gave his support to the Tariff Bill of 1789. The bill imposed tariffs on goods imported into the country.
The Bill of Rights and the Constitutional Amendment
On the advisement of his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, Madison gradually started seeing the need of having a proper mechanism to halt the federal government from ever abridging the rights and freedoms of the people. This was quite contrary to his earlier agenda of having a strong federal government.
He worked extremely hard to convince his fellow delegates on the need to have the Bill of Rights inserted into the Constitution. His proposed 12 amendments were aimed at guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of the people and the states in the union – freedom of religion; speech; press; right to assemble; and the right to petition the government.
Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights, which was officially introduced to the floor of Congress on June 8, 1789, received a lot of support from anti-Federalists. Those in favor of amending the Constitution believed that the Constitution had to have explicit clauses that regulated the relationship between the federal government and the people.
However, advocates of a strong federal government, such as Alexander Hamilton, sharply condemned the Bill of Rights. The Federalists maintained that the Constitution was in itself enough to guarantee the rights and freedoms of the people. They reasoned that introducing amendments to it was not something that would prove useful.
After intense debates, secret meetings and several compromises, 10 of Madison’s proposed amendments to the Constitution were ratified by the states on December 15, 1791.
Madison’s clash with the Federalists
Madison’s fall out with Hamilton started getting worse after Madison opposed a number of Hamilton’s economic plans. He particularly kicked against Hamilton’s plan to make the federal government take on the debt burden of the states. As a result, Madison fell out of favor with several Federalists.
The biggest bone of contention was Hamilton’s proposal to set up a national bank. After Congress gave the national bank a thumbs up, he described such moves by the federal government as unconstitutional.
Madison received the support of various anti-Federalists from both within and outside Washington’s administration. Chief among them was Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.
Democratic-Republican Party versus Federalist Party
As a result of this apparent division within Washington’s administration, the anti-Federalists went on to form the Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson and Madison served as the two topmost leaders of the party. The goal of the party was to counter the influence Hamilton had in the federal government.
For example, Jefferson and Madison sought closer ties with France. Madison/Jefferson camp was often referred to as the Southern Interest. They feared that Hamilton wished to turn America into a monarchy (an aristocratic monarchy), thereby eliminating the federal republic.
On the contrary, Hamilton pursued building greater ties with Britain. They formed the Northern Interests. Hamilton’s camp promoted having a strong stimulus package that would help create a diversified and strong economy. Their camp coalesced into the Federalist Party.
Time in Opposition and his Democratic-Republican Party
After a narrow win in the 1796 presidential election, Federalist John Adams was elected second U.S. president. The second runner up in the election, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in as his vice president.
John Adams’ presidency was one fraught with a lot of infighting and opposition from the Democratic-Republican Party. James Madison became a huge thorn in the flesh of the Federalists. He vehemently criticized the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 that victimized French refuges in American society. In the nutshell, the acts were aimed at stifling opposition voices and critics of the government during the Quasi-War with France.
Rather than call the states to nullify the Sedition Acts, Madison asked them to issue out a statement declaring how unjust the laws were.
Madison capitalized on President Adams’ unpopularity as well as the infighting that had rocked the Federalist Party. He successfully organized Jefferson’s 1800 presidential campaign. He also authored the Report of 1800 that criticized John Adams’ inability to grant the press unequivocal freedom.
Madison single-handedly got Jefferson elected as the 3rd President of the United States. Together, they defeated the Federalists Party by exploiting the disagreements between Adams and Hamilton.
U.S. Secretary of State (1801 to 1809)
With Jefferson as president, Madison served as his Secretary of State. He proved himself an influential and vital member of Jefferson’s cabinet. He initiated policies that were designed to roll back the policies from the previous Federalist administration of John Adams. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts were scrapped off.
Madison also worked to ensure that the federal government did not increase taxes. He convinced President Jefferson to reduce the U.S. Army and the Navy sizes.
Many expected him to scrap off the First Bank of the United States. Quite contrary, he did not do so. With the exception of a few Federalist’s institutions and initiatives, Jefferson and Madison made sure that they shaped the federal government differently. A large number of Democratic-Republican Party members and sympathizers were appointed to replace Federalists in the public sector. The only person that kept Federalist policies alive was Chief Justice John Marshall – a last-minute appointment made by John Adams before leaving office.
As Secretary of State, Madison was in charge of the westward expansion during the Lewis and William Clark Expedition.
Furthermore, he helped arrange the deal that saw America purchase Louisiana from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 in effect doubled the size of the United States of America.
Madison was also involved in tilting the U.S. to favor France over Britain. His largely unsuccessful Embargo Act of 1807 was aimed at bringing both Britain and France to the negotiation table. Since France and Britain were warring with each other, the two countries resorted to sabotaging American trade ships. The two European powers resorted to those acts because they hoped that America, which had stayed neutral all throughout the conflict, would pick a side in the war.
The Embargo Act banned all American exports to foreign countries. It was an extremely unpopular move by Madison. In 1809, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act to replace the Embargo Act. The replacement act helped to soothe the minds of American businesses and traders.
James Madison’s successes as Secretary of State put him in firm position to succeed Thomas Jefferson as president.
James Madison’s Presidency (1809 – 1817)
With the Federalist Party in complete disarray due to several factions and divisions between Hamiltonians and non-Hamiltonians, the Democratic-Republican Party cruised its way to victory in the 1808 presidential election. Madison obtained about 70 percent of the electoral votes, defeating Charles C. Pinckney from the Federalist Party.
At five feet, four inches (163 cm), Madison holds the record of being the shortest U.S. president ever.
In March 1809, the diminutive James Madison was sworn in as the 4th President of the United States. His vice president was George Clinton. His cabinet was largely made up of several people he considered incompetent. However, he was forced to choose them in order to keep the peace and unity within his party. The only person President Madison confided in the most was Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin.
In terms of policies, he rolled out similar policies to his predecessor’s (long-time friend President Thomas Jefferson). The country’s debt was significantly reduced. So were taxes on people and businesses. This meant less spending in areas such as the military and the navy.
The War of 1812 – “The Second War of Independence”
James Madison’s presidency was predominantly plagued with immense friction and war with Great Britain. The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 kept Britain on America’s trade embargo list. Britain was furious and it considered this as an act of aggression. Britain intensified its attack and seizure of American trading ships.
Congress felt that the only way to halt this was going head to head with Britain. A number of “War Hawks” in Congress, such as John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, called for an immediate retaliation from the U.S. The public too was largely in favor of war with Britain. They termed it as America’s “Second War of Independence”.
Madison asked that Congress declares war on Britain. The war declaration was issued in June 1812. Several Northeast members of Congress and Federalist Party members refused backing Madison’s war efforts. They called the war “Mr. Madison’s War”.
The first few months saw Britain outclassing America on the seas. The U.S. also suffered several heavy losses at the Siege of Detroit and the Battle of Queenston Heights.
Madison’s Re-Election in 1812
With a lot of nationalistic sentiments among Congress and the general public, Madison’s war with Britain did nothing to affect his presidential re-election in 1812. He defeated DeWitt Clinton and won the general election.
With the war with Britain in its dying years, Russia offered to mediate between America and Britain. But this was before both sides had suffered several losses. Madison, in particular, had to run away from the capital, Washington D.C.. This was after a battalion of British forces laid siege to the federal government in the nation’s capital. Several government buildings got torched, including the White House and the Capitol building.
The British also suffered significant losses. Madison’s general, Andrew Jackson (later 7th President of the U.S.), helped halt British incursions in the North. President Madison proudly felt good after victory at the Battle of Lake Erie.
In the end, Britain and America signed a peace treaty – the Treaty of Ghent in 1815. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on February 16, 1815.
Realizing how ill-equipped the U.S. military was during the war, Madison increased military spending. He also resuscitated the National Bank of the United States – a bank that he outrightly dismissed a few years prior. Congress went on to pass the Twenty-five-year Charter for the Second Bank of the United States a few years later.
President Madison helped give federal funding to several infrastructural projects. Projects that were later termed as “internal improvements”. Most significant of those projects was the Cumberland Road network. The road was constructed to link the country to the western part of the newly acquired territories.
Prior to leaving office, Madison, as well as Jefferson, supported Secretary of State James Monroe during the 1816 presidential election. Monroe ultimately won by defeating Federalist Rufus King in the 1816 presidential election.
After his presidential tenure was up in 1817, Madison, 65 years old at the time, retired quietly to his home at Montpelier in Virginia. He surrounded himself with his wife and stepson.
Retirement and Post-Presidency
Historians believe that as at when Madison left office he was significantly poorer than before he took office. His plantation was almost in ruins due to his stepson’s poor management of the place. This was compounded with the fact that tobacco prices were falling.
He spent most of his retirement years working to revive his plantation. He also collaborated with Thomas Jefferson to establish the University of Virginia. And after Jefferson’s death in 1826, Madison was appointed the second rector of the university. He would stay in this position until his death in 1836.
He also served in several active roles in the American Colonization Society. The organization supported efforts to establish African-American colonies in Africa, Liberia in particular.
In what was seen as a brief return to the political arena, Madison served as a representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829.
James Madison’s Death and Legacy
After suffering congestive heart failure in his Montpelier home, James Madison died in the morning of June 28, 1836. He was 85 years and was survived by his stepson, Payne, and wife, Dolley. His body was buried at the family cemetery at Montpelier.
He bequeathed a sizable amount of money to the American Colonization Society, the University of Virginia, and Princeton University. The rest of his wealth was given to his immediate family members.
Madison will forever be remembered for his unparalleled contribution to the U.S. Constitution. He was one of the foremost minds in legal matters. Political science and constitutional law disciplines in America would not have been as they are today, had James Madison not existed. His works and essays continue to serve as an inspiration to not just the U.S. but the world in general.
Madison gets a lot of praise for his ability to adapt to the times. During and after the War of 1812, he started supporting several policies he had initially opposed in the 1790s, including the national bank, a strong navy, and direct taxes. Within a short span, Madison had moved from the camp of Hamilton and the Federalists to policies that supported greater states’ and people’s rights and freedoms – an anti-Federalist position.
His tireless work in ensuring that both federal and state governments disestablished religion in America would forever be considered incredible. Although he did not free any of his slaves that he inherited from his father, he worked to end the importation of slaves.
He also came to the aid of American Indians by protecting them from military invasion into their lands. His goal was to inculcate in them American values, something that he called – “civilized”. He admonished them for sticking solely to hunting as a form of livelihood. He wanted them to take up farming.