About the Authors James Madison Biography


James Madison (1751–1836) became the fourth president of the United States, succeeding his close friend Jefferson. Madison was born in a large plantation in Virginia, the oldest of twelve children in a family that was, as Madison once observed, "not among the most wealthy in the country, but in independent and comfortable circumstances." Very studious from his youth, Madison attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and graduated in 1772, having centered his Interests in history, law, and theology.

Madison first entered public life as a delegate elected to the Fourth Virginia Convention which met in Williamsburg in May, 1776, to deal with the developing revolutionary situation. As a novice among such older and more experienced patriot leaders as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and others, "young Jaimie," as friends called him, did not play much of a part in the decision-making. He was active and served effectively on several important committees in the historic Fourth Virginia Convention that declared Virginia's independence from Britain months before our national Declaration of Independence, framed a new constitution, and issued Virginia's celebrated Declaration of Rights. This later became the basis of our national Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our Constitution, laying down specifically the individual rights of citizens. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was largely the work of the great George Mason, though Patrick Henry and Madison may have had a hand in it. In any case, it was Madison who pushed twelve amendments through the first session of Congress under the new federal Constitution. Ten of these amendments were ratified in all the states by 1791; we know these as our Bill of Rights.

In 1776, Madison was elected to the House of Delegates, the lower house of the state legislature under Virginia's new constitution, but was defeated when he sought re-election. From 1779 through 1783, Madison was a member of the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress where he saw and experienced, as Hamilton had, the difficulties of governing the country efficiently under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation. He advocated the granting of additional powers to the Congress, and measures forbidding the states to issue any more paper money, which was depreciating rapidly and ruining public credit.

When his term in Congress ran out, Madison returned to Virginia and established a law practice, which did not much interest him. Again elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, he introduced and strongly supported Jefferson's bill to establish absolute religious freedom in the state, with complete separation of church and state.

With Maryland and Virginia in dispute about their boundaries and commercial rights along the Potomac, Madison proposed and arranged a meeting that amicably settled that dispute. This led Madison to think that all the states should be invited to send commissioners to a general conference to settle trade, commercial, and other conflicts among them. This led to the abortive convention at Annapolis in 1786 but this, in turn, with Madison and Hamilton energetically pushing, led to the successful Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia the following year.

At that convention Madison was perhaps the most active member, attending all sessions except for the few times when he was ill. Also, he was perhaps the most influential member, winning the salute of almost all as "father of the Constitution." He had read long, deep, and o good purpose in constitutional history and theory.

When the proposed new constitution came before the Virginia Constitutional Convention for ratification or rejection, the division of Opinion in that crucial state was close and sharp. Madison, with his precise logic and wide knowledge, was its chief and ablest defender, but tot its most eloquent. He was never a good public speaker: he had a squeaky and rather irritating voice. He had no skill to match the impassioned oratory of Patrick Henry, the leader of many eminent Virginians and Americans elsewhere who were resolutely opposed to immediate ratification and wanted the Philadelphia document sent back for revision before considering the final adoption. Also, as Madison was a short, frail man, being less than five feet six inches tall, he was not an impressive figure on the platform. In large halls, he could scarcely be seen over the lectern if it was high. On such occasions, Madison wore special shoes with very high heels to increase his physical stature.

In the first session of the United States House of Representatives. n addition to making the proposals that led to the adoption of the first en amendments, Madison introduced resolutions for establishing the three main executive departments under the new government: foreign affairs, treasury, and war.

Though the two had been close allies at the Philadelphia convention and in writing The Federalist papers, Madison soon broke with Hamilton and the Federalists, joining the Democratic-Republican forces allying around Jefferson. The break was occasioned by Madison's objections to Hamilton's fiscal policies. Madison agreed with Jefferson hat these policies were deliberately designed to undermine the constitutional republican form of government, and because he felt that, under the influence of Hamilton's strong anti-French, pro-British views, the Federalist administration was assuming an "Anglified complexion" against the wishes of a popular majority sympathetic with France and French republicanism.

Madison retired from Congress in 1797. Nevertheless he remained very active in public life. Always a libertarian, lie joined Jefferson and many others in denouncing and opposing the atrocious Alien and Sedition acts, passed in 1798 in the name of national defense and security. The real purpose was to suppress all criticism, especially published criticism, of the Federalist scheme of things and the incumbent administration's policies, foreign and domestic.

Many were fined or jailed, or both; many more were constantly harassed on the orders of authorities who regarded every dissenter as a foreign agent, a member of a vast international conspiracy. The Alien and Sedition acts, which caused a wide split throughout the country. were among the worst and most oppressive laws ever put on our books.

Against the harsh and repressive Alien and Sedition acts Madison drafted the strong Virginia Resolutions, and Jefferson the equally strong Kentucky Resolutions, adopted by the legislatures of those states. These resolutions declared that the national government was exceeding the powers delegated to it by the Constitution, that every state had "an equal right to judge for itself' infractions of the Constitution by the national government, and had not only the right but the duty "to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil."

This was very subversive indeed, laying a foundation for the doctrine of nullification that later led to the Civil War. But neither Madison nor Jefferson was hurt by the controversy, though many men of lesser influence who shared their views were prosecuted — and persecuted — by the Federalists. With public indignation against the Alien and Sedition acts mounting, Jefferson was elected president in 1800, and his Democratic-Republican party took command of the Congress, sending the Federalists down in a crushing defeat from which that party never recovered. It expired in the next decade.

In one of his first acts, President Jefferson granted amnesty to all those convicted under the Alien and Sedition laws, and persuaded Congress to indemnify those who had been ordered to pay fines under those laws, including interest on their fines.

Jefferson chose Madison as his secretary of state, and the two worked closely together for eight years. The direction of American foreign affairs presented formidable problems for the infant republic. With the Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe, Jefferson and Madison found it difficult to steer a safe course in very troubled waters, doing their best to keep the country from becoming involved with the belligerents on either side, in spite of annoying provocations by both sides.

Undoubtedly their greatest achievement was the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, for which the United States paid Napoleon some $15,000,000. This enormous tract, a vast but ill-defined territory, included some 830,000 square miles of land.

But the Federalists, swinging away from Hamilton's "loose construction" interpretation of the Constitution, now charged Jefferson, formerly a "strict constructionist," with stretching the Constitution too far and violating it. Jefferson was not authorized to acquire foreign territory by purchase. Besides, he was wasting the taxpayers' money in buying a ghastly wilderness.

On deciding to step down after two terms as president, following Washington's example, Jefferson pointed to Madison as the man he preferred to succeed him. Madison won easily, receiving 122 votes in the electoral college to his nearest rival's

More than 20 years before, in 1794, he had married Mrs. Dolley (Payne) Todd, a handsome, young, and wealthy widow, who won great admiration and a name for herself as "Dolly" Madison, one of the most charming first ladies ever to grace the White House.

Madison's two terms as president (1808–1816) were very trying, both for him and for the country. In a disordered world, foreign complications continued to build up, particularly with the British and the French who were still at war. On the one hand, Britain continued to take a very high-handed course in its efforts to dominate the seas, capturing American ships charged with carrying "contraband" (as defined by the British), and taking sailors off American vessels and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy and other services. On the other hand, the United States was having naval skirmishes with the equally high-handed French under Napoleon.

Matters came to a head after British warships increased their vigilance outside east coast harbors in 1811. On June 1, 1812, Madison sent a war message to Congress, and war was declared. Except for some American successes in isolated clashes at sea, the War of 1812 was a series of military disasters, for the country was ill prepared to take the field. The attempt to capture Montreal was a fiasco. American forces suffered resounding defeats at Niagara Falls and Detroit, and lost the garrison at Fort Dearborn, where Chicago now stands. A strong British fleet came up the Chesapeake and assaulted Baltimore and Fort McHenry unsuccessfully. One of the observers, during the two-day bombardment of the fort was Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to write the verses of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The British were more successful in their march on Washington from which President Madison and almost everybody else, including a. panic-stricken army, had fled across the Potomac into Virginia. Having set fire to the capitol, the presidential mansion, and all government buildings but one, the British returned to their ships and sailed for Jamaica, having suffered very few losses. Built as a red brick structure, the walls of the presidential mansion were so scarred by the fire that it was decided to paint the exterior white, and the mansion soon became known as the White House, with Dolly Madison being the first to renovate the inside.

The War of 1812 aroused sharp criticism on national policies, man) sneering at it as "Mr. Madison's War." There were class conflicts about the issue, as well as alarming sectional divisions. In general, political leaders in the South and West were "war hawks," calling for a mass assault on British power. Opposed to them were those speaking for the commercial, financial, and shipping interests of the middle and northeastern states which depended on their trade with Britain for profits.

The Federalists of New England went so far in opposition that they called a convention to meet in secret at Hartford, Connecticut, late in 1814. In its secret sessions, the convention adopted resolutions calling for immediate cessation of the war and the negating of certain federal measures. The New England Federalists went even beyond nullification and indulged in some talk about secession from the Union. Widely denounced for "conspiracy, sedition, and treason," the secret Hartford Convention brought about the collapse of the Federalist party, which soon disintegrated, some remnants of it being picked up later by the Whig party.

Retiring from the White House after his second term in office, Madison was succeeded by his secretary of state, James Monroe, the fourth of the "Virginia dynasty." Madison retired to a substantial manor house, Montpelier, seat of a large plantation he owned in Orange County, Virginia. After retiring to Montpelier, except for a few brief excursions into politics, Madison led a private life. Very studious all his years, he happily spent most of his time reading and editing his papers, particularly the voluminous notes he had taken on the secret proceedings and debates in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Fearing that publication of his notes on the secret debates and casual remarks made in that convention might reflect unfavorably or the opinions and reputations of some surviving members of the convention, Madison stipulated that his notes were not to be published until four years after his death, which occurred at the age of 85, early in the summer of 1836.

So it came about that it was not until the 1840s that the American people learned in any illuminating detail of what had gone on at the Philadelphia convention which, after much conflict and with many qualms, had hammered out the Federalist constitution under which the country had been living for more than half a century.