James Madison's prominence and leadership at the Constitutional Convention have earned him the title "Father of the Constitution." He was an unassuming but confident statesman who, financially independent, could devote his abundant energies and exceptional intellect to public affairs. This commitment was most evident in his tireless efforts to protect individual liberty through the creation of a strong but compassionate central government. He believed "that a well-founded commonwealth may . . . be immortal." A note found among his writings entitled "Advice to my Country" concludes with the following, "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is, that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy of it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into paradise."
CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Madison was a product of the American planter aristocracy. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1771, where he was a diligent student of history and government. He was interested in the law, but initially considered a career in the ministry. After studying theology for a year, however, he returned to "Montpelier;" his estate in Orange County (near "Monticello" the home of his friend Thomas Jefferson), undecided about a profession. The Revolution quickly transformed him into a politician.
Madison was politically active throughout the Revolution. He was named commander of the Orange County militia, but his poor health precluded any active military service. Along with his father, he sat on the Orange County Committee of Safety in 1775, and was a delegate to the Virginia constitutional convention in 1776. Madison's chief contribution to the convention was a resolution that declared the free exercise of religion a right and not something merely to be tolerated in a state with an established church. He was a member of Virginia's new House of Delegates (1776-77) and sat on the Council of State, the committee of senior advisers to Governor Thomas Jefferson (1778-80).
In 1780 Madison became the youngest member of the Continental Congress. He played a major role in its deliberations, advocating tariffs as the means of raising federal revenue, criticizing the negotiators of the Treaty of Paris for working behind the backs of the French, and defending Virginia's western land claims. He served until December 1783 and again from 1786 to 1788.
Madison spent the early postwar years engaged in intellectual pursuits. He studied law in an effort, as he put it, to obtain a profession that would depend as little as possible on the labor of slaves. He also studied the natural history of Orange County, sharing his findings with his friend and fellow natural history enthusiast, Thomas Jefferson. Madison later returned to the Virginia House of Delegates (1784-86). His influence can be seen in almost every piece of legislation of the period.
Most importantly, Madison set in motion the process that would eventually lead to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He wrote extensively about deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation, and he organized a series of meetings of delegates from different states to discuss national economic problems. The Mount Vernon Conference of 1785 was convened to settle conflicting claims of Virginia and Maryland over navigation rights on the Potomac River. This conference, as Madison had hoped, underscored the fact that the Virginia-Maryland dispute was just one instance of controversy over interstate commerce. The Annapolis Convention of 1786, which Madison attended, was arranged to address the problem of interstate commerce in general, and again as Madison had hoped, it succeeded in demonstrating that commerce was only a part of the larger problems of disunity among the states and of weakness on the part of Congress because of the deficiencies of the Articles.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 presented Madison with the opportunity for which he had so long prepared. Success, he believed, was imperative because failure would lead to a return to monarchy or to the dissolution of the United States into several separate governments. Basing his theories on the historical experiences of both ancient and modern confederacies, which, he charged, had failed because of the weakness of their central authorities, Madison arrived fully prepared to become the leading advocate of a strong central government.
The Virginia Plan embodied his principal proposals, including a legislature of two houses with differing terms of office and with representation favoring the large states. He wanted the national government clothed "with positive and compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity." The upper house of the legislature was to have a veto on state legislation, and he proposed a national executive. The new government would have the power to enforce its laws. Recognizing that so radical a change required popular approval, he proposed placing the new Constitution before the citizens in ratifying conventions created especially for that purpose.
Madison's outstanding preparation, sharp mind, and flexibility in changing situations made him the undisputed leader of the Convention; he rose to address his colleagues at Philadelphia more than 150 times. He was a member of numerous committees, most importantly the Committees on Postponed Matters and Style, and he authored the definitive notes of the Convention's deliberations, which to this day are one of the best references available in understanding both the Convention and the intentions of the Founding Fathers. One delegate wrote of him, "Every Person seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician with the Scholar. In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention, and tho' he cannot be called an Orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent, and convincing Speaker . . . . The affairs of the United States, he perhaps, has the most correct knowledge of, of any Man in the Union."
CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Madison played a critical role in the ratification process in Virginia, where approval was essential because of the state's size and population. He defended the Constitution against the objections of such influential men as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee. He also collaborated with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in producing a series of essays later published as The Federalist Papers (1787-88). This work, one of the most lucid expositions of the republican ideals that underlie the Constitution, is considered a classic of political theory.
Madison was elected to the House of Representatives (1789-97), where he helped frame the Bill of Rights and assisted in organizing the executive branch. He also helped create the federal tax system. At the same time, he was a key player in the first emergence of political parties in the United States, for he led the opposition to Alexander Hamilton, his old political ally, in the new national government. Along with his friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson, Madison was a founder of the Democratic-Republican party, which, in defining the national government's functions, emphasized different portions of the Constitution than did Hamilton and the Federalists.
When Federalist John Adams became President (1797-1801), Madison retired. During these years, his only public act was to author the Virginia Resolutions, which attacked the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts. With the ascent of the Democratic-Republicans in the elections of 1801, Madison returned to office, as President Jefferson's Secretary of State (1801-09). Although inexperienced in diplomacy, Madison brought to the job intelligence, insight, and charm, which earned him the respect of diplomats in Washington. He was encumbered in the performance of his duties, however, by the lingering suspicions of many of his fellow Democratic-Republicans, who remembered his earlier association with Hamilton and others who remained stalwart Federalists.
Madison succeeded Jefferson as President (1809-17). His term of office was dominated by the War of 1812, the result of many differences with the British growing out of the Napoleonic Wars. The United States especially objected to British interference with American shipping and impressment of American sailors into the King's service. The war raised much domestic controversy and ended in the virtual restoration of the status quo, although Andrew Jackson's victory at the battle of New Orleans two weeks after the peace treaty was signed left the nation with the impression that it had won the war. The resulting wave of nationalism gave Madison's Democratic-Republicans uncontested sway in national politics.
Madison retired to Montpelier after a second term, but by no means withdrew from public life. He served as the cochairman of Virginia's constitutional convention (1829-30). He wrote newspaper articles defending his friend President James Monroe and served as Monroe's foreign policy adviser. Concerned with the future of the union that he had worked so hard to help found, he spoke out against the emerging rivalries among southern, northern, and western interests. Madison also devoted time to intellectual and philanthropic pursuits. Although he had held slaves all of his life, he was active in the American Colonization Society, which sought to resettle slaves in Africa. He edited his journal of the Constitutional Convention, published by the government four years after his death, and he assisted Jefferson in founding the University of Virginia, succeeding him as rector of the university (1826-36).
BIRTH: 16 March 1751, in Port Conway, King George County, Virginia
DEATH: 28 June 1836, at "Montpelier," Orange County, Virginia
INTERMENT: On the grounds of "Montpelier"