James Madison was the fourth President of the United States. He is historically recognized as the “Father of the Constitution.” He was born in 1751 to an aristocratic family in Port Conway, Virginia (Orange County) and was the eldest of 12 children. In 1771 he completed a four-year degree in two years while he was a student at the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University. Madison studied theology, history, and law, both at college and on his own. He believed that education was the best defense against tyranny. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Madison’s public career began in 1774 when he was appointed a member of the King George County Committee for Public Safety in Virginia at the age of 23. He spent the rest of his life in service to his nation. In 1776 he was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Committee and helped draft Virginia’s first constitution and Bill of Rights, which later became a model for the Bill of Rights amended to the U. S. Constitution. During these years he actively supported religious toleration and separation of church and state and found a life-long partner and friend in Thomas Jefferson. Madison stated, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”
In 1779 Madison was elected to represent the state of Virginia to the Continental Congress. Here he established himself as a leader and tireless advocate for a federal structure. With his respect and influence he helped organized the Alexandria Conference and settled a commercial dispute between Virginia and Maryland over the use of the Potomac River. Madison used the success of this conference and suggested a larger conference to include all the states. The Annapolis Convention met in 1786, but only five states attended and there was much arguing and little result. He and Alexander Hamilton then launched a general call for a constitutional convention for the purpose of modifying the Articles of Confederation of 1776.
The Constitutional Convention opened on May 25th, 1787, with James Madison as its leader. In the entire proceeding only 55 men attended. Madison immediately set the tone for the convention by introducing a document that he wrote called The Virginia Plan. The Virginia Plan called for a strong central government “consisting of a supreme Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary.” It provided for two legislative houses: one elected by the people and one appointed by state legislatures. Representation was based on population. Concerned that smaller states needed protection states’ rights supporters presented an alternative based on “one state, one vote.” Benjamin Franklin was appointed to chair the Grand Committee to debate this issue and a compromise was reached. The upper house (the Senate) would be based on equal representation for each of the states and the lower house (House of Representatives) would be based on proportional representation. Throughout that summer they worked out the specifics of the Executive and the Judiciary and how the power would be balanced between the three branches.
On September 17, 1787 the US Constitution was ratified.
Madison was elected to the first House of Representatives in 1789 and served throughout George Washington’s administration until 1797. As a trusted consultant to President Washington he played a large part in forming the Departments of State, Treasury and War. But his most important work during these years was a promotion of a Bill of Rights that would form the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Throughout the whole process and deliberations of the Constitutional Convention Madison’s good friend, Thomas Jefferson, was concerned about shortcomings in the Constitution and it would probably not have been ratified had James Madison not made a solemn and often repeated promise that a Bill of Rights would soon follow. The Bill of Rights was adopted within six months of the Constitution.
When John Adams was elected President, James Madison retired to his home in Virginia. He wrote the Virginia Resolutions, which protested the Alien and Sedition Acts, adopted in 1798. He believed that these four measures were the first challenge to personal liberties granted by the Constitution. To him they were a clear violation of the Constitution and he led a protest to overrule them at the state level. “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson was elected President and asked James Madison to be his Secretary of State. Their close friendship and working-relationship helped the two statesmen to initiate many federal reforms during this period of rapid growth and change. Jefferson recognized Madison as a practical man with valuable political skills honed during his years of leading the various assemblies and conventions of the young country.
In 1808 James Madison succeeded Jefferson as President. It was a troubling time. France and Britain were locked in a struggle of domination. Madison was widely respected and loved for his reason, even temper and humility as a delegate. But now that he was President he was expected to dominate everyone around him. As delegate he lived by his wits and honesty so often he would make judgments in foreign policy too quickly because he was now dealing with others’ interests, not the interests of fellow countrymen. Being trustworthy himself he did not realize at times that he was being lied to or mislead. Britain and France were preying on American merchants, citizens and mariners. Madison was essentially a man of peace but eventually asked Congress to declare war on June 1, 1812. The young country was not prepared to fight and took a beating. The British even entered Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capital. Madison’s wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, courageously rescued the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert while fleeing the burning house. That portrait is the only remaining possession from the original building. After a few notable naval and military victories, culminating in General Andrew Jackson’s triumph in New Orleans, Americans were convinced the War of 1812 was a success. An upsurge of nationalism resulted.
Madison’s term ended in 1817 and he once again retired to Montpelier, his home in Virginia. But he did not retire from his public service. For nearly twenty years afterward he worked at first with his old friend Thomas Jefferson. Together they established the University of Virginia. Following Jefferson’s death he worked on his friend’s legacy. He helped Jefferson’s family publish his letters and papers and assisted Jefferson’s biographer.
James Madison was well read and active in promoting republican ideals. He received several papers each day. He maintained written correspondence all his life. After rheumatism made it impossible for him to write he continued by dictating his letters. Madison died on June 28th, 1836. In a note opened after his death he stated, “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”