Early Life and Entry into Politics
Madison was born on March 16, 1751, at Belle Grove plantation, his mother’s family home, in King George County. He was the first of twelve children of James Madison Sr. and Nelly Conway Madison. Madison was raised at his family’s estate in Orange County that eventually would be named Montpelier. He received his early schooling from his mother before being sent in 1762 to a school run by the Reverend Donald Robertson in King and Queen County. College of William and Mary was unusual for the son of a wealthy Virginia planter. It likely was due in part to the unhealthy reputation of the Virginia Tidewater, a low-lying area where malaria and other diseases festered. But Madison’s father also disliked the college for its advocacy of the establishment of an Anglican bishop in America, which some feared would undermine local control of parishes.
Madison was an enthusiastic student, completing four years of study in three by combining “the minimum of sleep & maximum of study.” For the remainder of his life, he seldom advocated a policy without undertaking extensive preparatory study. Madison was profoundly shaped by his education. His exposure to the teaching of Presbyterian ministers, both at Robertson’s school and at the College of New Jersey under the Reverend John Witherspoon, left him deeply impressed by the Common Sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment and shaped his thinking about the relationship among politics, society, and economics.
Madison graduated in 1771 but remained in Princeton to study Hebrew and the Bible, perhaps with thoughts of a career in the church. Returning to Montpelier in 1772, he drifted without purpose; he read law unenthusiastically and complained of the poor health that had plagued him since childhood. Madison’s life was changed by the intersection of the coming American Revolution and religious conflict in Virginia. In December 1774, he was appointed to the Orange County Committee of Safety, one of the local bodies authorized by the Continental Congress to enforce the boycott of British goods and to raise militias. This thrust Madison into preparations for the war for independence, as he was filled with “Zeal in the American cause.” In 1776, he was elected to the Fifth Virginia Convention, the Patriot legislature that would frame the independent state’s new constitution. The persecution of dissenting sects of Baptists, evangelical Anglicans (who would become Methodists), and Presbyterians by authorities aligned with the established Anglican Church led Madison to detest all forms of religious establishment. He successfully amended George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which called for greater religious toleration, in favor of the more radical “full and free exercise” of religion, putting his stamp on an issue that would become quintessentially American.
Madison was defeated for reelection to the Virginia Convention in 1777 because he refused to hew to the tradition of treating voters to whiskey, which he thought was tantamount to buying votes. Later in that year, however, he was appointed to the Virginia Council of State, where he worked with governors Patrick Henryand Thomas Jefferson. The latter became a lifelong friend; the former was to be a lifelong foe. In March 1780 Madison was chosen to represent Virginia at the Continental Congress. At twenty-nine, he was the youngest member of the congress, but he quickly gained a reputation for attention to public business, taking copious notes and participating frequently in spirited debates. In September 1780, to secure the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, Madison supported the transfer of the trans-Appalachian land claims of Virginia and six other states to control of Congress, contrary to the wishes of the General Assembly, thereby laying the foundation for a national domain.
The British invasion of Virginia in 1781 exposed the weaknesses of the confederation, especially in raising funds for the war effort. With men and money running short, Madison proposed a tax of 5 percent on imports to secure stable funding for the government. The effort failed, as did another attempt in 1783, but already Madison was grappling with ways to remedy the shortfalls of the Articles of Confederation. Ineligible for reelection to Congress, Madison entered the House of Delegates in May 1784, where much of his work was devoted to advancing the cause of republican liberty, notably by supporting Jefferson’s plans for revising the state’s laws regarding primogeniture and entail, which ended the practice of leaving large estates that couldn’t be broken up to a family’s eldest son.
Madison once again became embroiled in a debate about religious liberty. Patrick Henry had proposed a “Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” which would tax voters to support a Christian denomination of their choosing. Madison aligned with a coalition of disaffected evangelical sects to oppose the bill and maneuvered to get Henry out of the legislature by supporting his election as governor. The following year he wrote the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in opposition to Henry’s bill, which he called it a “dangerous abuse of power.” Madison argued that religion “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man” without government interference. His forceful support of religious liberty helped defeat the bill, and the following year he was instrumental in passage of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom.
The Making of the Constitution
James Madison’s Virginia Plan
Madison advocated forcefully for his plan. He carried his points on proportional representation in the House of Representatives and on the establishment of executive and judicial branches, but was defeated on proportional representation in the Senate, on the council of revision, and the congressional veto, as well as on the power for Congress to legislate where the states failed to do so. Disillusioned, Madison wrote to Jefferson in October 1787 that he doubted the new government could succeed. On reflection, however, Madison decided to accept the reforms. With the campaign for the ratification of the new constitution promising to be close, Madison accepted the invitation of Alexander Hamilton to write essays under the pseudonym “Publius” to argue for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Between November 1787 and March 1788, Madison wrote twenty-nine of the essays that would comprise The Federalist Papers. He explained the benefits of the new union in Federalist No. 10–14, most famously in Federalist No. 10, in which he argued, that contrary to assertions that only small states could ensure individual rights, a larger republic would help balance factions that could trample rights at the state level. He explained why confederations in the past had failed in Federalist No. 18 –20, defended the Constitutional Convention against the charge that it had exceeded its mandate in Federalist No. 37–40, and argued that each of the powers allocated to the new government was adequate for its purpose in Federalist No. 41–47. In Federalist No. 48–53, he refuted the claim that the Constitution violated conventional wisdom about the separation of powers, asserting that his own views about “checks and balances” were an improvement on ideas that Jefferson had proposed in his Notes on the State of Virginia. In Federalist No. 54, Madison defended the provision that enslaved people should be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation and taxation. In Federalist No. 55–58, Madison discussed the electoral arrangements for the new Congress and the size of the first House of Representatives, and in Federalist No. 62 and Federalist No.63, he halfheartedly defended state equality in the Senate, which he had opposed.
With Virginia’s Patrick Henry and George Mason emerging as two of the strongest voices against the new constitution, Madison turned his attention to rebutting their arguments during the Virginia Convention of 1788, which began on June 2, 1788, in Richmond. Henry denounced the Constitution as dangerously tyrannical, but Madison countered him with the arguments that he had perfected in The Federalist Papers and by asserting that a new federal government would benefit Virginia by securing access to the Mississippi River. The strongest argument against the Constitution, however, was made by Mason: that it lacked a bill of rights. Madison didn’t believe that a bill of rights was necessary, as he thought that the structure of the new government would protect individual liberties. When that argument failed to persuade, Madison promised to make a bill of rights the first order of business for the First Federal Congress. Virginia approved the Constitution on June 25, four days after it was officially ratified.
Madison was elected to the House of Representatives in the first Congress. True to his word, in June 1789 he offered nineteen proposals for amendments to the Constitution; Congress whittled them down to twelve. Madison wanted the changes woven into the Constitution, but they were added as separate amendments. Ultimately, the states would approve ten, the first of which was the free exercise of religion that Madison had long espoused, and the Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791.
Madison’s four terms in Congress were dominated by issues of finance and trade, as he increasingly found himself at odds with treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton over the reach of the federal government. Hamilton called for the new government to assume the national debt as well as the war debts of the states, which ran into opposition from Virginia and other states that had paid their debts. In 1790 Madison and Jefferson brokered a compromise under which the southern states would assent to the federal assumption of the debt in exchange for the national capital being situated on the banks of the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland.
Other disagreements proved less amenable to compromise. Madison disagreed with Hamilton’s plan for the creation of a national bank, arguing that the Constitution gave the federal government no such power, but was defeated when Congress in 1791 created the First Bank of the United States. By the eve of the 1792 elections, the divisions over the scope of the new government were severe enough that Madison declared that America was now divided into two “parties,” which he labeled “republican” and “anti-republican.” Before long, the Jefferson-Madison republican faction was calling itself the Democratic-Republican Party, while the Hamilton faction coalesced into the Federalist Party.
Madison, along with Jefferson, also clashed with Hamilton over foreign policy, with Madison holding fast to the Revolutionary-era alliance with France and Hamilton favoring increased commercial ties with Great Britain. In 1793 the United States remained bound by the mutual guarantee clause of its 1778 treaty with France, but the ability of the Royal Navy to restrict trade with France after the two countries went to war required a rethinking of America’s international obligations. President George Washington responded with the Neutrality Proclamation of April 1793. While Madison backed neutrality, he was troubled that Washington had decided a question of war and peace without consulting Congress. He argued this position in five essays published under the pseudonym “Helvidius.” More serious difficulties arose when Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a commercial treaty to protect American trade. Jay made an agreement that avoided war at the cost of accepting British notions of American neutrality. In September 1795, Madison drafted a petition to the General Assembly criticizing the Jay treaty and calling on Congress to reject funding its provisions. He failed to win this case in the first session of the Fourth Congress (1795–1796), after which he retired from politics, returning to Montpelier with Dolley Payne Todd Madison, a lively Philadelphia Quaker widow whom he had married in 1794.
Madison did not stay retired. The policies of President John Adams’ administration—an undeclared war with France and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798—outraged him. He responded with the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, and later the Report of 1800, which labeled as unconstitutional restrictions on the rights of immigrants and the move by the federal government to punish critics under the doctrine of seditious libel. Beyond the specific objections to the policies of the Adams administration, the Virginia Resolutions were a broad defense of liberal thinking about federalism, freedom of the press, and the rights of immigrants. Madison also asserted, however, that states might “interpose” a protest against unconstitutional laws. While this seems inconsistent with the primacy of the federal government he espoused earlier, nothing Madison said was inconsistent with arguments made in his Federalist essays, although many would point to the Virginia Resolutions, along with the accompanying Kentucky Resolutions written by Jefferson, as a departure point for the later nullification controversy.
When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, there was little doubt that he would appoint Madison as secretary of state. The two Virginians hoped for an era of international peace following the end of the European wars in 1802, but Napoleon created problems by repossessing the territory of Louisiana. That issue was solved when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, although that prompted a prolonged quarrel with Spain about the ownership of the West Florida region, which comprised the Gulf Coast east of the Mississippi to the border of present-day Florida.
After Great Britain and France resumed war in 1803, American disputes with Britain increased as the Royal Navy severely restricted neutral trade and impressed American seamen for service on its warships. Madison had long advocated commercial retaliation as the best way to deal with Great Britain, and in January 1806 he released a pamphlet on the history of neutral rights to demonstrate that British policies violated international law. That protest was of no avail, and when Great Britain announced in 1807 that it would limit American trade with all of Continental Europe, Madison persuaded Jefferson to adopt the Embargo Act of 1807, which was enforced by drastic measures in the ports and along the frontiers of the nation. The embargo was unpopular and ineffective. Congress repudiated it in March 1809, three days before Madison became the fourth president of the United States. Thereafter tensions with Great Britain worsened, as impressment and the blockading of Europe continued, and the American economy suffered. In October 1810, Madison annexed West Florida, which was still held by Spain, for fear that the unrest that was percolating under Spanish rule would allow Britain to seize the disputed territory. After a final failure of negotiations with Great Britain in the summer of 1811, Madison summoned the Twelfth Congress into an early session and requested that it prepare for war.
Congressional preparations for war were lacking and not to Madison’s liking, but he persisted and persuaded the legislature to declare war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Madison was reelected to a second term that fall, but his narrow margin of the popular vote pointed to Federalist opposition to “Mr. Madison’s War,” as well as discontent with the continued dominance of Virginia planters in the presidency.
Burning of the White House and the U.S. Capitol
The return of peace earned Madison considerable popularity, enabling him to implement several reforms that he had previously opposed, including the establishment of a Second National Bank (the charter of the first bank had expired), which he embraced after the difficulty of securing funding for the war, and tariffs to protect American industries. He also backed a constitutional amendment to allow the federal government to fund internal improvements such as roads and canals, and his last official act was to veto a bill that would fund such construction because the amendment hadn’t been secured.
Madison retired to Montpelier in April 1817 and enjoyed his rural retreat—in 1818 he delivered an address on agricultural reform to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle. His finances, however, suffered greatly due to the decline of the Virginia farming economy and from paying the debts accumulated by his stepson, John Payne Todd, who was fond of gambling.
Madison kept a close eye on the political issues of the day, however. The Missouri Crisis of 1819 heightened his concerns about slavery. Like many of his fellow Virginians who enslaved people, he professed to dislike the institution of slavery and pinned his hopes for its eventual demise on a scheme of compensated emancipation, coupled with the requirement that freed people be relocated out of the country, potentially in the Liberia settlement of the American Colonization Society, of which Madison became president in 1833. Madison, who enslaved more than 100 people, did not emancipate his own enslaved workers despite his professed concerns about slavery and doubted that whites and free Blacks could live together. In response to quarrels within Virginia over slavery, he appeared at the Virginia Convention of 1829–1830 to urge, in vain, the adoption of the three-fifths clause as a compromise between the Tidewater and the western regions of the state.
The rise of anti-tariff sentiment in Virginia also troubled Madison, as he feared instability from polarization and sectionalism in national politics, as the North and South increasingly diverged over tariffs. He denied that protective tariffs were an improper exercise of federal power and objected that his 1798 arguments about state “interposition” were being used to justify the doctrine of nullification that emanated from South Carolina and Georgia in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
Madison arranged his papers, including his notes from the 1787 Federal Convention, to provide for his wife, who eventually sold them to the government, and to educate the nation about the importance of preserving the Union. His final public service was as rector of the University of Virginia between 1826 and 1834. This was a difficult assignment; the university was plagued by problems of faculty retention, inadequate funding, defective infrastructure, and student misconduct. Nonetheless, Madison lent his stature as an elder statesman to advance its reputation. He died on June 28, 1836, and was buried at Montpelier.
- The Federalist Papers (1788)