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James Madison (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836), an American politician and fourth President of the United States of America (1809–1817), was one of the most influential Founding Fathers of the United States. Considered to be the “Father of the Constitution”, Madison played a bigger role in designing the 1787 document than anyone else. In 1788, he wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers, still the most influential commentary on the Constitution. As a leader in the first Congresses, he drafted many basic laws and was responsible for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and thus is also known as the “Father of the Bill of Rights”.[1] As a political theorist, Madison’s most distinctive belief was that the new republic needed checks and balances to limit the powers of special interests, which Madison called factions.[2] He believed very strongly that the new nation should fight against aristocracy and corruption (especially of British origin), and was deeply committed to creating mechanisms that would ensure Republicanism in the United States.[3]

As leader in the House of Representatives, Madison worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government. Breaking with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1791, Madison and Thomas Jefferson organized what they called the Republican party[4] (the future Democratic-Republican Party), in opposition to key policies of the Federalists, especially the national bank and the Jay Treaty. He secretly coauthored, along with Thomas Jefferson, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798 to protest the Alien and Sedition Laws.

As Jefferson’s Secretary of State (1801-1809), Madison supervised the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the nation’s size, and sponsored the ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807. As president, he led the nation into the War of 1812 against Great Britain in order to protect America’s economic rights. That conflict began poorly as Americans suffered defeat after defeat by smaller forces, but ended on a high note in 1815, after which a new spirit of nationalism swept the country. During and after the war, Madison reversed many of his positions. By 1815, he supported the creation of the second National Bank, a strong military, and a high tariff to protect the new factories opened during the war.

Personal life

Marriage and family life

On September 14, 1794, Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, who cut as attractive and vivacious a figure as he did a sickly and anti-social one. Dolley is largely credited with inventing the role of First Lady as political ally and adviser to the president.

Political career

Madison served in the state legislature (1776-79) and became known as a protégé of Thomas Jefferson, attaining prominence in Virginia politics, helping to draft the Declaration of Religious Freedom. It disestablished the Church of England, and disclaimed any power of state compulsion in religious matters (including Patrick Henry’s plan to compel citizens to pay for a congregation of their own choice). He also persuaded Virginia to give its claims to northwestern territories (consisting of most of modern-day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) to the Continental Congress.

As delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-83), Madison was considered a legislative workhorse and a master of parliamentary detail.

Father of the Constitution

Back in the Virginia state legislature, Madison welcomed peace, but soon grew alarmed at the fragility of the Articles of Confederation, and especially at the divisiveness of state governments. He strongly advocated a new constitution to overcome this divisiveness. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison’s draft of the Virginia Plan and his revolutionary three-branch federal system became the basis for the American Constitution of today. Though Madison was a shy man, he was one of the more outspoken members of the Continental Congress. He envisioned a strong federal government that could overrule actions of the states when they were deemed mistaken; later in life he came to admire the Supreme Court as it started filling that role.[5]

The Federalist Papers

To aid the push for ratification, Madison joined Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the The Federalist Papers. Madison wrote paper #10, in which he explained how a large country with many different interests and factions could support republican values better than a small country dominated by a few special interests. His interpretation was largely ignored at the time, but in the 20th century became a central part of the pluralist interpretation of American politics.[6]

Back in Virginia in 1788, Madison led the fight for ratification of the Constitution at the state’s convention, oratorically dueling with Patrick Henry and others who sought revisions (such as the United States Bill of Rights) before its ratification. Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution” for his role in its drafting and ratification. However, he protested the title as being “a credit to which I have no claim… [The Constitution] was not, like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, the offspring of a single brain. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands”.[7]

He wrote Hamilton, at the New York ratifying convention, observing that his opinion was that “ratification was in toto and for ever”. The Virginia convention had considered conditional ratification worse than a rejection.[8]

Author of Bill of Rights

Patrick Henry persuaded the Virginia legislature not to elect Madison as one of their first Senators; but Madison was directly elected to the new United States House of Representatives and became an important leader from the First Congress (1789) through the Fourth Congress (1797).

Initially Madison “adamantly maintained … that a specific bill of rights remained unnecessary because the Constitution itself was a bill of rights.”[9][10] But the anti-Federalists demanded a bill of rights in exchange for their support for ratification. Over two hundred proposals were submitted from throughout the country. Madison ignored the proposals for structural change of the government, and synthesized the others into a list of proposals for the protection of civil rights, such as free speech and habeas corpus. Still ambiguous as late as 1788 in his support for a bill of rights,[11] in June 1789 Madison offered a package of twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution.[12] Madison eventually completed the reversal of his original opposition and “hounded his colleagues relentlessly” to accept his proposed amendments.[13]

By December 1791, the last ten of Madison’s proposed amendments were ratified and became the Bill of Rights. Contrary to his wishes, the Bill of Rights was not integrated into the main body of the Constitution, and it did not apply to the states until the passages of Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments restricted the powers of the states. The second of the proposed twelve was ratified in 1992 as the Constitution’s Twenty-seventh Amendment.[14] The first of the proposed twelve, the “most valuable” in Madison’s opinion, written to protect freedom of conscience, the press, and the right to trial by jury from the states, was eliminated by the Senate in 1791.[15]

Opposition to Hamilton

See also: Four Pillars of Alexander Hamilton
The chief characteristic of Madison’s time in Congress was his work to limit the power of the federal government. Wood (2006a) argued that Madison never wanted a national government that took an active role. He was horrified to discover that Hamilton and Washington were creating “a real modern European type of government with a bureaucracy, a standing army, and a powerful independent executive”.[16]

When Britain and France went to war in 1793 the U.S. was caught in the middle. The 1778 treaty of alliance with France was still in effect, yet most of the new country’s trade was with Britain. War with Britain seemed imminent in 1794, as the British seized hundreds of American ships that were trading with French colonies. Madison (in collaboration with Jefferson, who had returned to private life), believed that Britain was weak and America strong, and that a trade war with Britain, although it threatened retaliation by Britain, probably would succeed, and would allow Americans to assert their independence fully. Great Britain, he charged, “has bound us in commercial manacles, and very nearly defeated the object of our independence”. As Varg explains, Madison had no fear of British recriminations for “her interests can be wounded almost mortally, while ours are invulnerable”. The British West Indies, he maintained, could not live without American foodstuffs, but Americans could easily do without British manufactures. This same faith led him to the conclusion “that it is in our power, in a very short time, to supply all the tonnage necessary for our own commerce”.[17] However, George Washington avoided a trade war and instead secured friendly trade relations with Britain through the Jay Treaty of 1794. Madison tried and failed to defeat the treaty, and it became a central issue of the emerging First Party System. All across the country, voters divided for and against the Treaty and other key issues, and thus became Federalists or Republicans.

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton built a nationwide network of supporters that became the Federalist Party, and promoted a strong central government with a national bank. Madison and Jefferson organized the “republican party”, which became known as the Democratic-Republican Party, opposing these policies and the Federalists overall as centralizers and pro-British elitists who would undermine republican values. Madison led the unsuccessful attempt to block Hamilton’s proposed Bank of the United States, arguing the new Constitution did not explicitly allow the federal government to form a bank.[18]

Most historians argue that Madison changed radically from a nationally-oriented ally of Hamilton in 1787-88 to a states-rights-oriented opponent of a strong national government by 1795. Madison started with opposing Hamilton[2]; by 1793 he was opposing Washington as well[3]. Madison usually lost and Hamilton usually achieved passage of his legislation, including the National Bank, funding of state and national debts, and support of the Jay Treaty. (Madison did block the proposal for high tariffs.) Madison’s politics remained closely aligned with Jefferson’s until the experience of a weak national government during the War of 1812 led Madison to appreciate the need for a stronger central government. He then began to support a national bank, a stronger navy and a standing army. However, other historians, led by Lance Banning and Gordon S. Wood, see more continuity in Madison’s views and do not see a sharp break in 1792.

United States Secretary of State

The main challenge which faced the Jefferson Administration was navigating between the two great empires of Britain and France, which were almost constantly at war. The first great triumph was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, made possible when Napoleon realized he could not defend that vast territory, and it was to France’s advantage that Britain not seize it. Madison and President Jefferson reversed party policy to negotiate for the Purchase and then win Congressional approval. Madison tried to maintain neutrality between Britain and France, but at the same time insisted on the legal rights of the U.S. under international law. Neither London nor Paris showed much respect, however. Madison and Jefferson decided on an embargo to punish Britain and France, forbidding Americans to trade with any foreign nation. The embargo failed as foreign policy, and instead caused massive hardships in the northeastern seaboard, which depended on foreign trade.

The party’s Congressional Caucus chose presidential candidates, and Madison was selected in the election of 1808, easily defeating Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, riding on the coattails of Jefferson’s popularity. Congress repealed the failed embargo as Madison took office.

Presidency 1809–1817

The Bank of the United States

The twenty year charter of the first Bank of the United States was scheduled to expire in 1811, the second year of Madison’s administration. Madison failed to block the Bank in 1791, and waited for its charter to expire. Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin wanted the bank rechartered, and when the War of 1812 broke out discovered how difficult it was to finance the war without the Bank. Gallatin’s successor as Treasury Secretary Alexander J. Dallas proposed a replacement in 1814, but Madison vetoed the bill in 1815. By late 1815, however, Madison asked Congress for a new bank, which had strong support from the younger, nationalistic republicans such as John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, as well as Federalist Daniel Webster. Madison signed it into law in 1816 and appointed William Jones as its president.

War of 1812

British insults continued, especially the practice of using the Royal Navy to intercept unarmed American merchant ships and “impress” (conscript) all sailors who might be British subjects for service in the British navy. Madison’s protests were ignored, so he helped stir up public opinion in the west and south for war. One argument was that an American invasion of Canada would be easy and would provide a good bargaining chip. (After long debates historians now agree that Americans did not desire to acquire Canadian lands, but to stop British aid to the hostile Indians.)[citation needed] Madison carefully prepared public opinion for what everyone at the time called “Mr. Madison’s War”, but much less time and money was spent building up the army, navy, forts, and state militias. After he convinced Congress to declare war, Madison was re-elected President over DeWitt Clinton but by a smaller margin than in 1808 (see U.S. presidential election, 1812). Some historians in 2006 ranked Madison’s failure to avoid war as the sixth worst presidential mistake ever made.[19]

In the ensuing War of 1812, the British, Canadians, and Indian allies won numerous victories, including the capture of Detroit after the American general there surrendered to a smaller force without a fight, and the occupation of Washington, D.C. which forced Madison to flee the city and watch as the White House was set on fire by British troops. The attack was in retaliation for a U.S. invasion of York, Upper Canada (now Toronto, Ontario), in which U.S. forces twice occupied the city, burning the Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada. The British also armed American Indians in the West, most notably followers of Tecumseh. Finally the Indians were defeated and a standoff was reached on the Canadian border. The Americans built warships on the Great Lakes faster than the British and defeated the British fleet to avert a major invasion of New York in 1814. At sea, the British blockaded the entire coastline, cutting off both foreign trade and domestic trade between ports. Economic hardship was severe in New England, but entrepreneurs built factories that soon became the basis of the industrial revolution in America.

Madison faced formidable obstacles–a divided cabinet, a factious party, a recalcitrant Congress, obstructionist governors, and amazingly incompetent generals, together with militia who refused to fight outside their states. Most serious was lack of unified popular support. There were serious threats of disunion from New England, which engaged in massive smuggling to Canada and refused to provide financial support or soldiers.[20] However Andrew Jackson in the South and William Henry Harrison in the West destroyed the main Indian threats by 1813.

After the apparent defeat of Napoleon in 1814, both the British and Americans were exhausted, the causes of the war had been forgotten, the Indian issue was resolved, and it was time for peace. New England Federalists, however, set up a defeatist Hartford Convention that discussed secession. The Treaty of Ghent ended the war in 1815. There were no territorial gains on either side as both sides returned to status quo ante bellum, that is, the previous boundaries. The Battle of New Orleans, in which Andrew Jackson defeated the British regulars, was fought fifteen days after the treaty was signed but before the news of the signing reached New Orleans.

With peace finally established, the U.S. was swept by a sense of euphoria and national achievement in finally securing solid independence from Britain. In Canada, the war and its conclusion represented a successful defense of the country, and a defining era in the formation of an independent national identity. This, coupled with ongoing suspicion of a U.S. desire to again invade the country, would culminate in creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. In the U.S., the Federalist Party collapsed and eventually disappeared from politics, as an Era of Good Feeling emerged with a much lower level of political fear and vituperation, although political contention certainly continued.


Although Madison had accepted the necessity of a Hamiltonian national bank, an effective taxation system based on tariffs, a standing professional army and a strong navy, he drew the line at internal improvements as advocated by his Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. In his last act before leaving office, Madison vetoed on states’ rights grounds a bill for “internal improvements”, including roads, bridges, and canals:

Having considered the bill … I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States…. The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified … in the … Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.[21]

Madison rejected the view of Congress that the General Welfare Clause justified the bill, stating:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms “common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

Madison urged a variety of measures that he felt were “best executed under the national authority”, including federal support for roads and canals that would “bind more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy”.

Administration and Cabinet

The Madison Cabinet

President James Madison 18091817
Vice President George Clinton 18091812
None 18121813
Elbridge Gerry 18131814
None 18141817
Secretary of State Robert Smith 18091811
James Monroe 18111814
Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin 18091814
George W. Campbell 1814
Alexander J. Dallas 18141816
William H. Crawford 18161817
Secretary of War William Eustis 18091813
John Armstrong, Jr. 18131814
James Monroe 18141815
William H. Crawford 18151816
Attorney General Caesar A. Rodney 18091811
William Pinkney 18111814
Richard Rush 18141817
Postmaster General Gideon Granger 18091814
Return J. Meigs, Jr. 18141817
Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton 18091813
William Jones 18131814
Benjamin W. Crowninshield 18141817

Supreme Court appointments

Supreme Court appointments
Madison appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

Gabriel Duvall – 1811
Joseph Story – 1812

States admitted to the Union
Louisiana – April 30, 1812
Indiana – December 11, 1816

Later life
When Madison left office in 1817, he retired to Montpelier, his tobacco plantation in Virginia; not far from Jefferson’s Monticello. Madison was then 65 years old. Dolley, who thought they would finally have a chance to travel to Paris, was 49. But as with both Washington and Jefferson, Madison left the presidency a poorer man than when he entered, due to the steady financial collapse of his plantation. Some historians speculate that his mounting debt was one of the chief reasons why he refused to allow his notes on the Constitution Convention, or its official records which he possessed, to be published in his lifetime “He knew the value of his notes, and wanted them to bring money to his estate for Dolley’s use as his plantation failed — he was hoping for one hundred thousand dollars from the sale of his papers, of which the notes were the gem.”[22]. Madison’s financial troubles and deteriorating mental and physical health would continue to consume him.

In his later years Madison also became extremely concerned about his legacy. He took to modifying letters and other documents in his possessions: changing days and dates, adding and deleting words and sentences, and shifting characters. By the time he had reached his late seventies, this “straightening out” had become almost an obsession. This can be seen by his editing of a letter he had written to Jefferson criticizing Lafayette: Madison not only inked out original passages, but went so far as to imitate Jefferson’s handwriting as well.[23] In Madison’s mind, this may have represented an effort to make himself clear, to justify his actions both to history and to himself.

During the final six years of his life, amid a sea of personal [financial] troubles that were threatening to engulf him…At times mental agitation issued in physical collapse. For the better part of a year in 1831 and 1832 he was bedridden, if not silenced…Literally sick with anxiety, he began to despair of his ability of make himself understood by his fellow citizens.[24]

In 1829, at the age of seventy-eight, Madison was chosen as a representative to the constitutional convention in Richmond for the revising of the Virginia state constitution; this was to be Madison’s last appearance as a legislator and constitutional draftsman.

The issue of greatest importance at this convention was apportionment. The western districts of Virginia complained that they were under-represented because the state constitution apportioned voting districts by population, and the count included slaves even though slaves could not vote. Westerners had few slaves, while the Eastern planters had many, and thus the vote of a white easterner outweighed the vote of a white westerner.

Madison, who in his prime was known as “the Great Legislator”, tried to effect a compromise, such as the 3/5 ratio for a slave then used by the U.S. Constitution, but to no avail. Eventually, the eastern planters prevailed. Slaves would continue to be counted toward their masters’ districts. Madison was crushed at the failure of Virginians to resolve the issue more equably. “The Convention of 1829, we might say, pushed Madison steadily to the brink of self-delusion, if not despair. The dilemma of slavery undid him.”[25]

Although his health had now almost failed, he managed to produce several memoranda on political subjects, including an essay against the appointment of chaplains for Congress and the armed forces, on the grounds that this produced religious exclusion, but not political harmony.[26]

Madison lived on until 1836, increasingly ignored by the new leaders of the American polity. He died at Montpellier on June 28, the last remaining signatory of the United States Constitution.

As historian Garry Wills wrote:

Madison’s claim on our admiration does not rest on a perfect consistency, any more than it rests on his presidency. He has other virtues…. As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer…. The finest part of Madison’s performance as president was his concern for the preserving of the Constitution…. No man could do everything for the country – not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That was quite enough.[27]


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