Madison, James (President)

Born: 1751-03-05 King George County, Virginia

Died: 1836-06-28 Orange County, Virginia

Often labeled the "Father of the Constitution," Madison received his early education through private tutors. He entered the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1769, graduating in 1771. Madison was an immediate supporter of American independence and served as a delegate to Virginia's Constitutional Convention in 1776. He won election to the Confederation Congress in 1779 and quickly proved himself as one of its most effective members. He served in Congress from 1780 to 1783, and again from 1786 to 1787. Although he initially supported the Articles of Confederation, he grew to believe an entirely new system was necessary to preserve the republic and took these beliefs with him to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. There, he became one of the most vocal proponents of what became known as the "Virginia Plan," which advocated a stronger federal government, a bicameral legislature, and proportionate state representation. Although this plan was later modified into the current U.S. Constitution, Madison became the document's leading public defender through his contributions to The Federalist Papers. During the ratification process, Madison compromised with anti-federalists by promising a Bill of Rights and set about drafting them.

As the county's political class split into Federalist and Democratic-Republican factions, Madison retreated slightly from his former advocation of a strong federal government, fearing that Alexander Hamilton and his followers would create a federal system that ceded too much power to the northeastern part of the country and could potentially lead to the same kind of oppression his generation had revolted against in 1776. Thus, Madison became Thomas Jefferson's primary lieutenant, leaving the House of Representatives in 1797. Disgusted by what he perceived as overly repressive actions by the John Adams administration and increasing tensions with France, Madison secretly penned the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions with Jefferson in 1798, which suggested that states could refuse to accept federal laws--planting the seeds for the future nullification and secession crises.

When Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, he appointed Madison as his secretary of state. In this capacity, Madison primarily acted as the executor of Jefferson's plans--approving the Louisiana Purchase, occupation of West Florida, and Embargo Act. Madison himself became president in 1809 and was immediately faced with the ramifications of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars in Europe and Jefferson's failed embargo. As British impressment and commercial restrictions increased, Democratic-Republicans in Congress pressed Madison to support a declaration of war on the United Kingdom, which he did in 1812. Although the War of 1812 resulted in a stalemate, Madison's leadership was adequate. In addition, the conflict exposed several inefficiencies in the American infrastructure, causing Madison to adopt some of the Federalist policies he had formerly opposed and began investing in better roads, manufacturing, and the establishment of a national bank--ideas that would eventually become the core of Henry Clay and the Whig Party's "American System," which would split the next generation into its own two-party system. Madison retired from public life after his presidency, continuing his personal relationship with Jefferson and increasingly arguing for a strong Union against southerners who sought to use the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions as proof of state over federal power.

Outside of his political career, Madison was a Virginia slaveholding planter, establishing a large plantation at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia. He married Dolley Madison in 1794, who became a strong political ally and one of the most influential and popular first lady's in American history. He had no children with Dolley, although she had one son from her previous husband.

Lance Banning, "Madison, James," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 14:306-12; Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).