Who was James Madison? Information on the 4th America president and Founding Father James Madison biography, life story, works and political career.
James Madison; (1751-1836), 4th president of the United States. Although he served eight years each as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives, as secretary of state, and as president, Madison’s principal contribution to the founding of the United States was as “Father of the Constitution.” He played the leading role in formulating the U. S. Constitution, and he was its leading defender and interpreter for 50 years. To a preeminent degree he combined scholarship, a keen intelligence, commitment to republican government, and a realistic understanding of politics in a way that allowed him again and again to move from an idea or a conception to a plan or a policy or a law.
Madison’s place among the Founding Fathers reveals the essential qualities of his public career. Not gifted with Washington’s imposing presence or instinctive judiciousness, he was more articulate and more creative than the first president. He lacked Franklin’s breadth of interest, infectious wit, and unique diplomatic style, but he more profoundly understood the problems of government. John Adams was more learned and more cognizant of the intractable, tragic dilemmas of human life, but Madison was more skilled at fashioning institutions likely to cope in some way with those dilemmas. Jefferson had a superior vision of the potential for life under republican government, a greater capacity for leadership, and a special gift for the memorable phrase, but Madison had a more subtle and incisive political sense. Finally, though Hamilton was more brilliant in argument and more adept at offering comprehensive plans, Madison was more faithful to republican principles and more aware of the constraints that human need and diversity should place on the designs of the nation’s leaders.
Although Madison was small and unimpressive physically, he had bright blue eyes, a quiet strength of character, and a lively, humorous way in small groups that made him a welcome and influential colleague in many endeavors. He had some serious illnesses, many bouts of a probably nervous disorder that left him exhausted and prostrate after periods of severe strain, and a hypochondriac tendency to “fear the worst” from sickness. Nevertheless, he lived a long, healthy life free from the common scourges of his day and was capable of sustained, rigorous labors that would have overwhelmed many men who seemingly were more robust. He thoroughly enjoyed both public life and the respites he always needed from it on his farm in Orange county, Va. In fact, his physical and psychic wellbeing seemed to depend on the satisfying balance he attained in this way.
Madison’s ancestors, probably all from England, settled in Virginia along the Rappahannock and Mattaponi rivers in the mid-17th century. Tradesmen and farmers at first, they quickly acquired more lands and soon were among the “respectable though not the most opulent class,” as Madison himself described them. In moving to Orange county in the Piedmont about 1730, and in speculating in Kentucky lands during the American Revolution, the Madisons marked themselves as frontiersmen, always ready to go west as opportunity beckoned.
James Madison himself, however, lived all his life in Orange county on a 5,000-acre (2,000-hectare) plantation that produced tobacco and grains and was worked by perhaps 100 slaves. Though he abhorred slavery and had no use for the aristocratic airs of Virginia society, he remained a Virginia planter, working within the traditional political system of family-based power and accepting the responsibility this entailed. He also bore the burden of depending all his life on a slave system that he could never square with his republican beliefs.
Madison was born at the home of his maternal grandparents in Port Conway, Va., on March 16, 1751 (March 5, 1750, Old Style). Soon he returned with his mother to their home in Orange county. He received fundamental instruction at home, and then went to preparatory school before entering the College of New Jersey at Princeton. He got a thorough classical education in Latin and Greek studies, and he also learned Christian thought and precepts from his clergymen teachers. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1771 and remained for six months studying under President John Witherspoon, whose intellectual independence, Scottish practicality, and moral earnestness profoundly influenced him. Madison also read John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Voltaire, and others who fashioned the Enlightenment world view, which became his own. He considered divinity and law as vocations, but never entered either profession.
First Public Service.
Madison’s understanding of public affairs developed during the decade of colonial resistance to British measures, 1765-1775. He served on the Orange county Committee of Safety from 1774. In 1776 he was elected to the Virginia convention that declared the colony independent from Britain and drafted a new state constitution. There he strengthened the conventional clause guaranteeing religious “toleration” to proclaim “liberty of conscience or all.” Elected to the governor’s council in 1777, he lived in Williamsburg for two years, dealing with the routine problems of the Revolutionary War under Gov^rnors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
Madison’s skill led to his election in 1780 to the Continental Congress, where he served for nearly four years. During the first year he became one of the leaders of the so-called nationalist group, which saw fulfillment of the Revolution possible only under a strpng central government. He supported the French alliance and worked persistently to strengthen the powers of Congress. In 1783, after ratification of the peace treaty and demobilization of the army, Madison ranked as a leading promoter of a stronger national government. When he retired from Congress that year, he had a reputation as an exceedingly well-informed and effective debater and legislator.
THE NEW GOVERNMENT: FOUNDER AND STATESMAN
For three years in the Virginia legislature, Madison worked to enact Jefferson’s bili for religious freedom and other reform measures. He also continued to strengthen the national government by securing Virginia’s support of it. But he was soon convinced that a new frame of government must replace the Articles of Confederation. His studies, too, showed that weak confederacies were prey to foreign intrigue and domestic instability. He thus took the lead in calling for the Convention of 1787 and arrived in Philadelphia that summer ready to take a prominent role.
The Constitution of the United States.
Madison offered the Virginia plan giving taxing and law-enforcement powers to the national government, and he worked with James Wilson and other nationalists to support a strengthened executive, a broadly based Aouse of Representatives, long terms in the Senate, an independent federal judiciary, and other devices to enhance national power.
Madison argued that an enlarged, strengthened national government, far from being the path to despotism its opponents feared, was in fact the surest way to protect freedom and expand the principle of self-government. He held that the multiplicity of interests (“factions”) in a large republic would counteract and neutralize each other, thus allowing some sense of the public interest to emerge in the end. His conception was a realistic, yet dynamic, understanding of how government might work under a system of checks and balances. This idea of the Constitution, embedded in virtually every clause, was at the base of Madison’s political theory and in fact became the operating principle of American government. Madison’s notes on the debates, published posthumously, afford the only full record of the convention’s proceedings.
With Alexander Hamilton, Madison formulated strategy for the supporters of the Constitution (Federalists) and wrote portions of The Federalist papers. He also engaged Patrick Henry—who did not believe that the Constitution adequately protected Virginia and its people—in dramatic and finally successful debate at the Virginia ratifying convention (June 1788). Then, as a member of the first U. S. House of Representatives, Madison proposed new revenue laws, ensured the president’s responsibility for the conduct of the executive branch, and sponsored the Bili of Rights. He also drafted Washington’s inaugural address and helped the president make the precedent-setting appointments of his first term. Thus, for three years, Madison had led in urging, drafting, ratifying, and establishing a new form of government.
Opponent of the Federalists.
However, In January 1790, Madison opposed Hamilton’s financial program because he believed that it gave a privileged position to commerce and wealth. He was especially alarmed when he saw that this power could awe and sometimes control the organs of government. Madison and Jefferson viewed republican government as resting on the virtues of the people, sustained by the self-reliance of an agricultural economy and the benefits of public education, with government itself remaining “mild” and responsive to grassroots impulses. This attitude became the foundation of the Democratic-Republican party, which was fundamentally at odds with Hamilton’s concept of a strong central government.
Madison and Jefferson then seized on wide-spread public sympathy for France’s expansive, revolutionary exploits to promote republican sentiment in the United States. The Federalists, on the other hand, sought renewed commercial bonds with Britain and feared disruptive, entangling involvement with France. Madison bitterly opposed Jay’s Treaty, feeling that it made the United States dependent on England and in fact tied America to the corrupt power-politics diplomacy of the Old World. He felt that the ideal republican as well as the realistic path for the new nation was to use world dependence on its trade, and its rapidly growing intrinsic strength, to establish both its national independence and the beginnings of a new, more human system of international relations.
With the final ratification of Jay’s Treaty (April 1796), however, Madison felt that a commercial junta that cared very little for the republican character of the nation had gained control. His political discouragement as he retired from Congress in 1797 was balanced by the private joy of having married a charming, vivacious widow, Dolley Payne Todd, in 1794.
The bellicose attitude toward France of President John Adams’ administration alarmed Madison. The XYZ Affair brought the United States and France close to war. During the subsequent turmoil in the United States, the administration won passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Madison believed severely threatened free government. In protest he drafted the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and a report defending them in 1800. These papers stated most fully Madison’s concern to protect states’ rights, but he advocated neither nullification nor secession, as John C. Calhoun and others later asserted. Rather, the resolutions and report represent an important chapter in an evolving constitutional doctrine to defend civil liberties against encroachments by the federal government.
Often, Madison pointed out, it was “to the press alone, chequered as it was with abuses, that the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” He insisted further that the existence of the Sedition Act at election time, proscribing “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the officers of government, made the ballot unfair and unfree because the people “will be compelled to make their election between competitors whose pretentions they are not permitted . . . equally to examine, to discuss, and to ascertain.” Madison worked persistently and profoundly to think through and act out the meaning of freedom under law and of government by consent.
Secretary of State.
During the last of four years spent in Virginia attending to his plantation, enlarging his house, and sitting in the Virginia legislature, Madison worked hard to secure Jefferson’s election as president in 1800. Appointed secretary of state in 1801, he and the president and Albert Gallatin, the new secretary of the treasury, made up the Republican triumvirate that guided the nation for eight years. Madison adroitly took advantage of Napoleon’s setback in the West Indies to guide negotiations to purchase Louisiana in 1803. He also insisted on American ownership of the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Florida, and he supported suppression of the Barbary pirates by American naval squadrons (1803-1805).
The renewed war between France and Britain, however, became the major crisis, as both powers inflicted heavy damage on American shipping. Britain also engaged in the outrageous impressment of American sailors. “That an officer from a foreign ship should pronounce any person he pleased, on board an American ship on the high seas, not to be an American citizen, but a British subject, and carry his interested decision on the most important of all questions to a freeman into execution on the spot,” Madison declared, “is . . . anomalous in principle, . . . grievous in practice, and . . . abominable in abuse.”
Finding appeals to international law useless, and lacking power to protect American trade, Madison promoted the Embargo Act (1807), which barred all exports to Europe, a further effort to apply his cherished principle that the United States could protect its rights by commercial policy rather than by resort to war. However, the belligerents were able to replace American trade, and Americans resorted to smuggling and other evasions. The embargo, therefore, had no real force. Consequently, Madison accepted its repeal at the end of Jefferson’s administration.
Madison’s easy election as president in 1808 continued the “Virginia dynasty,” though fury over the embargo in New England lost Madison the electoral votes of that regiori. Madison also had to oyercome opposition that favored his friend James Monroe, further foreshadowing political difficulties for his administration. The united devotion of the Bepublican party to JefFerson, the source of his ability to lead effectively without seeming to violate republican fidelity, to legislative supremacy, dissolved under Madison’s less charismatic management.
To placate opposition within his party, he appointed ill-qualified secretaries in the War and Navy departments, and a disloyal one in the State Department. Bepublican opposition in Congress, together with Federalist hostility centering in New England, again and again thwarted administration policies. Only Gallatin’s skillful guardianship of the Treasury Department and Madison’s own prestige as “father” of both the Constitution and the Bepublican party prevented total chaos.
This political weakness was especially debilitating and dangerous when Madison sought, following the failure of the embargo, to find other paths to peace with honor as the Napoleonic Wars reached their climax. Unfortunately the belligerents paid little heed to neutral rights or to commercial retaliation, nor did they see any need to respect a distant republic that was both disunited and virtually unarmed. Madison’s devotion to republican doctrine prevented him from either grasping emergency powers or building a formidable army and navy in peacetime. Thus neither his diplomacy, lurching from one ineffective commercial policy to another for three years, nor his rhetoric deterred the escalating depredations of France and England.
The War of 1812.
Finally, in November 1811, with the support of newly elected “War Hawks” who asserted a mastery over Congress, Madison decided that the nation should move toward war with Britain unless the arrogant and injurious assaults on American ships and seamen were ended. With some defense measures finally pushed through Congress, and no sign of conciliation from England, Madison asked for and received a declaration of war in June 1812. He was at the same time assured of reelection as president over a coalition of dissident Bepublicans and New England Federalists led by DeWitt Clinton of New York.
Throughout the war, Madison struggled with factions within his own party and a determined opposition in New England that, excited by both preachers and politicians, reached proportions the president regarded as near treasonous. Nevertheless he refused to establish martial law in the region or even seriously restrict civil liberties.
On the battlefield, Madison hoped that American zeal and the vulnerability of Canada wou!d lead to a swift victory. However, the surrender of one American army at Detroit, the defeat of another on the Niagara River frontier, and the disgraceful retreat of yet another before Montreal blasted these hopes. Prospects improved, however, with victories at sea, including the conquest of the Guerriere by the USS Constitution, the 1813 defeat of the British on Lake Erie (“We have met the enemy and they are ours,” Commodore Perry reported), and Gen. William Henry Harrison’s triumph on the Thames River.
Yet, the chaos in American finance, Napoleon’s debacles in Europe, and another fruitless military campaign in New York state left Madison disheartened. His enemies gloated over his nearly fatal illness in June 1813. Attorney General Richard Rush wrote John Adams that the nation “seems to fight for nothing but disaster and defeat; and, I dread to add, disgrace. … I am sick at heart at the view of our public affairs.” “Have we, Sir,” Rush asked the old patriot who was a firm supporter of Madison during the war, “ever seen worse times, and survived them?”
The summer of 1814 brought to America thousands of battle-hardened British troops. They fought vastly improved American armies to a standstill on the Niagara frontier and appeared in Chesapeake Bay intent on capturing Washington. Madison unwisely entrusted defense of the city to a petulant, insubordinate secretary of war, John Armstrong, and to a blundering general, William H. Winder. A small but well-disciplined British force defeated the disorganized Americans at Bladensburg as Madison watched from a nearby hillside. His humiliation was complete when he saw flames of the burning Capitol and White House while fleeing across the Potomac River. Dolley Madison, after removing Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of Washington from its frame and loading it on a wagon with a few other precious items, also fled the capital but failed to find her husband in 48 hours of confused movements in Virginia and Maryland.
However, when Madison returned to Washington after three days, he was soon cheered by word of the British defeat in Baltimore Harbor, the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to the national anthem. News also arrived that U. S. forces had repulsed a powerful British army coming down Lake Champlain.
When the Duke of Wellington and other British leaders learned, in late October, of the set-backs, they decided that the American war was not worth the strenuous efforts necessary for victory. They would seek peace. But Madison did not know this, and with a powerful British force menacing New Orleans, he had to prepare his disordered and disunited nation for more war. Sectional strains grew as Federalist leaders denounced the war at the Hartford Convention.
Madison dismissed Armstrong from the War Department and appointed a new secretary of the treasury, Alexanaer J. Dallas, who managed to partially restore American credit. Madison also hoped that his peace commission in Ghent might now secure respectable terrns from Britain. On Christmas Eve, 1814, with both sides tired of war, a peace treaty was signed restoring the prewar boundaries and ensuring American national independence. Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815, achieved on the battlefield what the treaty makers recognized at Ghent:
Britain had lost any remaining hope of dominating its former colonies or of blocking United States expansion into the Mississippi Valley.
In early February 1815 news of both Jackson’s vietory and the peace treaty reached an anxious capital city and sent it into joyous celebrations. The French minister, who had been close to Madison throughout the war, observed that “three years of warfare have been a trial of the capacity of [American] institutions to sustain a state of war, a question . . . now resolved in their advantage. Finally the war has given the Americans what they substantially lacked, a national character founded on a glory eommon to all.”
With threats of disunion ended, the path opened for westward expansion, the nation confident of its security in the world and its institutions vindicated, Madison’s last two years as president were triumphant. Responding to the nationalist mood, he proposed a wide-ranging domestic program in 1815. To guide and stimulate the economy he recommended a recharter of the National Bank, a moderate tariff to protect “infant” industries, and federal support for roads and canals that would “bind more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy.” He also recommended establishment of a national university and defense measures strong enough to deter potential enemies.
Though in urging a variety of measures “best executed under the national authority” Madison cast aside republican dogma about weak government, he still opposed internal improvement sehemes except under a constitutional amendment. He was willing to let a free people use their representative institutions to fulfill national objectives as long as fîdelity to limited government under the Constitution was maintained. The public registered its approval of his “national republi canisin” as it acclaimed him on his retirement and elected his “heir apparent,” James Monroe, overwhelmingly to the presideney.
Happily retired to his Virginia farm, Madison practiced scientific agriculture, helped Jefferson found the University of Virginia, advised Monroe on foreign policy, arranged his papers for posthumous publication, and maintained a wide correspondence. He returned officially to public life only to take part in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829, where he sought both to diminish the power of Tidewater slave owners and to extend the franehise. His compromise efforts fell before pressure from proslavery forces to preserve their dominance.
Nationally, Madison wrote in support of a mildly proteetive tariff, the national bank, and, most importantly, the power of the union against nullification. He stoutly denied that he had advocated nullification in the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. In fact, his whole career and his most profound political thought rested on securing for the United States the benefits of union.
Madison’s health slowly declined, forcing him more and more to be a silent observer. He died on June 28, 1836, the last survivor of the founders of the American Republic.