James Madison (1751-1836)

Figure 1.--.

James Madison was the 4th president, another in a long line of Virginian-born presidents. He played a limited role in the Revolution itself, but a central role in the foundation of the republic. He was not an imposing man and in our modern world of mass-media, he would certainly have never become president. It was his mind that set Madison apart and his colleagues recognized this. Madison was a close associate of Thomas Jefferson. He is best known for his role in creating the Constitution. He proved to be the intellectual force behind both th Constitution and the foundation of the Republic. [Cheney] In one of the most unlikely political partnerships in American history, Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were largely responsible for its ratification. As a Republican stalwart, he had led the fight in the new Congress against creating a U.S. Navy. The emerging Republican Party he led were hostile to both a standing army and even the existence of a navy. Ironically, while the Federalists avoided war, President Madison was the first president to ask for a declaration of war and led a largely unprepared country into the War of 1812 with the British. And the new U.S. Navy he opposed w one of the few bright spots in the ensuing military struggle.


The Madison family was one of the oldest and most prestigious in Virginia. His father Col. James Madison, Sr. (17231801) inherited the family plantation. He added land to the plantation and eventually became the largest landowner (5,000 acres) and leading citizen of Orange County. His mother, Eleanor Rose Conway (17311829), was the daughter of a wealthy planter and tobacco merchant who lived to be 98 years old. They married (1743). She brought considerable wealth to the marriage. Both parents had a substantial influence over James.


James was born in 1751. He was called 'Little Jemmy' and was small of stature. Even as an adult he only weighed 140 pounds. He was the oldest of 12 children. Seven of the children survived to adulthood. He grew up on a 5,000 acre tobacco plantation in Orange County, Virginia--Montpelier. It was located in the Virginia Piedmont within sight of the the Blue Ridge Mountains. Growing up on a plantation worked by slaves and indentured servants affected his outlook. By Madison's time it was mostly slaves. He was brought up in the established Church of England. He was not a healthy boy. He stayed close to his mother's side as a boy. He was quite a small boy when the French and Indian War (1754-63) broke out. As an adult he recalled being fearful of Indian attack. He also recalled when the family moved from a small farmhouse to Montpelier. He was a nervous boy and suffered from not well understood, but presumably psychosomatic seizures that sound similar to epileptic fits. He gradually outgrew them. His seven younger siblings both loved him and respected him because of his prodigious scholarship which was encouraged by his parents.

Childhood Clothing


James from a very early age demonstrated a keen mind. He had by age 11 reportedly read ever book in his father's library, one of the largest in Virginia. He did not attend school, there were no public schools in Virginia at the time. Instead, his father secured the services of a Scottish tutor--Donald Robertson. James thus studied languages (French, Latin, and Greek). French and Latin were languages most educated American colonists studies, Greek was a more difficult undertaking and the sign of a particularly educated individual. He also studied history, philosophy (a subject with a more expansive definition at the time), theology, and law. Madison as an older man remarked, "All I have been in life I owe largely to that man." He also studied under Reverend Thomas Martin. Madison at age 19 went north to attended Princeton University which was then called the College of New Jersey. He was especially interested in history. Government was only one of his many interests, but he was well-read in law. He completed the 3-year course in 2 years.


James Madison was a small unimposing man, virtually the antithesis of Washington. He was painfully shy. He disliked speaking to a group. [Labunski] One writer Washington Irving has described him as "but a withered little apple-John." He had little of the personal charm of another Virginia president, his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson. In our modern world of mass-media, he would certainly have never become president. Some believes that his deficiencies were also compensated by Madison's charming wife--Dolley. Her personal warmth and gaiety made her the toast of Washington society.

Virginia Government (1776)

Madison despite his youth played an important, but not major role in the Revolution. Madison with his academic background in history and government participated in the crafting of the Virginia Constitution (1776). He was a Virginia delegate in the Continental Congress. He became a leader in the Virginia Assembly. Madison's primary accomplishment was his role in drafting and promoting the Virginia state Constitution. Madison and George Mason were the key players. One author writes, "But for James Madison, aged 25, that was not enough. What, after all, was the implication of a government promise to 'tolerate' someone's opinion? Surely it was that the government knew better, but it would put up with the individual's divergent understanding for now. Madison's proposed substitute said, 'That religion, or the duty which we owe our CREATOR, another manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction , not by force or violence; and therefore, that all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion ..." With the excision of the second 'that' and the word 'enjoy,' this was the final language of Section 16. The Convention agreed to it unanimously." [Gutzman] This may not seem all that important, only a single state constitution. Virginia was, however, along with Massachusetts leading the march toward independence. It was also a state with a substantial population. The original Virginia Constitution was enacted in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence (1776). Virginia was the first state to adopt a constitution and the document was widely influential as each successive state adopted their own constitutions. And it would prepare Madison for the role he would play in the all important Federal Constitutional Convention after the Revolutionary War.

The Founding Fathers

Madison is one in the pantheon of the founding Fathers. Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 was asked which founding farther she most admired. When she answered George Washington she was pilloried by the mainstream media. She was, however, entirely correct. Without Washington there would have been no founding fathers, but only a number of failed rebels hanged for treason. As to the importance of the others, historians can argue. It seems clear, however, that no other founding father had such an impact on the development of the young American Republic than James Madison, despite the fact that others with larger public images commonly receive more attention. Madison was a scholar and never pretended to be more than that. He is honored as the 'Father of the Constitution', and apt description. He played a limited role in the Revolution itself, but a central role in the foundation of the republic. He was not an imposing man and in our modern world of mass-media, he would certainly have never become president. It was his mind that set Madison apart and his colleagues recognized this. Madison was a close associate of Thomas Jefferson. He is best known for his role in creating the Constitution. He proved to be the intellectual force behind both the Constitution and the foundation of the Republic. [Cheney] But authoring an important part of the Constitution was just the beginning. He played a key role in getting the Constitution ratified. He authored many of the Federalist Papers. He played a major role in building the Democratic-Republican Party. He championed the Bill of Rights. And he was a outspoken proponent of religious freedom. [Brookhiser]

The Constitution

No one played a larger role in the crafting of the Constitution than the the 36-year-old delegate from Virginia. He had his friend Thomas Jefferson ship whatever books on government he could find. He was especially interested in works on the Roman Republic. He subjected the task of creating a new government to a detailed assessment and study. As strange as it may seem for sch a momentous task, he was the only delegate to arrive with a detailed draft for a new constitution. His plan became unknown as the "Virginia Plan". He also played a major role in the debates. Madison served on the important Committee on Postponed Matters which resolved some of the most difficult unresolved issues. [Berkin] Madison also played a key role in getting the Constitution ratified. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he penned what has become known as the Federalist Papers which argued powerfully for the new Constitution. Hamilton would emerge as the country's leading Federalist. Madison would be a leader of the emerging Republicans. Yet the two cooperated closely to secure ratification. Many associates including Jefferson were suspicious of the proposed Constitution. His role led him to be called the "Father of the Constitution". Madison was to later object to this honorific. He wrote that the resulting document was not 'the off-spring of a single brain', but 'the work of many heads and many hands' While true, it is also true he played a massive role in crafting the Constitution, no other individual even approached his contribution.

Bill of Rights

Madison was elected to the new Federal Congress from Virginia. He played a critical role in framing the Bill of Rights. [Labunski] This was in response to many of the criticisms levied against the Constitution during the debates over ratification. The Bill of Rights has of course become the central political protection ensuring civil liberties in the United States. Madison also helped enact the first Federal revenue legislation. This was a major step in that one of the major weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation was the inability of the Federal Government to collect taxes. Madison allied with Jefferson played a major role in the development of party politics and the Democratic Party--called the Republicans or Democratic Republicans at the time. Madison opposed many of the financial measures proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Madison believed that Hamilton's program gave disproportionate wealth and power to northern financiers.

Religious Freedom

Madison along with Jefferson were champions of religious freedom. This was enshrined in the Bill of Rights. He fought hard for this same principle in Virginia. [Brookhiser]

Secretary of State (1801-09)

Following Thomas Jefferson's victory in the election of 1800, the new president appointed Madison Secretary of State. Given the importance of maritime commerce and the raging European War during the Jefferson Administration nd the limited resources of the infant Republic, it is hard to think of a secretary of state that faced a more diffucultg challenge. The major issue that faced Madison as Secretary of State was the Napoleonic Wars which were raging in Europe. The two major combatant naval powers, France and Britain, began seizing American ships which was contrary to international law at the time. Most of the seizures were carried out by the British, but there were also seizures by the French and Spanish. There were cries for war, but Jefferson and Madison refused to go to war. Eventually Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807. The goal was to make the belligerent nations stop the seizures. In this it not only failed, but it caused a serious depression. In the midst of all this, Napoleon offered to sell the Louisana Territory (1803). The resulting purchase at atroke doubled the size of the United States.

American Presidential Candidates

President Washington was elected for not only his military leadership, but also not using the Continental Army to seize power after the Revolution. People admired him and trusted him. One might have gotten the impression that future candidates would be men with impressive military records. With was not the case. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were all men that did not serve in the military, although they were active in the Revolution. No one could have had less military presence than Madison. He was short, often sick, and scholarly. Monroe who followed him was a war hero, but that was only a part of his resume. And John Quincy Adams was also not a soldier. It was not until Jackson that Americans would turn to a military man again.

Election of 1808

There was no limit in the Constitution as to how many terms a president could serve. President Washington was elected twice. President Adams failed in his reelection bid. President Jefferson could have run for a third term, but he decided like Washington that two terms were sufficient. Their decisions essentially set a precedent that lasted until the World War II crisis. President Jefferson hand-picked his successor. Secretary of State James Madison was a fellow Virginian and long-term friend and close political associate. At the time the Secretary of State was the post prestigious post in the Federal Government other than the president. Early vice presidents other than Adams played very minor roles. Vice-President George Clinton of New York had hoped to gain the nomination, but this was not possible without Jefferson's support. The Democratic-Republicans unanimously nominated Madison. They also nominated Clinton as his running mate. There was, however, considerable political dissent. President Jefferson had a very successful first term, but his second term gave rise to considerable criticism. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe had many adverse consequences in America. Neither Britain or France honored American neutrality. Jefferson's answer was the Embargo Act (1807), but this had adverse consequences for American commerce. New England which relied heavily on maritime commerce in particular suffered economically. The Federalists again nominated Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. Pinckney served in the Revolutionary War and was given diplomatic assignments by President Washington. The campaign was highly partisan. Madison as the Republican candidate and close associate of Jefferson was held responsible for the Embargo Act. The Federalists sharply attacked Madison and the Embargo act. Despite the unpopularity of the Embargo Act, Madison won the election of 1808. Pinckney did carry New England, but Madison carried most of the rest of the country. The New York vote was split with Clinton.

Presidency (1809-13)

Madison's presidency was tied up with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. That created enormous trade opportunities for American merchants. It also brought conflict with Britain whose Royal Navy controlled the seas. The British not only seized American shipping trying to reach France and other French0controlled ports. And British captains short of crew members would often impress American sailors. This caused an outcry in America. Despite the unpopularity of the Embargo Act, Madison won the election of 1808. The United States during the first year of the Administration prohibited trade with both Britain and France which were still locked in the the Napoleonic Wars. Britain by the time of the Madison presidency had established naval dominance with Nelson's decisive victory at Trafalgar (1805). Congress in attempted a new approach (May 1810). They authorized trade with both Britain and France. The new law directed the President, if either belligerent would accept the America's position on neutral rights, to prohibit trade with the other county. America at the time was not a major power, but it have an important merchant fleet--a large number of small vessels, but of increasing sophistication which would eventually lead to the famed Yankee Clippers. Thus American commrce was a not unimportant element in the ongoing conflict between Napoleonic France and Britain. Napoleon accepted the American offer which was understandable given British control of the seas. Britain of course did not. President Madison, as a result, proclaimed 'non-intercourse' with Britain (1810).

1812 Presidential Election

The 1812 presidential election was tied up with the War of 1812. Leading Democratic-Republicans in Congress were demanding war with Britain. They became known as the War Hawks. They made it clear to President Madison that his renomination would require submitting a war message to Congress. It was America's first war time presidential election. The election began the tradition of reelecting presidents in time of war, although some presidents have been forced not to run for reelection (Truman and Johnson). The weakened Federalist Party decided to support a dissident Democratic-Republican--Mayor Dewitt Clinton of New York City. Clinton criticized Madison for both declaring war and for not fighting the war hard enough. He also raised the regional issue of another term for a Virginian president. The Federalists achieved their best showing since the "1800 Revolution", but President Madison easily won reelection. The Federalists did better in the election than any since the "Revolution of 1800". Ans while Clinton carried some major states (New York and New Jersey), President Madison easily won reelection. Madison carried all of the West and South as well the developing mid-West, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Clinton carried the Northeast. He amassed 128 electoral votes as opposed to Clinton's 89. The Federalists picked up some Congressional seats, most from the northeast which had been adversely affected by the war.

War of 1812

President Madison was not the first president to go to war, he was the first president to formally declare war. Some of the most ardent nationalists in Congress, led by a group of young Congressmen including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun called the "War Hawks," insisted that Madison adopt a more militant policy. New England Federalists dependent on commerce, opposed the war talk. Some even talked of secession. Continued British impressment of American seamen and the seizure of American vessels and cargoes finally caused Madison to relent. Madison on June 1, 1812, requested that Congress declare war. Britain had one of the most powerful military establishments in the world and after two decades of war the British military was highly professional and experienced. America had only a small military force and was completely unprepared to confront a major military power. The British adopted a strategy of striking in the north, central coast, and south. Miraculously they were defeated on Lake Erie by a force under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry. Along the central coast they entered Washington and burned the White House and the Capitol. (The White House got its name when it was painted white to covered the burned exterior.) The British were unable to take Baltimore because of Fort Mc Henry. (It was here the Star Spangled Banner was penned.) Madison as a Congressman had led the fight to block the creation of a navy (1794). Now the frigates built for the fledgling U.S. were a rare source of strength in facing the British. [Toll, pp. 43-44.] Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated a British force trying to seize New Orleans. There were significant political consequences of the War. There was a widespread upsurge of nationalism. The New England Federalists were thoroughly repudiated in the popular national upsurge. Federalism as a result disappeared as a national party.

Dolly Payne Todd Madison

Dolly Payne grew up in a strict Quaker family. Even so she developed an interest in and keen eye for fashion. James Madison was considered to be a confirmed bachelor until the younger and recently widowed Dolley Payne Todd caught his eye. They could have not been more different. Madison was reserved and scholarly, perhaps even stuffy. Dolly was vibrant and outgoing. It is not entirely clear what she saw in Madison, but security and status much have been involved. They came to be devoted life time partners. They married (1794). She was 17 years younger. Women at the time were not supposed to get involved in politics. It is unlikely, however, that Madison would have ever been president without Dolly. Madison had friends and allies, the most important of course being President Jefferson. It was Dolly, however, that would prove to be his most indefensible ally. [Howard] She was a well-liked hostess throughout Jefferson's presidency. After her husband was elected president, she became the center of Washington society. She blended the Federalist imperial style with Republican simplicity. She is best remembered for saving national treasures as the British were marching on Washington during the War of 1812--most importantly the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. She was not called the First Lady at the time, but she surely is the first presidential wife that merits the term. She was quite simply an extraordinary woman. She would define the role of first lady for all those to follow.


President Madison had one of the greatest first ladies and probably the worst presidential kid. Madison had no children of his own. Dolly had two children from a previous marriage. One child and her first husband died during a smallpox epidemic in Philadelphia which wioped oy some 10 percent of the city's population. The surviving child, John Payne Todd (1792-1852), known as Payne Todd, may well have been the worst presidential kid in history. Madison married Dolly only 2 years after Paune was born. So he was raised nearly from infancy by the two of them. We have no information on just how he was raised. We know that Dolly doted on him. We do not know about her husband's involvement with the boy who he asdopted, although Payne did not take the President's name. Nor do we have any secifics about John's behavior as a child other than he showed signs of his adult character from an early point. The older, scholraly Madison was probably not suited to rase a boy of Payne's temperment and aptitude. Madison's approach seems to have been to send him to St. Mary's Seminary, a Catholic boarding school in Baltimore, Maryland. Given that he showed no aptitude for academic work, we are left with the conclusion that Madison did this primarly to get him out of the way or in the hope that they could affect his character. we suspect thast Madison thought that the boy needed discipline. The fathers there, however, appear to have done little for him. We do know that as a young adult his behavior was shocking. Dolly despite his poor behavior, loved him and her husband out of devotion to her tolerated his behavior. By the time he was a young man he was a wanton drinker, gambler, and thief. He was jailed on different shooting chtrges. Madison attempted to help him and placed him on a diplomatic delegation, but he embarrassed himsel and the President because of his carousing. The President also had him manage Montpelier for a while, but he also failed at that. Madison was constantly paying the debts he incurred from his repeated indiscretions. He would disappear for months, only writing his mother when he needed money. Madison hid some of the debts from his wife to save her the pain and embarrassment. Part of the reason that Madison's finances and those of his wife after he passed away were compromised were the result of paying Payne's debts. When Madison died, Dolly gradually descended into poverty, having to sell the family slaves and Montpelier. Congress rescued her by purchasing the President's papers for the Library of Congress. Payne even at this late point, true to character, made aeplorable attempt to steal the President's papers from his aged mother so he could get the money. When she died, he attempted to get the share of her estate that she willed to her niece, Anne Cutts, who had cared for her in old age. The one positive aspect of his life occured upon his deth. His will provided for the manumission of the remaining slaves.


After the presidency, Madison retired to Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia. Despite asickly boyhood, he lived into his 80s. This was 20 years after his presidency. In his later years, Madison criticized the increasingly vocal advocates of states' rights, which meant the majority opinion in Virginia. They were by the 1830s already destabilizing the young American Republic that he had played such an important role in creating. The problem, of course, was the increasingly emotional issue of slavery which unlike other issues proved to be insolvable by political means. The Missori Compromise had tempraroly defused the slavery issue, butg did not settle it. A note opened after Madison died in 1836 read, "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."


Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.

Brookhiser, Richard. James Madison (2011).

Cheney, Lynne. James Madison (2014), 576p.

Gutzman, Kevin R.C. James Madison: And the Making of America (2012).

Howard, Hugh. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence (2011).

Labunski, Richard. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. Pivotal Moments in American History series.

Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (W.W. Norton: New York, 2006), 569p.


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