His wife Dolley once called him “the great little Madison.” Though short and slender, and often sickly, James Madison stands tall as an American leader.
In 1808, Madison was elected the fourth president of the United States. Even more importantly, Madison played a leading role in the creation of the Constitution of the United States. He helped design the system of government under which we still live today. He is often called the Father of the Constitution.
James Madison was born in 1751. He grew up at Montpelier, his family’s estate in Virginia.
Madison’s education began at home. He first went to school about the age of 12. Several years later, he began to study with a local clergyman. In 1769, Madison entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
After college, poor health kept Madison at the family home in Montpelier. He continued studying law and government. Madison developed a keen, careful mind, and a strong interest in politics. He gradually became convinced that the American colonies should become independent from Britain.
CALLED INTO POLITICS
By 1774, Madison’s health had improved. He hoped to find a career in politics and to support the cause of American independence.
Madison’s first political steps came in 1774, when he won election in Virginia to a local committee on safety. Safety committees organized local defense and performed other government tasks.
In 1776, Madison helped write a new constitution for Virginia. Madison championed the rights of each person. He worked closely with his friend, Virginia legislator Thomas Jefferson, to make religious freedom part of Virginia law.
MADISON ATTENDS THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS
In 1779, Madison won election to the Continental Congress at the age of 29. He was the youngest person serving in the Congress. But his sharp intelligence soon thrust him into a leading role.
Madison believed the new nation needed a stronger government. He wanted the Continental Congress to have the power to raise taxes so it could pay national debts. He worried that the states argued too much, hurting commerce and trade. They even argued over who controlled rivers.
WRITING A CONSTITUTION
In 1787, the states sent delegates to discuss a new constitution, or plan for government, for the United States. Madison was eager to begin. He showed up three weeks early with his plans and arguments already written out!
Madison’s plan called for a strong government with a court system, congress, and an elected president. Delegates debated many parts of the plan. Many feared giving too much power to the government. Others feared the larger states would gain power over smaller states.
The delegates settled on some compromises. One compromise gave the states with larger populations more members in the U.S. House of Representatives. But each state, no matter what its population, would have two members in the U.S. Senate.
Finally, the delegates reached agreement. The Constitution was sent to the states for approval. But the old debates raged again in each state.
MADISON FIGHTS FOR THE CONSTITUTION
Madison then joined Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, two other American statesmen, to write a famous series of essays called The Federalist. These essays, published in newspapers across the states, supported the Constitution. Meanwhile, Madison worked tirelessly in Virginia to help win acceptance of the Constitution there. Virginia ratified the Constitution by a slim vote—89 for, 79 against.
ELECTED TO CONGRESS
After the Constitution won approval, Madison represented Virginia in the U.S. Congress. Soon after his election, Madison proposed the first amendments to the Constitution. The amendments were mainly designed to protect the rights of each American. These rights included freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Most of the amendments Madison supported were approved. They became known as the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.
MADISON CHANGES HIS MIND
Over time, Madison slowly moved away from the Federalist Party he once supported. He feared that the policies of treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton favored the Northern states instead of the whole country. Madison sided with Thomas Jefferson and a political party known as the Anti-Federalists. They formed a new political party called the Democratic-Republicans.
When George Washington retired as the first president, Madison did not support John Adams, a Federalist, as the new president.
Troubles between France and Britain deepened the wedge between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. While Jefferson and Madison supported France against Britain, the Federalists supported Britain.
SECRETARY OF STATE
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States. He appointed Madison to serve in his Cabinet as secretary of state.
Madison had his hands full. Britain and France were at war, and both countries boarded American trade ships and took cargo. Britain even hauled away American sailors and put them to work on British ships. The Federalists blamed France. The Democratic-Republicans put most of the blame on Britain.
Madison wrote letters to both nations. He also tried other measures, such as closing American ports to incoming and outgoing trade. But nothing convinced France or Britain to respect the rights of Americans at sea.
MADISON BECOMES PRESIDENT
Madison won the presidency in 1808. Continuing problems with France and Britain marked both his terms as president.
Finally in 1812, America declared war on Britain. Madison blamed France, too. But he felt Britain had done more to cripple American trade. The British also stirred up trouble on the American frontier by encouraging Native Americans to fight American settlers. Many Americans itched to move onto those frontier lands.
“MR. MADISON’S WAR”
The war proved unpopular. Many Federalists in the Northern states called it “Mr. Madison’s War.” During the war, Britain captured Washington, D.C., and burned down the White House. Madison had to jump into his carriage and flee!
In the middle of this war, Madison won reelection. He told voters he wanted peace, but he felt the war was “just and necessary.” In December 1814, a peace treaty signed in Belgium ended the war.
Madison retired from public office to Montpelier. But he continued to follow politics. At the age of 78, Madison helped write a new state constitution for Virginia. Often sick in his last years, Madison rarely left his home. He died in 1836.