James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, at a time when tumultuous and fascinating events were brewing on an international scale. As the young Madison studied with his mother, under several tutors, and at a private school, little did he realize the important part he would play in many of these events.
Madison proved himself an outstanding scholar from the start. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton) in 1771, having finished his studies in two years and learned about the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment ranging from Adam Smith to David Hume. After his graduation, Madison struggled to choose a profession. He considered the ministry, but never quite committed.
The deteriorating relationship between England and her colonies brought out his fascination with public affairs, however. Madison, who suffered from poor health throughout much of his life, was too frail for military service, but he had an instinct for politics. In 1776, he joined the Virginia Constitutional Convention and helped to forge a new state government independent of Great Britain.
Madison and the Constitution
Madison served in the Continental Congress and the Virginia House of Delegates for the next few years, watching as America claimed independence from England and set up a new government under the Articles of Confederation. He saw firsthand the struggles the national government faced as it tried to pay off war debts and keep order among wrangling states. When a convention met at Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1876 to amend the Articles of Confederation, Madison was present and prepared. He had spent months studying governments of the past and had condensed the information into a set of notes enumerating the pros and cons of each form.
Only five states were represented at Annapolis, so a new convention was scheduled for the following year, to be held in Philadelphia. Madison arrived at the Constitutional Convention on May 25, 1787, ready with a revolutionary plan.
Although Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan on May 29, Madison played an important role in preparing the idea. Based on his studies of governments past, Madison concluded that Articles of Confederation were not and never could be sufficient for the needs of the nation. A strong federal government was required. According to the Virginia Plan, one of the primary distinguishing features of the government was that it would represent the population, not the individual states. States with more residents would have more say in the nation’s laws than states with fewer residents. Furthermore, while the first house of the legislative branch would be elected directly by the people, it would in turn elect the second house, and both houses together would elect the executive and set up the judiciary branch.
The Virginia Plan met with strong opposition from small states. The Constitutional Convention ground on painfully for months until even George Washington admitted that he had no hope of “seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.” Some delegates left the scene altogether.
But Madison remained at his post through thick and thin, attending every session and forging crucial compromises to keep the process going. He made notes of the debates, took the floor 150 times (third only to Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson), and sat on four committees. When the Constitution was written and presented to the states, Madison stood by the document, defending it in 29 of the Federalist Papers and at the Virginia ratification convention.
Although Madison originally believed that a bill of rights was an unnecessary addition to the Constitution, he again proved himself willing to compromise on the issue. The subject divided the Virginia ratification convention, with many fearing to cast their votes for the Constitution since it contained no written declaration of the rights of citizens. When it appeared that Virginia might go against the Constitution, Madison relented. He promised to push for the creation of a bill of rights in the new government if the delegates would only vote for the Constitution.
Virginia did indeed ratify the Constitution, and Madison was as good as his word. While establishing the new government seemed more important to many in Congress in 1789, Madison took the lead in proposing and debating the content of the Bill of Rights, pulled from his knowledge of history and of state constitutions. Both houses of Congress modified his original text into 12 amendments to be added to the end of the document. Ten of these were ratified by the states to create the Bill of Rights.
Madison as Secretary of State
For a time, Madison intended to retire and enjoy private life, but his close friend Thomas Jefferson convinced him to remain active in public affairs. Together, the two founded the Democratic-Republican Party to counter Alexander Hamilton’s ambitions for a centralized financial system. Madison also served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State for all eight years of the latter’s presidency.
Although as Secretary of State Madison had the opportunity to oversee the Louisiana Purchase, his management of foreign affairs probably had the greatest impact on his own approaching presidency. The Napoleonic Wars created a tense situation worldwide, with both England and France seizing American merchant ships in complete disregard of the young nation’s claims of neutrality. After a British attack on the American ship Chesapeake, Jefferson and Madison responded with the Embargo Act of 1807. American ships were no longer to sail to foreign ports, and British ships were barred from entering American ports.
Tumult erupted on the American political scene. New England, a Federalist stronghold, threatened to secede from the Union because the loss of shipping ruined their economy. Democratic-Repbulicans clamored for armed conflict to uphold America’s honor and raised questions of whether Madison might not be a Federalist in disguise, since he did not join their cause. However, the Federalists had little power outside of their own stronghold, while Jefferson managed for the most part to convince his party to rally around Madison.
The Madison Presidency
When Madison took office as Jefferson’s heir-apparent on March 4, 1809, he faced an incredibly delicate position, both at home and abroad. In his inauguration speech, he reinforced his conviction that America should remain neutral in the Napoleonic Wars, but also insisted that foreign nations should respect that decision. For about a year he prohibited trade with both Britain and France.
By May 1810, however, he developed a new strategy for maintaining peace. Congress authorized him to permit trade with both of the warring nations for the time being. If either would accept America’s claims to neutrality, the United States would trade with that country alone. As matters turned out, Napoleon made the next move in this international chess game, nominally repealing some of the commercial restrictions France had placed on the United States. Madison responded by proclaiming non-intercourse with Great Britain.
In spring 1810, Madison requested additional funds for the army and navy, and in November 1811 he specifically urged Congress to mobilize the military in response to continued British attacks on American commerce.
Only two weeks after receiving the nomination of the Democratic-Republicans for reelection in 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war on England, and the War of 1812 began. The conflict was largely a stalemate lasting over two years. While British blockade of the Atlantic Coast remained unbroken and the major goal of conquering Canada failed, American privateers wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy and American soldiers crushed England’s Indian allies under Tecumseh. By December 1814, Napoleon had been defeated, Britain no longer had any impetus to interfere with American commerce, and Madison was quite willing to return to a prewar relationship. Accordingly, the Treaty of Ghent was signed that month.
Amidst the glowing enthusiasm after the war’s end and the decisive victory at the Battle of New Orleans, Madison was finally able to turn his attention to domestic affairs. Ever the scholar, he had studied his successes and failures during the War of 1812, and had come to the belief that some of Hamilton’s policies would place funds and troops more readily at the nation’s disposal in a crisis. Accordingly, he fell in line with the American System advocated by Henry Clay. This system proposed to tie the extremities of the growing country together through protective tariffs, national roads, and a federal bank. The details of this plan occupied Madison for the two remaining years of his presidency.
Madison retired in March 1817, refusing to seek a third term. He spent his final years advising James Monroe on foreign policy, editing his notes on the Constitutional Convention, and speaking against the growing divide between North and South. He died on June 28, 1836.
- Profoundly influenced the writing of the Constitution.
- Authored 21 of the Federalist Papers.
- Led in the creation of the Bill of Rights.
- Assisted George Washington in organizing the federal government.
- Oversaw the Louisiana Purchase.
- Wrested control of the Gulf Coast from Spain.
- Led America through the War of 1812.
- Established international respect for America.
Madison in His Own Words
- Need for a new constitution: “[T]he present System neither has nor deserves advocates, and if some very strong props are not applied will quickly tumble to the ground. No money is paid into the public Treasury. No respect is paid to the federal authority. Not a single State complies with the requisitions—several pass them over in silence and some positively reject them….It is not possible that a Government can last long under these circumstances.”
- Role of government: “The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the Sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to control one part of Society from invading the rights of another, and sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole Society.”
- Bill of Rights: “My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights; provided that it be so framed as not to imply powers not meant to be included in the enumeration. At the same time I have never thought the omission a material defect, nor been anxious to supply it even by subsequent amendment, for any other reason than that it is anxiously desired by others. I have favored it because I suppose it might be of use, and if properly executed could not be of disservice.”
- Louisiana Purchase: “Under prudent management it may be made to do much good as well as to prevent much evil. By lessening the military establishment otherwise requisite or countenanced, it will answer the double purpose of saving expence & favoring liberty….It will be of great importance also to take the regulation & settlement of that Territory out of other hands, into those of the U. S. who will be able to manage both for the general interest & conveniency. By securing also the exclusive jurisdiction of the Mississippi to the mouth, a source of much perplexity & collision is effectually cut off.”
- Reluctance to enter War of 1812: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”
- Decision to enter War of 1812: “[Britain] has bound us in commercial manacles, and very nearly defeated the object of our independence.”
Biography from the History Channel.
James Madison: Life in Brief
Great summary at the University of Virginia.
Biography at the Montpelier Foundation.
James Madison and Religious Liberty
His role in establishing freedom of religion.
Second War of American Independence
Explanation of Madison’s role from the Library of Congress for Kids site.
James Madison: From Father of the Constitution to President
Timeline worksheet for explaining Madison’s involvement in events. Great for wrapping up.
Learning Activity Worksheet: Out With the Old, In With the New
You can use this worksheet for older students to wrap up. The referenced letters can be found at: A Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 24, 1787, Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787.
Primary Source Documents
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
James Madison and Executive Power
Lesson plan for older students from the Center for Civic Education.
Federalist 10: Democratic Republic vs. Pure Democracy
Lesson plan for older students examining the document written by Madison.
The War of 1812: A Unit Study
Our own unit that includes information and activities on Madison.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
James Madison Poster
Coloring page from White House Kids.
Color a U.S. President: James Madison
James Madison coloring page for notebook at Education.com.
U.S. President James Madison
Informational coloring page from Crayola.
James Madison Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.