Among the Founding Fathers, James Madison has justly been called “the Father of the Constitution.” One might think that the Constitution became active on July 5, 1776, but this is not how it happened.
The American Constitution didn’t go into effect until almost a decade and a half after the Declaration of Independence.
How did this philosopher, diplomat, and Founding Father influence this?
James Madison’s Youth
James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, into a distinguished planter family in Virginia, as had George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before him. As a boy, his secondary education was conducted by a popular local Scottish tutor who taught him geography, mathematics, and modern and ancient languages. He was very good at Latin. A local Presbyterian reverend did his college preparatory work. In contrast to other Virginian young men, like Thomas Jefferson, he did not attend college at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. His health was somewhat fragile, and the lowlands of that area would, it was believed, be harmful to his health.
Instead, the shy, quiet, and diminutive Madison — he was 5’4″ compared to Washington’s 6’4″ — attended Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey), where at the age of 18, he came under the influence of the President of the college, a Scottish Presbyterian minister named John Witherspoon.
Madison’s undergraduate studies included the ancient languages of Latin and Greek, law, theology, and significant works of the then-popular Enlightenment writers. While there, he participated in a debating society and finished the traditional 3-year course of study — like English universities — in only two years.
In 1771 he remained at Princeton for almost an additional year to study political philosophy and biblical Hebrew under John Witherspoon, which along with Greek, would enable him to read the Bible in the original languages. The Scottish minister’s Calvinism strongly influenced Madison’s morality and philosophy, along with other values of the Enlightenment that were increasingly popular in America.
. . . every good form of government must be complex, so that the one principle may check the other. . . . They must be so balanced, that when every one draws to his own interest or inclination, there may be an even poise upon the whole. –John Witherspoon, Lectures on Moral Philosophy
Madison wrote a letter to a college friend in 1773 claiming that the rising stars of his generation had renounced their secular prospects and
“publically…declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ.”
But the war was on the horizon.
James Madison’s Involvement with Politics
Soon his life turned to issues related to the Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, especially his animosity against the perceived excessive taxation of the American Colonies. He held leadership positions in Virginia in the militia as a colonel and in politics as a leader in the Virginia Constitutional Convention. This led to his election to the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia Governor’s Council of State, where he came to befriend then Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson.
After his election to the Virginia House of Delegates, he pushed for genuine religious freedom in the state, recommended the “disestablishment” of Anglicanism (Church of England) as the state religion of Virginia, and called for not just “tolerance” for other denominations but “equal entitlement” of the exercise of religion. He worked with Thomas Jefferson in writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
When he was elected to the Second Continental Congress as the youngest member, he sought to amend the existing Articles of Confederation, which had been the guiding document of the new nation beginning in November 1777. Madison recognized their unworkable weaknesses: they established a poor democracy and a weak federal government. They allowed each state (colony) to establish its own foreign trade policy.
James Madison’s Friendship with Jefferson
As a friend and protege of Thomas Jefferson, Madison exchanged correspondences with Jefferson — sometimes in code — while his mentor served in Paris as U.S. Minister to France.
Though Jefferson did not have a direct hand in crafting the Constitution, he sent Madison a “literary cargo” of some 200 books from France. Madison consumed them and used the resulting knowledge to formulate the Federalist Papers and, ultimately, the Constitution.
But he was no puppet of the older Jefferson. They lived about 30 miles from each other in Virginia. Madison helped dissuade Jefferson from his belief that an armed revolution every 19 years should recreate a new Constitution for each generation.
James Madison at the Constitutional Convention
Following conferences that he was involved in at Mount Vernon, Annapolis, and Philadelphia, Madison recognized that amending the Articles of Confederation was insufficient for the needs of the new nation and worked with Edmund Randolph and George Mason to develop the Virginia Plan.
The outline became the basis for what would become the Constitution of the United States of America.
He called for, along with Hamilton, a robust federal government comprised of three branches of government with a “separation of power” — based, no doubt, on his Calvinistic education under Witherspoon that taught the “depravity of man.” Madison is famously quoted as saying
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary… In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
He further proposed a bicameral Congress with a Senate of two representatives from each state and a House comprised of representatives whose number was determined by the population of each state. Finally, there was a federal Council of Revision that could veto laws made by Congress. Benjamin Franklin did not initially favor a bicameral Congress but eventually consented.
James Madison’s Involvement with the Federalist Papers
Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay (who would become the first Supreme Court Chief Justice) published articles supporting the Pro-ratification position. Jay left the project, and Hamilton asked Madison to take his place. Altogether the three wrote 85 articles, which became known as The Federalist Papers.
After the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Federalist Papers have become the most important works of political government written in the U.S. Madison himself wrote some 29 articles arguing for a “representative democracy” rather than the “excessive democracy” that he felt the Articles of Confederation promoted, which caused social decay. He had written:
“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Not even all Virginians supported this Constitution. Patrick Henry of “give me liberty or give me death” fame was the most strongly opposed. Nevertheless, Madison caucused with the undecided, and Virginia became the 10th state to ratify it.
James Madison’s Government Service
These became known as the Bill of Rights, ensuring individual rights, following the listing of the federal powers of the central government.
As an advisor to the President, he helped Washington by ghostwriting his first inaugural address and encouraged Thomas Jefferson’s appointment as Secretary of State.
Madison’s association with Hamilton did not last. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton advocated a strong national bank to support loans to emerging industries. This served the needs of the North and favored financial relations with Britain. But Madison, along with Jefferson, believed instead that this was a threat to the republican nature of the new Constitution. They supported the agricultural needs of the South and alliance with French interests.
Nevertheless, Congress did create the First Bank of the United States. Along with his mentor Thomas Jefferson, Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party (also known as Republican) in opposition to the Federalist Party represented by Hamilton and John Adams. Both parties supported Washington in the next national election, with Adams becoming his Vice President.
Adams became the next President, and Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third President in 1800, along with Madison’s help. Madison was made Jefferson’s Secretary of State. As France was at war with most of Europe then, Napoleon needed funds. As Secretary of State, Madison helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 under Jefferson, effectively doubling the territory of the United States. He dispatched Louis and Clark to survey this purchase. Madison, Wisconsin, is named in his honor.
James Madison’s Presidency
As the fourth President of the United States, the main event during Madison’s presidency was the War of 1812. France and Britain were at war, but Madison did not want to enter the war. However, Britain was seizing U.S. trade ships, and he finally felt he had no choice. In 1812 he asked Congress to declare war on Britain.
He was the first President to accompany his troops into battle during the War of 1812 when the British marched into Washington, D.C. Grabbing a pair of dueling pistols, he led his men both into battle as well as a retreat as the British set the White House and Capitol building on fire.
James Madison’s wife: Dolley Madison
Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s Vice President, grandson of the great preacher Jonathan Edwards, and later Alexander Hamilton’s dueling partner, had once lived at the Payne boarding house, as did the young widow Dolley Payne Todd. Burr, Madison’s classmate at Princeton, introduced the two, and they married four months later in 1794.
Seventeen years Madison’s junior, Dolley was a popular ‘First Lady,” effectively defining the role as the social secretary to the President. Indeed, after Thomas Jefferson’s wife died in 1782 and his daughter came to Washington less frequently, Dolly often accompanied Jefferson when a hostess was required.
A popular and natural beauty, she was known for her exuberance, wit, and warmth. Unlike her shy husband, she was a social butterfly and organized the first Inaugural Ball in Washington as the White House hostess.
Her drawing-room attracted foreign ministers, politicians, and leaders every week. She began the tradition of First Lady public charities by acting as Directress for a girls’ orphanage.
Notably, just before the British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812, she took the time to pack the silver and save many important documents, as well as the canvas portion of a famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (at right), before they escaped from the British advance.
Throughout Madison’s Presidency, he loved ice cream and popularized it at the White House. His wife’s favorite flavor went back to the time of the Pilgrims: oyster.
James Madison’s Twilight Years
Madison retired at 65 but returned to work at 74 upon Thomas Jefferson’s death as Rector of the University of Virginia. He had helped Jefferson establish the University by bequeathing most of his personal library. Jefferson had already sold his first library that helped create the Library of Congress after the original government library burned in the War of 1812. At 79, Madison joined a 96-person group to amend the State Constitution of Virginia.
Though he was considered sickly for much of his life, he lived to 85, outliving all other signers of the Constitution. His doctor offered stimulants that would keep him alive until July 4, the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Both Jefferson and Adams had died on the 50th anniversary of that date.
But Madison declined and died on June 28, just six days before the anniversary.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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