Despite his accomplishments, Madison is perhaps the least known of the nation's Founding Fathers — although his contemporaries had a deep appreciation of his abilities and his contributions. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, one fellow delegate praised Madison as possessing both the intellectual depth of a scholar and the practical wisdom of a politician, and observed that he was involved in the "management" of every major issue. His peers hailed him as the "Father of the Constitution," and scholars agree that no one had a greater role in shaping American Constitutional theory and in framing the particulars of representative government than James Madison. James Madison's great investigation into the principles and ideas of government occurred at his beloved Montpelier, where he read, thought, and conceived of the foundation of democracy upon which our country still stands.
James Madison was born in Port Conway, Virginia, on March 16, 1751. The oldest child in a family of twelve, he grew up on his father's plantation, Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia. In 1762, James Madison went to his first school, located in King and Queen County, Virginia. At the age of 16, he returned to Montpelier to continue his education with a tutor. In August 1769, James began college at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), graduating in the spring of 1771.
Madison began his 41-year political career in December 1774, when he was appointed to the Orange County Committe of Safety.
Father of our Constitution
He arrived quietly in Philadelphia on May 3, 1787, to attend the Constitutional Convention. The Convention convened to discuss the structure of the U.S. government.
Madison was only 36 years old, but already had an enviable reputation. He gained attention while serving on the committees that drafted the first Constitution of Virginia and the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. He also served as an elected representative to the Virginia House of Delegates and the Continental Congress. These experiences prepared Madison for his memorable performance at the Constitutional Convention. When the work was done, Madison's name resounded throughout the country, as he was given the title "Father of the Constitution" by his colleagues.
In the 1780s, as the Revolutionary War gave way to an uneasy peace in a new nation, the 13 states found themselves dealing with the difficult question, "What do we do now?"
The first try at government under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1788) was riddled with problems from the beginning. The individual states had their own interests and found it difficult to hand over power to a central authority. Under the Articles, the United States found itself unable to stabilize the currency, regulate commerce among the states, levy taxes, make capital improvements, pay off war debts, and effectively address individual rights issues such as religious freedom.
James Madison was among the first to recognize that a stronger central government would be critical to the new nation's survival. Always the scholar, Madison undertook an exhaustive study of government structures in world history. He researched ancient and modern confederacies, outlining reasons why earlier attempts at democracy and representative government failed. Madison's research convinced him that the Articles would not withstand the onslaughts of state interests. Madison's ideas eventually crystallized into "the Virginia Plan," where the interests of individuals, states, and the national authority were balanced and mixed into "an extended republic." He also sought the counsel of influential Americans whose support was vital if any changes in the government were to take place. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Edmund Randolph were among the prominent politicians to support the "Virginia Plan."
When the Convention finally began in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, many feared that the young country was near collapse. During the long, hot summer that followed, the 55 delegates hammered out a new framework of government. Madison lobbied strongly for his positions, proposed compromises, took copious notes and, in general, served as a principal participant. In the end, many of Madison's proposals were incorporated into the Constitution, including representation in Congress according to population, support for a strong national executive, the need for checks and balances among the three branches of government, and the idea of a federal system that assigned certain powers to the national government and reserved others for the states.
Madison's work, however, was not complete since the Constitution still faced challenges with the state ratification conventions. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison wrote a series of essays, The Federalist Papers, that argued for ratification. The Constitution faced stiff opposition, even in Madison's home state. Virginia's support would be absolutely critical, so he lobbied his fellow Virginians hard for its passage. His efforts were rewarded in June 1788, when New Hampshire and Virginia ratified the Constitution, and it became the law of the land.
Madison as fourth President
At the conclusion of Jefferson's two terms, James Madison won the 1808 presidential election and took the oath of office the following March. Madison's first term was troubled by tensions between England and France that led British ships to forcibly stop U.S. trading ships and seize American seamen. Furthermore, frontiersmen blamed the British for stirring up American Indian resistance to western settlement, and some expansionists had sights on Canada.
Finally giving up on a policy of economic coercion, the United States declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. After severe American losses on the Canadian front, the British marched on Washington. Madison rode east from the White House to review the American troops and, as fighting broke out, became the only U.S. president to command on the field while in office. His efforts failed and, on August 24, 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Upon leaving Washington, the British then launched a naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The assault failed, but the battle inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, which would become the nation's anthem.
Four months later, December 24, 1814, the warring parties settled on terms of peace. In what some have called the "Second War of Independence" (and what opponents dubbed "Mr. Madison's War"), the War of 1812 solidified the United States' place within the international community.
Known for his personal integrity and fair-handedness, Madison scrupulously observed individual and political rights even in the midst of war. As the Capitol and White House were rebuilt, the last years of Madison's second term saw economic growth, westward expansion, and ushered in a nationalistic "era of good feeling."
Retirement and death
When James Madison's second term as president ended in 1817, he and Dolley retired to Montpelier. In retirement Madison stayed active and interested in politics. In 1819 he founded the American Colonization Society dedicated to freeing slaves and transporting them to the West Coast of Africa. Madison served on the board of visitors at the University of Virginia, and briefly came out of retirement at the age of 79 to attend the 1829 Virginia Constitutional Convention. On June 28, 1836, James Madison died at Montpelier at the age of 85 and was buried in the Madison Family Cemetery on the mansion grounds.