He was born at Port Conway, Virginia, on March 16, 1751, to James and Eleanor Rose Conway Madison, both of English heritage. James was the eldest of ten children and was raised on the family’s large plantation in Orange County. His father was prominent in the community, serving as a leader in the local militia, and as justice of the peace and a vestryman in the Anglican church. Young Madison was instructed by private tutors as there were few schools in the region during that time.
In choosing a college he rejected going to the College of William and Mary, which was in Virginia and where most planter's sons went to school. He disliked the reputation of the college's professors for drunkenness. Rather, Madison enrolled in the College of New Jersey, which would become Princeton University, and was a voracious reader and a good student. While in college, he organized a debating club, known as the American Whig Society. He graduated in only two years, in 1771, spent a year studying to be a minister, and then continued his studies at home for the next three years. Even as a young man, he had poor health; his friends described him as feeble and pale, and he probably suffered from a nervous disorder.
Hostilities between the British colony of America and the English Crown had erupted into open rebellion in 1775. Madison was not an English loyalist and was made chairman of the Orange Revolutionary Committee of Safety and wrote its anti-British resolution. Madison was a small, frail man in poor health and was not able to enlist in the Continental Army to fight the British; rather, he devoted himself to recruiting troops and writing propaganda.
In 1776, he was elected to the Virginia constitutional convention where he was appointed to the committee to prepare a declaration of rights and draft a plan for the state government. During this time, he met another future president, Thomas Jefferson, who became his lifelong friend. Madison proposed to the constitutional convention that there should be a separation of the church from the government of Virginia. Though his proposal was rejected, it was later incorporated. Madison was elected to the first Virginia Assembly in the new state government that he had helped create. He was defeated in a bid for re-election but was appointed a member of the Governor’s Council in 1777.
Building a Nation
As the Revolutionary War was starting to wind down and it looked as though America would separate from Great Britain, the next task became to set up a system of governance for the emerging nation. To help form and govern the new nation, Madison was chosen to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1783. He was an active member of the body, introducing amendments giving Congress the power to enforce its financial requisitions on the states, to levy import duties, and to divide the interest on the growing national debt among the states in proportion to their population. Madison realized the new nation would be growing to the west and sought free navigation of the Mississippi River. He had an international bent to his politics and wanted America to be involved in the affairs of European nations. In 1782, he authored the compromise plan whereby Virginia agreed to the release of a portion of the state’s western territory to the central government. Madison was offered the position of minister to Spain but declined; instead, he returned to Virginia in November 1783 where he was elected to the state assembly the next year. There he led a successful fight in 1785 to enact Jefferson’s bill providing for religious freedom.
Constitution and Bill of Rights
The first form of government of the United States was under the Articles of Confederation, which favored a weak federal government and put more weight on the decentralized powers of the state. As the nation was growing, the inherent problems with the Articles of Confederation became more apparent and there were calls for a change. Madison and Alexander Hamilton were both proponents of revising the Articles of Confederation or scrapping them and starting fresh with a new governing document. This led to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where meetings were held to lay the groundwork for the change in government. During the convention, Madison argued for a strong central government and suggested that Congress be given the power to override state acts. Madison became an important figure in writing the Constitution, proposing many of the main ideas, including the Virginia Plan, which called for each state’s representation in Congress to be based on the population of the state.
After the convention, the new Constitution needed to be ratified by the individual states before it could become the law of the land. Though he was not completely pleased with the final document, he lobbied heavily along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay for adoption of the Constitution by the states through a series of newspaper articles that became known as The Federalist Papers. John Jay wrote only five of the 77 articles, Alexander Hamilton wrote over half, and Madison completed the balance of them. The Constitution was ratified by the states and went into effect in 1789, and two months later George Washington was elected unanimously as the nation’s first president. Madison ran for a seat in the new Senate and was defeated, but he was elected to the first House of Representatives where he was active in forming the government.
During his term in Congress, Madison maintained his political relationship with Alexander Hamilton, the new secretary of the treasury. Madison’s proposals provided for the establishment of the departments within the executive branch of government. He also proposed six of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which become known as the Bill of Rights. As the political parties started to develop, Hamilton was a Federalist who favored a strong central government, while Madison and Jefferson became part of the Democratic-Republicans, which advocated for more power to be in the hands of the individual states.
Madison and Hamilton became at odds with each other over the funding of the national debt left over from the Revolutionary War. The two came to a compromise by allowing the national government to assume the state’s debt, which was Hamilton’s plan, with Madison winning the location of the new seat of government on the Potomac River. Madison opposed pro-Federalist legislation that would create a United States bank, increase tariffs, and espouse a foreign policy that was pro-British.
Tiring of the political battles, Madison retired from Congress and returned to the family plantation, Montpelier, in 1797 with his wife Dolley. The couple had met in Philadelphia in 1794 and were married that same year. Dolley was a widow and had a son from a previous marriage, whom Madison raised as his own. Madison helped his aging father run the plantation, where he worked to diversify the types of crops grown, relying less on tobacco. Though Madison was uncomfortable with slavery, the plantation workers were mostly slaves.
Secretary of State
In the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson became the third president and he nominated James Madison to be the secretary of state. Since Jefferson was a widower, Dolley Madison often acted as the official hostess at parties and receptions at the presidential mansion. For eight years, Madison served under Jefferson, implementing many of Jefferson’s foreign policy initiatives. Madison’s friendship with Jefferson and his experience put him next in line for the presidency.
President of the United States
In the presidential election of 1808, Madison defeated the Federalist candidate, Charles Pinckney, by a wide margin in the electoral college. By the time Madison entered the presidency, the nation had grown from the original 13 states to 17, had a free population of about seven million, and a western boundary that stretched to the Rocky Mountains. As president, Madison tried to follow the course Jefferson had set in his policies, one of which was to remain neutral in foreign wars.
True to his Republican outlook, Madison advocated a laissez-faire policy, whereby government would provide little interference in matters of business and finance. He wanted the nation to grow by emphasizing farming; in an agrarian society, he said, each person could own his own land and maintain independence.
Still in Jefferson’s shadow, Madison believed that a high national debt was bad for the country as it unduly benefited the wealthy elite. In addition to lowering the debt, he wanted a leaner government and lower taxes. The tightened purse strings resulted in small and understaffed diplomatic corps, a reduced army with only a few frontier outposts, and many of the navy battleships in dry dock. From his home in Virginia, Jefferson agreed with Madison’s approach and stated the debt reduction was “vital to the destinies of our government.”
America’s old master and adversary, Britain, would bring Mr. Madison the biggest challenge of his presidency. Since the 1790s, the British, at war with France, had been stopping and searching American merchant ships looking for sailors who had deserted the British Royal Navy. During Britain’s lengthy and costly war with France, many British citizens were forced by their own government to serve in the navy, and a number of these reluctant conscripts defected to American merchant ships. As tensions between the United States and Great Britain continued to rise, in the spring of 1810, Madison asked Congress for increased funding to bolster the army and navy in preparation for a possible war.
The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.
— James Madison
War of 1812
On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Great Britain, even though the country was not unified and the military was inadequate to fight a powerful nation. Madison turned out to not be a great war president during what became known as the War of 1812 or the Second Revolutionary War.
Britain was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, and Madison and many in Congress believed the United States could easily capture British held Canada and use it as a bargaining chip in negations with Britain. Madison faced many obstacles while trying to put the country on a firm war footing—lack of popular support for the war, a divided cabinet, obstructionist governors, incompetent generals, and a military that consisted primarily of poorly trained militia members.
The war started poorly for the Americans as a senior general gave up Detroit to a much smaller British force without firing a shot. The American thrust into Canada ended in defeat at the Battle of Stoney Creek. The British allied with and armed American Indians in the Northeast to fight against the Americans.
America suffered humiliation when the British marched on Washington, D.C., burning the Executive Mansion (the White House), the Capitol building, which was still under construction, and other public buildings. The president’s wife, Dolley, was able to rescue some valuables and documents before the British burnt the Executive Mansion.
The British attacked Fort McHenry, which guarded the seaway to Baltimore. The intense naval bombardment of the effort lasted over 24 hours but wasn’t enough to destroy the fort, and the gallant defense shown by the Americans led Francis Scott Key to pen a poem that would become the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The final battle of the war occurred in New Orleans and was led by General Andrew Jackson, with a rag-tag force of regular army, frontiersmen, militia, Native American allies, and Jean Lafitte’s pirates. The Americans fought valiantly, soundly defeated the British, and saved the city. News of the victory in New Orleans reached Washington in February 1815, sending the city into raucous celebration.
Britain grew weary of the war with America as they had little to gain from the continued outlay of men and material. Delegations from the U.S. and Britain met in Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate a peace settlement, signed on Christmas Eve, 1814. Due to the slow communications across the Atlantic, news didn’t reach America until after the Battle of New Orleans. The Treaty of Ghent stipulated there would be no changes in territories or reparations, all prisoners of war would be sent home, slaves taken from the Americans would be sent home, and a commission would be set up to settle boundary disputes. Though the treaty didn’t address the original issue of impressment, it was quickly ratified by the Senate.
With the war with Britain concluded, a wave of nationalism swept through the country, helping to unify the nation. Before leaving office, President Madison signed acts providing for the establishment of the Second Bank of the United States and levying a protective tariff.
In March 1817, after two terms in office, Madison and his wife retired to Montpelier. He spent the remainder of his days as an elder statesman, giving advice on state and national issues, and he prepared his notes on the Constitutional Convention. During his retirement years, the nation was wrestling with the issue of slavery. In 1826, he succeeded his old mentor, Thomas Jefferson, as rector of the University of Virginia. As time passed, Madison’s health began to fail and on June 28, 1836, he died at his home after a lengthy illness. His valet, Paul Jennings, reported on his last days, “For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reading on a couch.”
Madison’s legacy is a bit mixed. On the one hand, he was one of the founding fathers of America, helped draft the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and proved to be one of the great political minds of his age. However, as president, he was an ineffective leader in the War of 1812 and was not able to obtain enthusiastic loyalty for either the Congress or the country.
Ranking as President
In the ranking of presidents as listed in the book by Brian Lamb et al, historians rank James Madison at the middle of the list at number 17. He was placed behind William McKinley and ahead of Andrew Jackson. Madison ranked low in pursuit of equal justice for all and in the middle of the pack for international relations and crisis leadership. He is most remembered as the primary founder of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
- Borneman, Walter R. 1812 The War That Forged a Nation. Harper Perennial. 2004.
- Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman, Reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
- Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.
- West, Doug. America’s Second War of Independence: A Short History of the War of 1812 (30 Minute Book Series 29). C&D Publications. 2018
- Willis, Garry. James Madison. Time Books. 2002.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Did James Madison grow up rich or poor?
Answer: Madison was from a well-to-do family. They were not poor.
© 2017 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on October 24, 2017:
Larry, Thanks. I have going to Madison's estate, Montpelier, on my bucket list.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on October 24, 2017: