James Madison Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
ph_0111207215-Madison.jpg James Madison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Madison was the primary architect of the United States Constitution and the fourth President of the United States.

Early Life

James Madison was born March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia. He was the son of James Madison, Sr., and Nelly Conway Madison. James, Jr., was the eldest of twelve children. The family was not wealthy but lived in comfortable circumstances. Young Madison was enrolled at the age of eleven in the boarding school of Donald Robertson, and he studied under him for five years. He studied two additional years at home under the tutelage of Thomas Martin, an Anglican minister. In 1769, Madison entered Princeton. Because of his previous training, he was able to complete the four-year course in two years, graduating in September, 1771. This effort took a toll on his health. He appears to have suffered from depression and epileptiform hysteria.

In May, 1776, Madison began his political career as a member of the convention that drew up the Virginia Constitution. He was then elected to the Virginia Assembly. There, Madison joined with Thomas Jefferson in an effort to disestablish the Church of England. They eventually became lifelong friends and close political associates. Madison was not reelected, but he was chosen by the legislature in 1778 to the governor’s council. Despite his unimposing five-foot, six-inch stature and a slender frame and boyish features, Madison obviously made an impression upon the legislature with his intelligence and diligence. He was never a great orator, but he was an agreeable, persuasive speaker. He possessed great political skill and generally was a dominating figure in legislative bodies throughout his career.

In December, 1779, Madison was chosen a delegate to the Continental Congress. He took his seat in March, 1780, and quickly established himself as one of the most effective and valuable members of that body. For most of the next forty years, he would play an important, and at times major, role in the critical years of the early Republic.

Life’s Work

In the Continental Congress, Madison took a nationalist position. He often collaborated with Alexander Hamilton. He labored hard to strengthen the government and amend the Articles of Confederation to give it the power to levy duties. Madison wrote an earnest address to the states, pleading for national unity, but it was to no avail, and the amendment failed.

In 1784, Madison was elected to the Virginia legislature, where he worked to defend religious freedom. His famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” helped defeat a scheme by Patrick Henry to impose a general assessment for the support of religion. Madison then pushed Jefferson’s “Bill for Religious Liberty” to passage, completing the disestablishment of the Anglican Church begun in 1779. Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” foreshadowed the clause on religious liberty in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Madison was a delegate to the Annapolis Convention, and he was named to the Virginia delegation to attend the Federal Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. When the convention opened in May, Madison had prepared an extensive proposal to revise the Articles of Confederation. The Virginia Plan, presented by Edmund Randolph but based on Madison’s ideas, became the basis of discussion throughout the summer months. Madison led the movement to grant the federal government greater authority over national affairs. While he did not always carry his point of view, he clearly was the dominating figure in the convention, so that he is often called the “Father of the Constitution.” The journal that he kept on the convention is the most complete record of the proceedings available.

Madison also played a prominent role in securing the ratification of the Constitution in Virginia. His influence was crucial in overcoming the opposition of Patrick Henry and George Mason. In retrospect, perhaps his most important work was in cooperating with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing a series of essays for New York newspapers which were later collected and published in 1788 as The Federalist Papers. Madison wrote nearly thirty of the eighty-five essays, which are justly celebrated today as still the most authoritative commentary on the Constitution of the United States and a major contribution to political science. His most notable contributions were his reflections on the plural society in numbers ten and fifty-one; the dual nature of the new government, federal in extent of powers and national in operation, in number thirty-nine; and the interrelationship of checks and balances in number forty-eight.

Madison was elected to the House of Representatives, and within a week of entering the House in April, 1789, he began the work of establishing a strong and effective central government. He led the movement to establish revenues for the new government by imposing import duties; he presented a motion to create the Departments of State, Treasury, and War and gave the executive broad powers over these offices; and he proposed a set of constitutional amendments which eventually became the Bill of Rights.

Madison served in the first five Congresses. His inherent conservatism manifested itself in his growing opposition to Hamilton’s fiscal policies and the government’s pro-British tendency. After 1790, Madison organized the congressional alliances that became the basis for the first national political parties. More than Thomas Jefferson, Madison deserves to be...

(The entire section is 2304 words.)

James Madison Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

James Madison was born to Nelly Conway and Colonel James Madison. His antecedents had pioneered lands in Orange County, where he inherited the five-thousand-acre estate Montpelier, whose mansion he commissioned William Thornton to rebuild. Tutors prepared him in the classics, French, and Spanish. He received his B.A. from Princeton University in 1771 after two years of study, principally in history, government, and debate. His health compelled him to return to Montpelier, where he studied law, and limited his participation in the Revolutionary War to civilian service.

He was a member of the Virginia Committee of Safety in 1775, the Constitutional Convention in 1776, the Executive Council in 1778-1780, and the House of Delegates in 1776, 1783-1786, and 1799. As a free-thinker, he advocated religious freedom and disestablishment of the Church. In 1784 he defeated Patrick Henry’s bill in the Virginia legislature to give financial support to “teachers of Christian religion.” Refusal to treat voters to liquor at the polls caused his only political defeat, reelection to the House of Delegates in 1777. In Virginia, Madison established his reputation for meticulous detail, linguistic ability, and grasp of principles of government.

As a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1780-1783 and 1786-1789 Madison kept valuable notes of its proceedings. He consistently advocated that the confederation raise revenue by a uniform tariff, voiced the ambitions of the Trans-Allegheny, helped persuade Congress to honor Virginia’s ownership and gift of the Northwest Territory, and blocked northern mercantile proposals to exchange Mississippi navigation for Spanish trading concessions.

Madison’s fame rests primarily on his contributions to the Federal Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. In hopes of broader interstate compromises, he had participated in the compromise of Virginia’s and Maryland’s maritime differences that had led to the convention. Although not the convention’s official secretary, he kept daily notes of its proceedings, which comprise the only eye-witness history of the convention. He became the leading advocate of a national government with coercive power as the alternative to monarchy or fragmentation. Although Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan to the convention, Madison’s influence upon it was immense, minimizing small-state fears by favoring strong executive and judicial departments as protection against omnipotent central government. Although in 1787 he asserted federal power to incorporate a national bank, as president he vetoed in 1812 the...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)

James Madison Early Life

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

James Madison and John Jay were born into established positions in the American colonial aristocracy, Madison in Virginia and Jay in New York. In contrast, Alexander Hamilton was born an illegitimate child on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies and migrated to the American colonies in 1772. He worked hard to attain the social status Jay and Madison enjoyed from birth. Perhaps because of his background, Hamilton was a risk taker throughout his life. Although he died a member of the Episcopal Church, he had periods of religious skepticism unknown to Jay and Madison. Although Jay and Madison were loyal, devoted husbands, Hamilton’s insecurity led him into sex scandals.

Both Hamilton and Jay were lawyers who...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

James Madison Life’s Work: Madison

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison, who had been elected to the Continental Congress in 1779, backed the Virginia plan, favored by the larger states, to create a three-branch federal government. The plan provided for a national executive who would serve seven years and enjoy veto power, a congress, and a federal court. Madison’s contributions earned him the title of “Father of the Constitution,” and his comprehensive notes on the business of the convention have proved invaluable to historians.

During the ratification struggle that followed the Constitutional Convention, Madison contributed only slightly fewer essays to The Federalist than did Hamilton. Although these two men developed...

(The entire section is 259 words.)