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