James Madison Additional Biography

Biography

ph_0111207215-Madison.jpg James Madison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

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Early Life

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 graduated from King’s College in New York City, which later became Columbia University. Madison, a graduate of Princeton University, did not pursue specialized professional training because his chronic ill health led him to expect an early death. However, Madison was exceptionally learned in history, religion, and political theory by the time he left Princeton.

Life’s Work: Madison

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 significant ideological differences that make their later works easily distinguishable, historians still debate the authorship of some essays in The Federalist because Hamilton, Madison, and Jay all wrote under the pseudonym Publius. Madison was elected to the House of Representatives in 1789. He served as President Jefferson’s secretary of state from 1801 to 1808 and became the fourth president, serving from 1809 to 1817.

Ill health undermined Madison’s self-confidence, as did his rejection as a suitor by the pretty Catherine Floyd. In his forties, Madison married the vivacious widow Dolly Payne Todd, who helped him increase his self-confidence. However, from his youth to his old age, Madison was a dedicated public servant who advocated the Virginia Bill of Rights, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and the gradual abolition of slavery through the work of the American Colonization Society. Like his mentor Jefferson, Madison worked to secure the separation of church and state and protect religious minorities.