(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

James Madison 1751-1836

American statesman and essayist.

Madison served as the fourth president of the United States and is known as the Father of the Constitution. His contributions to the formation of the American republic were less visible than those of the other founding fathers and thus his career has long been overshadowed by, among others, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton. His major publication, The Federalist (1788), is a collection of political and philosophical essays written to encourage ratification of the Constitution; it was produced under a pseudonym, “Publius” in collaboration with Hamilton and John Jay.

Biographical Information

Madison was born March 16, 1751, in Orange County, Virginia, the oldest son of Nellie Conway Madison and James Madison Sr., a prominent landowner. He was educated at a private school under the direction of Donald Robertson, who introduced Madison to the principles of the Scottish Enlightenment that would later inform his political philosophy. He then studied with the Reverend Thomas Martin, a graduate of the prestigious College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), which Madison himself entered in 1769. At Princeton he studied under John Witherspoon and associated with fellow students Philip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Aaron Burr, and Henry Lee. Madison graduated in September 1771 after only two years, but the accelerated program of rigorous study left him in poor health. He remained in Princeton another year, continuing to study Hebrew and ethics. In 1772, Madison returned to Virginia and was appointed to the Orange County Committee of Safety in 1774. Two years later he became a delegate to the state constitutional convention and was then elected to the state assembly. Although he failed in his bid for a second term, he was elected by the assembly to the Governor's Council, serving first Patrick Henry and then Thomas Jefferson, who became his lifelong friend and collaborator. In 1780, Madison became a delegate to the Continental Congress, a position he held almost continually for the next eight years, while at the same time serving in the legislature of Virginia. By 1786, frustrated by the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, Madison began leading the call for a convention to reform or replace the Articles with a more effective means of governing the new nation.

During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison earned fame as a careful scholar, a political philosopher, and a tireless statesman—leading debates (although his skills as an orator were overshadowed by those of his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry), and serving on numerous committees. During the proceedings he took extensive notes, which became the only detailed record of the controversies and compromises that eventually resulted in the United States Constitution. In order to secure ratification, Madison collaborated with Hamilton and Jay to produce a series of essays, originally published in newspapers, explaining and supporting the features of the new national government. After ratification Madison served in the first United States Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. In 1783, he married a widow seventeen years his junior, Dolley Payne Todd, who became known for her charm and outgoing personality—a contrast to Madison's quiet reserve. They were married for forty-two years. Madison withdrew from public life during John Adams's administration, but returned to Washington, D. C. as Jefferson's Secretary of State in 1801, a post he held for the next eight years. In 1809 he became the fourth president of the United States, succeeding Jefferson, and served for two terms. He died in 1836, having spent the last two decades of his life corresponding with friends and receiving visitors at Montpelier, his home in Virginia.

Major Works

In 1785 Madison produced an essay in support of one of his most passionate political principles, the separation of church and state. Memorial and Remonstrance was first printed as a broadside against Patrick Henry's attempt to legislate state support for religious institutions, and then published as a pamphlet in 1786 and circulated as a petition. Its success was instrumental in securing the passage of Jefferson's bill for “Establishing Religious Freedom” in the state of Virginia. However, Madison's best-known works are The Federalist essays, which were written in support of ratification of the Constitution and which were first published serially and then as a two-volume set in 1788. The work is a joint effort by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, and scholars have found it difficult to attribute authorship of the individual essays with any precision. Nonetheless, critics have generally agreed that Madison is solely responsible for essays 10, 14, 18-20, 37-58, 62, and 63, and that he collaborated with Hamilton on three others. Many critics believe that Madison's No. 10, of all the Federalist papers, is the most profound. The essay articulates Madison's theories on the dangers posed by factions within the democratic framework, and how best to contain their power. Madison also is considered the principal author of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, which he drafted while serving in Congress during the Washington administration.

Critical Reception

Madison's reputation as both author and founding father has long been overshadowed by those of his more flamboyant countrymen: the military hero George Washington, the statesman and author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, and the passionate orator Patrick Henry. Adrienne Koch is one of several critics who maintains that Madison “has not received due recognition for his immense contributions to American history and thought.” Koch attributes the problem, in part, to Madison's less-than-imposing physical presence, which apparently made him seem an unlikely American hero. In addition, Madison was a modest man, who often gave credit to his collaborators. For example, Koch reports that he rejected the title “Father of the Constitution,” insisting that the label was unjustified since the Constitution “ought to be regarded as the work of many heads & many hands.” Similarly, Robert Rutland asserts Madison's silent partnership in Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom through his anonymous publication of Memorial and Remonstrance. Although the notion of the separation of church and state has largely been attributed to Jefferson alone, according to Rutland, Madison demonstrated “a lifelong aversion to religious bigotry that antedated his association with that other great libertarian, Thomas Jefferson.”

More recently critics have begun to acknowledge Madison's importance in the formation of the early republic, particularly as co-author of The Federalist, considered by many historians as the single most important work of political theory in American history. Of the eighty-five individual essays, much of the attention has been devoted to the twenty-nine that Madison composed, particularly No. 10. According to Theodore Draper: “No. 10 of The Federalist has long been regarded as the greatest paper in that greatest of all works of American political thought.” A. E. Dick Howard explains its enduring value: “In Federalist No. 10, Madison saw a central problem of government—in terms that are uncannily prescient—as being to reconcile rivalries among competing economic groups.”

Many modern scholars focus on possible sources for Madison's political theories. Garry Wills, among others, attributes some of Madison's ideas on the extended republic to philosopher David Hume. Draper speculates that Hume's association with the Tory cause in England made him extremely unpopular among Madison's contemporaries—particularly Adams and Jefferson—and Madison, therefore, took great pains to hide the source of his inspiration. Nonetheless, Draper concludes that Madison added considerably to Hume's insights: “Hume had alluded to the importance of property in politics without reference to the large republic and to the large republic without reference to property in politics. Madison put them together.” Most scholars agree that by adapting the principles of Enlightenment thinkers to the unique conditions of life in America, Madison managed to create a Constitution that endures as a monument to his political philosophy.