James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution of the United
States, is considered by many to be its foremost architect. He was a leading
theorist of republican government and was one of the founders of the
Jeffersonian Republican Party in the 1790s. In 1809, he became the fourth
president of the United States.
Madison, the son of a wealthy planter, had depended on a system of slavery
that he was never able to reconcile with his republican ideals. He graduated
from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1771, and in 1776
he was elected to the Virginia Convention. When called to consider the
relationship of the colonies to Great Britain, he strongly urged independence.
As the American Revolution approached, Madison served on the Orange County
Committee of Safety. Two years later he was elected to the Virginia convention
that voted for independence and that drafted a constitution for the new state.
In the debates on the constitution, he successfully changed a clause
guaranteeing religious toleration into a general statement of "liberty of
conscience for all." During 1778 and 1779 he served on the council of state
under governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
Elected to the Continental Congress in December 1779, Madison became a leader
of the so-called nationalist group, which advocated a strong central government.
By the time he retired from Congress in 1783, he was regarded as its
best-informed and most effective legislator and debater. Three years in the
Virginia legislature, 1784 to 1786, convinced him that the Articles of
Confederation were too weak to bind the states together in the face of domestic
and foreign threats.
At the Annapolis Convention in 1786, Madison took a lead in the call for the
Constitutional Convention that met the following year in Philadelphia. It was
there that he was a persuasive proponent of an independent federal court system,
a strong executive branch, and a two-sided legislature with terms of differing
length and representation according to population. Working with other proponents
of a strong central government, Madison was largely instrumental in persuading
Congress to summon a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, or
federal constitution. At the convention, which met in May 1787 in Philadelphia,
Madison played a leading role. He drafted the Virginia Plan that became the
basis for the structure of the new government.
In accordance with his views, the Constitution provided for a separation of
powers with a system of checks and balances. Madison was responsible for the
creation of a strong executive branch with veto powers and a judiciary branch
with power to override state laws. His journal of the proceedings (http://members.aol.com/Cornettes),
published in 1840, constitutes the sole record of the debates. Together with
Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he drafted essays in the Federalist series in
defense of the Constitution to rebut those fearful of centralized power. His
argument that liberty would be more secure with a larger, unified political
entity rather than small ones, reasoning that no group would be able to form an
absolute majority, has been confirmed by subsequent experience. At the Virginia
ratifying convention in 1788, he won a dramatic debate with Patrick Henry, one
of the opponents of the proposed Constitution.
While serving in the new House of Representatives of the United States,
Madison sponsored the Bill of Rights. This action fulfilled a pledge he had made
during the fight over ratification, when it was charged that the Constitution
failed to protect individual rights. He acted as one of President George
Washington's chief advisors in inaugurating the new government.
In 1791 he broke with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, opposing the
fiscal policy of the Washington administration. He joined Thomas Jefferson and
James Monroe in founding the Republican Party to counteract the centralizing and
aristocratic tendencies of the Federalists then in power. During 1794, a period
of political discouragement, Madison found happiness in his marriage to a lively
widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who is especially remembered for her charm as a
hostess during his presidency.
Madison left Congress in disgust in 1797. As a private citizen he drafted the
Virginia Resolutions of 1798 which protested the Alien and Sedition Acts
sponsored by John Adams's administration. Seeing these acts as a severe threat
to free government, Madison subsequently argued that a free press was
responsible "for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and
humanity over error and oppression."
In 1799 and 1800, he served in the Virginia legislature. In 1801, Madison was
appointed Secretary of State by the new President, Jefferson. These two men,
along with the new Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, formed a
Republican triumvirate that led the nation for the next eight years. Madison
adroitly guided the negotiations that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase and
supported American suppression of the Barbary pirates in the Tripolitan War. As
a result of the war between France and Britain, when confronted by overwhelming
British naval power, Madison supported the Embargo Act (1807), forbidding
American ships to trade abroad. The unexpected capacity of the belligerents to
replace American trade and substantial evasions of the law by American merchants
made the embargo a failure.
Elected president in 1809 with 122 electoral votes, versus 47 votes for the
Federalist candidate Charles Pinckney, Madison approved the repeal of the
embargo, by which Jefferson had tried to avoid war, and invoked a ban on trade
with the warring European powers. Tensions between the United States and Britain
continued, however, and both the Federalists and members of his own party
increasingly criticized Madison’s conduct of foreign policy. Furthermore, the
unity that the Democratic-Republican Party had experienced under Jefferson was
diminished under Madison's less charismatic leadership and reduced even further
in the face of the continuing dilemmas posed by the Napoleonic Wars. Despite
Gallatin's skillful leadership of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and
Madison's own prestige as an elder statesman, the diplomatic situation
frequently thwarted the plans and policies of the Madison administration.
In 1812 Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Great
Britain. On the day that war was declared, June 18, 1812, the British repealed
their trade restrictions (Orders in Council). The War of 1812 was badly managed
by Secretary of War John Armstrong, who failed to take seriously the threat of a
British invasion. Although Madison was reelected President that year, factious
strife within his own party and a determined (some thought, treasonous)
opposition from the Federalists in New England plagued him throughout the War of
In domestic affairs Madison yielded to the rising tide of nationalist
sentiment. Before leaving office he signed a bill for a protective tariff and
agreed to the chartering of a national bank (the Second Bank of the United
States), a measure he had vehemently opposed in 1791. In foreign affairs his
most important action after the war was to negotiate the Rush-Bagot Agreement
for permanent demilitarization of the frontier between the U.S. and Canada. The
agreement was ratified after Madison left office.
Handing over the Presidency to yet another member of the so-called Virginia
dynasty, James Monroe, Madison retired in 1817 to his Virginia estate,
Montpelier. He avoided further participation in party politics but did express
his support for President Andrew Jackson when South Carolina revived the
controversy over nullification of federal laws in 1832. He subsequently helped
Jefferson found the University of Virginia and served as its rector in 1826.
Madison served Monroe as a foreign policy advisor. He strongly resisted the
nullification movement of 1830-33, denying that he and Jefferson had advocated
nullification in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and extolled
instead the benefits of union for the United States. Bedridden in his last
years, Madison died on June 28, 1836.
Letter Signed, 3 pages 4th, Washington, Dec. 5, 1808, to William Pinkney,
Minister Plenipotentiary of the U.S. to England, telling him that the repeal of
the Embargo has been taken up in the Senate. Re: discusses the reaction by
Congress to the foreign affairs portion of President Jefferson's message to
Congress. Resolutions proposed by Congress in reaction to Jefferson's message
would preclude the question of a resort to war. Madison says the Senate is
amending the embargo laws with the purpose of stopping the violations and
evasions which have crippled its operations. A British council will try to make
some of their orders less offensive to the U.S. but this may disappoint the
British cabinet. Page 1,
Page 2, and Page3.
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