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James Madison

1751 - 1836

Virginia Delegate

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 (, 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 1812.

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.

Madison 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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