James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, one of the drafters of the Constitution, to such an extent that he is nicknamed “The Father of the Constitution”. He promoted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

Early Years

Smithsonian

James Madison was born at Belle Grove, near Port Conway, Virginia, on March 16, 1751. He grew up as the oldest of 12 siblings, nine of whom survived. His father, James Madison Sr was a tobacco planter who later became a landowner and his mother, Nelly Conway Madison, was the daughter of a prominent tobacco merchant planter.

The young Madison studied with a private tutor from the age of eleven to sixteen, with whom he learned geography, mathematics, and ancient and modern languages, becoming very proficient in Latin.

At sixteen he began preparing for college with the Reverend Martin Thomas. Madison, unlike most of the young people of Virginia, did not choose the College of William and Mary, since it was in an area with a climate that could harm his delicate health, and decided to study at the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University).

Through long hours of study, which weakened his health, Madison graduated in 1771.

Beginnings in politics

In his early days as a lawyer, Madison defended Baptist preachers arrested for preaching without a license from the Anglican Church.

He also worked with preacher Elijah Craig on constitutional guarantees of religious liberty in Virginia, which helped him form his own ideas on the subject. Madison served in the Virginia state legislature and became known as a “protégé” of Thomas Jefferson.

James Madison rose to political prominence by helping to draft the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That document severed ties with the Church of England and rejected any state coercion in religious matters.

Madison was responsible for persuading the Northwest Territories to give up their westernmost lands for the formation of new states, so he was seen as a master of parliamentary dialogue.

Father of the Constitution

At the end of the war, Madison returned to Virginia and discovered with alarm the fragility of the Articles of Confederation, particularly the division of state governments, and argued strongly for a new constitution.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison’s draft of the Virginia Plan and its revolutionary three branches of the federal system became the basis of today’s U.S. Constitution.

Despite his timidity, Madison was one of the most outspoken men in the Continental Congress, and he had the vision that a strong federal government could overrule the states if they were wrong.

Bill of Rights

Patrick Henry convinced the Virginia legislature not to elect Madison as one of the first senators, but Madison was elected directly to the new U.S. House of Representatives and became an important leader from the First Congress (1789) through the Fourth Congress (1797).

James Madison, at the head of the Virginia delegation to the First Congress, had proposed a Bill of Rights in hopes of preventing a potential political disaster.

The Second Constitutional Convention could undo the difficult compromises reached in 1787, put the entire Constitution up for reconsideration, and subvert the work he and many others had done to establish the structure of government in the United States.

Madison based his work on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776). In addition to this direct influence, Madison’s Bill of Rights reflected centuries of English law and philosophy, modified by the principles of the American Revolution.

In 1791, Madison’s last ten proposed amendments were ratified and became the Bill of Rights.

U.S. Secretary of State

With Jefferson in office, Madison helped the president negotiate the Louisiana Purchase by reversing party policy and bypassing the constitution itself.

Madison tried to maintain neutrality between Britain and France, but at the same time insisted on the legal rights of the U.S. under international law.

Since the governments of those countries showed little respect, the U.S. government passed a law prohibiting the country from trading with any foreign nation, thereby only succeeding in creating hardship in the trade-dependent territories of the southern seaboard.

Madison easily defeated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in the elections to select the candidate for the presidency for his party by running in the presidential elections of 1809, which he won.

Presidency

The first Bank of the United States was created on February 25, 1791 by order of the United States Congress and with the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, although with the disapproval of Thomas Jefferson.

The Bank was created to settle the debts that the country had since the War of Independence and to establish a stable currency in the newly created government. The bank’s charter expired in twenty years, after which it was to be renewed.

In 1811 Madison determined not to renew the Bank’s charter, which in practice was in English hands that appropriated the citizens’ money. He did not heed the threat of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, in practice owner of the Bank of England:

“… the United States may be involved in one of the most disastrous wars if the banking statutes are not renewed”.

With the excuse that the American merchant fleet was transporting supplies to Napoleon, England declared war on them in 1812. Knowing they had little to do against the Royal Navy, the Americans planned to besiege Canada by land.

The war began with little advantage for the United States, as their attempts to invade Canada were repeatedly repulsed. The U.S. military proved ineffective and the high command incompetent throughout the war except for the last year.

At the outbreak of war Treasury Secretary Gallatin wanted the bank reconstituted, realizing how difficult it would be to finance the war without a Bank.

Despite an initial maritime blockade by the British on the eastern seaboard that ruined American commerce, the British eventually gained naval control of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, thus preventing any threat of a full-scale invasion from the north.

On August 22, 1814, President Madison left Washington DC to review his troops in a hastily improvised defensive camp in the vicinity of the capital in an attempt to protect it from the British advance, but by the afternoon of the next day it was evident that Washington could not be defended as all the American troops stationed on the roads leading to the capital fled in complete disorder.

The British managed to penetrate parts of Maine and Washington D.C., burning their public buildings, including the White House and the Treasury.

Madison has been the only president of the United States who had to flee the White House and the capital city of Washington D.C. in the face of advancing enemy foreign troops occupying the city.

On December 25, 1814, peace was signed in Ghent (Belgium). The victorious English only demanded in exchange for leaving that a central bank be re-established. Madison vetoed the bill in 1815.

Postwar

The occupation of Washington represented for Madison an enormous humiliation and the whole government and himself as president, was accused of not being in the White House until the last moment. After that, Madison became an unpopular president.

After the war, although Madison had accepted the need for a National Bank in order to maintain a standing professional army and a strong navy, in one of his last acts as president he vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817, which was to finance “internal improvements,” including roads, bridges, and canals.

International policy

In 1810, while he was president, a special American agent arrived in Cuba to establish contact with annexationist elements and carry out conspiratorial activities. That same year, the U.S. president instructed his minister in London, William Piecknay, to inform the U.S. administration that:

(…) The position of Cuba gives the United States so deep an interest in the fate of that island, that even if they could remain inactive, they could not be satisfied spectators of its fall into the power of any European government which might make that position a foothold against the commerce and security of the United States.(…)

Under his mandate the Second Barbary War was conducted in which the United States fought piracy in North Africa, with the ulterior motive of gaining control over the region.

Private Life

Madison left the office of president in 1817 and retired to his tobacco plantation in Montpelier.

His personal income was meager, due to the financial collapse of his plantation. In his later years, Madison became extremely concerned about his legacy. He revised his letters and other documents, correcting dates, phrases, and checking spelling. In his later years, this became an obsession.

In 1826, after Jefferson’s death, Madison took the position of chancellor of the University of Virginia. It would be his last occupation. He held the position for ten years, until his death in 1836.

In 1829, at the age of 78, Madison was elected as a representative to the constitutional convention in Richmond for the revision of the Virginia state constitution, which was to be his last appearance as a legislator and constitutional drafter.

Madison lived until 1836, increasingly ignored by the new leaders of American politics. He died in Montpelier on June 28, the last of the Founding Fathers to die.

Madison Square Garden (Madison Square Garden) is named in his honor.

References:

  • Madison, James (1987). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393304051.
  • Madison, James (1995). Marvin Myers, ed.. ed. Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison. Univ. Press of New England. ISBN 0874512018.
  • Madison, James (1995). James M. Smith, ed.. ed. The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776–1826. W.W. Norton. ISBN 039303691X.
  • Madison, James (1999). Jack N. Rakove ed.. ed. James Madison, Writings. Library of America. ISBN 1883011663.
  • Madison, James (1865). Letters & Other Writings Of James Madison Fourth President Of The United States (called the Congress edition ed.). J.B. Lippincott & Co.
  • Madison, James (1900–1910). Gaillard Hunt, ed.. ed. The Writings of James Madison. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Madison, James (1962). William T. Hutchinson et al., eds.. ed. The Papers of James Madison (30 volumes published and more planned ed.). Univ. of Chicago Press.
  • Madison, James (1982). Jacob E. Cooke, ed.. ed. The Federalist. Wesleyan Univ. Press. ISBN 0819560774.
  • https://www.whitehousehistory.org/bios/james-madison
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Madison
  • https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/james-madison
  • https://millercenter.org/president/madison