James Madison Jr. (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836)note was a Founding Father, the fourth U.S. President (following Thomas Jefferson and preceding James Monroe), and one of the most important and influential minds in American history. He served from 1809 to 1817 and was the second president from the Democratic-Republican Party. He is known as the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” though he didn’t like to be called either of them. His political beliefs changed a lot throughout his lifetime. During the Revolutionary War, Madison served on the Virginia state legislature, and sometimes worked closely with Thomas Jefferson. He later served as the youngest delegate to the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, where he gained experience in federal government and got a first-hand sense of the problems of the government under the Articles. He also read countless books on government sent to him by Jefferson. When the Constitutional Convention met in order to discuss the Articles' shortcomings, he was the one who convinced George Washington to attend and preside over the Convention.
He was one of the most active delegates at the Convention, speaking hundreds of times, and impressed many of the others with his arguments for a stronger federal government and his well-researched knowledge of nearly every issue. The detailed diary Madison kept on the Convention has remained a priceless insight into the process of writing the Constitution. Madison was the author and primary supporter of the Virginia Plan at the Convention, which proposed that the nation’s legislative branch would represent each state based on their population (which would become the idea for the House of Representatives), among other things. His role in the convention is important for establishing a powerful federal government that could pass laws over the entire nation, rather than the essentially state-based power of the Articles. Since the Virginia Plan would essentially serve as a first draft of the eventual Constitution passed by the Convention, he has often been credited as the Constitution's primary author.
Madison was primarily responsible for resolving the sharp divisions among the Founding Fathers over how much power to give to local and national governments with his theory of the "compound republic." The new republic was surrounded by potential enemies, including the First Nations and the British, French and Spanish colonies, and some of the Fathers feared that a loose alliance of states wouldn't be able to defend itself properly. Those Fathers advocated for a strong central government, but other Fathers were worried that a strong central government would become tyrannical. Madison's idea of the "compound republic" bridged this gap by ensuring that powers relevant to national defense were given to the federal government, while powers for more "local" issues and anything the Constitution didn't explicitly give to the federal government were given to the states. By splitting power between two levels of government, it was less likely that either one would become tyrannical.
Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he wrote the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 academic articles all written anonymously that supported ratification of the Constitution and explained it to the public (he wrote 26 by himself and three with Hamilton). Madison’s Papers also defended several of the most important aspects of the Constitution, such as a system of checks-and-balances, a federal government with more power than the state governments that still respects state sovereignty, the idea of limited government, the three-fifths compromise (where every five slaves would count as three free persons in the state’s populationnote ), and, most importantly, the argument that a strong national government would have more power to quell rebellions and prevent self-interested parties from gaining too much power. He even proposed that Congress be given the power to nullify state laws, though that was left out of the final version of the Constitution. The writings and beliefs of Niccolò Machiavelli served as an inspiration to Madison and other Founding Fathers, such as John Adams.
As the debate over state ratification grew, many opposed to ratification began to argue that the Constitution lacked a Bill of Rights and that, as a result, the federal government did not have to consider the basic human rights that the Revolutionary War was fought defending. Madison, and most of the others in the Convention, believed that such a Bill was unnecessary and that it would only defend the rights that were specifically mentioned. However, he quickly realized that some of the states might not ratify the Constitution, and he responded by writing and promoting a series of twenty amendments to the Constitution that would define and defend these rights and certain political practices. These were eventually condensed into the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which have since been referred to as the Bill of Rights. The ninth and tenth amendments defend certain rights held by the people that weren’t mentioned in the other amendment and that all powers not granted to the federal government are held by the states, respectively. Additionally, one of his other proposed amendments, which says that changes in the amount paid to Congressmen wouldn’t take place until after the next congressional election, would be ratified as the twenty-seventh amendment in 1992. After the ratification of the Constitution, he was elected to the House of Representatives.
He did all of this before he turned 40, by the way.
Later, James Madison became, in a seeming reversal of his political stance during the Convention, one of the most active anti-Federalists in the nationnote , opposing the Federalist Party's efforts to increase the powers of the national government. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson essentially created the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose the Federalists, which were led primarily by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. He remained a strong supporter of powerful state governments and “strict construction” of the Constitution (where it is taken literally and that all powers not held by the federal government are assumed by either the states or the people) for the next several years of his life. After President Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison and Jefferson wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions opposed to those acts, declaring them to be unconstitutional. While Madison's Virginia Resolution only criticized the two acts, Jefferson called for possible secession; Madison convinced Jefferson to calm down from this view. Madison then served as Secretary of State under Jefferson, and was the primary American diplomat during the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. That same year, he was also involved in the Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, which, to his annoyance, determined that federal courts have the right to interpret the Constitution and the constitutionality of laws through the power of judicial review.
He was elected President after Jeffersons two terms were over. In 1811, he did not renew the charter that would keep the national bank founded by Hamilton (it needed to be renewed every twenty years or the bank would be dismantled). During the first few years of his presidency, relations with Great Britain strained tremendously, due largely to the British Navy’s practice of illegally searching American ships for British deserters and, sometimes, stealing American sailors and conscripting them in the British Navy. Since the late 1790s, approximately 7,000 American merchant seamen or sailors had been impressed, as it was known. Banning trade with the United Kingdom did nothing to stop this, either. Madison eventually asked Congress to declare war on Britain, and the War Hawks, including Henry Clay, narrowly passed the declaration despite the voracious opposition of Federalists in New England. The War of 1812note was an absolute nightmare for the federal government because of a succession of weak generals and because the government was not yet properly organized to manage a war. There was also a brief, secondary wish to make annexing Canada part of the overall war strategy, although the primary purpose of the invasion was to essentially force Britain to the negotiating table in regards to impressment. If you've looked at a map of North America lately, you can probably tell that fleeting wish was not granted. Once Napoleon had been exiled to Elba, the British turned their attention to the conflict, stepping up their raiding in the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually mounting a successful amphibious invasion of the state of Maryland, after which they marched on Washington, D.C., and burned down most of the city's public buildings, including the original U.S. Capitol Building and the White House. Luckily for Madison, all of this happened after the 1812 election; allowing Pennsylvania to obtain licenses to continue trading with the British through the second half of 1812 probably assured his re-election. He also became the first (and currently only) president to lead troops into battle while in office; the battle, the prelude to the burning of Washington, was a defeat and Madison fled.
America eventually managed enough victories to successfully negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain that declared status quo ante bellum. In a final ironic twist to a war that shouldn't have been fought, the one major American victory, at New Orleans, occurred after the peace treaty had been negotiated in Europe. Indeed, Madison succeeded in getting Britain to remove their forts from the Mississippi River basin and getting them to cease the conscription of American sailors, thus achieving the initial goals of the war without losing any territory to Britain. Madison's chief accomplishment as President was successfully preserving the Constitution and holding the nation together through the nation's first major war. Unlike most of the other wartime Presidents, Madison managed to do this without suspending civil liberties, attacking minorities, or expanding presidential powers, so that's impressive. After the war was over, Madison changed his political views yet again and supported many of the policies he previously opposed, such as a standing military that is professionally trained, the American System of Speaker of the House Henry Claynote , and, ironically, a national bank.
Like Jefferson before him, Madison had to send the Navy to suppress North African pirates in the Mediterranean. Part of Spanish Florida was annexed in a little-known but rather interesting incident. He was also somewhat ahead of his time when it came to his views on Native Americans. He ordered the army to protect tribal lands from being settled by whites. Andrew Jackson wasn’t amused. During his time as President, Indiana and Louisiana were admitted to the Union.
Madison spent most of the rest of his life in Montpelier, his tobacco plantation. Madison was a slave owner, but he genuinely had sympathy for African Americans; one of his own slaves would comment after Madison’s death that he never had his slaves physically punished, ordering the overseers not to hurt them, and always talked to them like they were people instead of tools of labor. He was a supporter (and, for a brief time, the president) of the American Colonization Society, which aimed to create colonies in Africa for freed slaves. Madison spent much of his last few years altering documents he wrote in order to protect his reputation after his death. During this time, he also spoke out against excessive states' rights out of the belief that it could eventually disrupt the Union; he especially objected to John C. Calhoun's use of Madison's own Virginia Resolution during the Nullification Crisis of 1832. He also succeeded Jefferson as president of the University of Virginia, and would remain so until his death. He was the last Founding Father to die.
Many things have been named after Madison, including counties, colleges, towns, ships, the capital of Wisconsin, and Madison Square Garden in New York City. His wife Dolley, a famous hostess, was also used to name several things, such as the brand of ice cream. Urban Legend holds it that she personally rescued the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington while the British were marching into Washington, DC. In reality, the physical removal of the painting was done by the Madisons’ slaves, though she does deserve credit for organizing the rescue.
Madison is also well-known for being the shortest president at 5 feet 4 inches (163 centimeters, and significantly below the average adult male height). He was also the lightest president, never weighing more than 100 pounds as an adult. It’s probably why he was exceedingly shy and wore black all the time. Despite his shyness and the way he looked, he was actually a lot funnier than Jefferson. He had a cousin of the same name who was a bishop. One of only two Presidents from Princeton University, in contrast to the cavalcade of Harvard and Yale alums who've had the job. Of the two, Madison is definitely the least controversial. George Will once did a lecture—partially available on YouTube—comparing and contrasting the two Princeton alums who became President. Madison used to be on the $5,000 dollar bill, but these have been discontinued since 1969.
James Madison in fiction:
- The school district in Roseanne was named after Madison.
- In Decades of Darkness, Madison is the President of the United States when New England rebels and becomes independent.
- In Hamilton, Madison, played by Okieriete Onaodowan, is one of the antagonists of the second act.
- Hark! A Vagrant: In "Founding Fathers (In a Mall)" James Madison gets startled by George Washington Suddenly Shouting in query of who the Burger King is.
- In the Futurama episode "All the President's Heads," the head of James Madison has an elbow fetish.
- In The Simpsons episode "Politically Inept, with Homer Simpson", James Madison appears in a dream to convince Homer not to support Ted Nugent's presidential campaign. Homer eventually learns the dream was a fake and "Madison" was just an actor impersonating him.
- In an episode of Robot Chicken, a trailer is shown for Happy Madison, a biopic starring Adam Sandler as James Madison in the same vein as his typical comedy films.