James Madison, Jr. was born at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway, Virginia on March 16, 1751, (March 5, 1751 on the Julian calendar which was then in use). His father was a tobacco planter and a slaveholder. he was small in stature, five feet, four inches in height and it is said that he never weighed more than 100 pounds, making him was the smallest president. During the American Revolutionary War, Madison served in the Virginia state legislature from 1776 to 1779, where he became a protégé of Thomas Jefferson.
Madison attended the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 where he wrote "the Virginia Plan" which became the blueprint for the constitution that was produced at the convention. Madison became one of the leaders in the movement to ratify it. He worked with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to produce the Federalist Papers in 1788. Circulated only in New York at the time, they would later be considered among the most important treatises in support of the Constitution. He was also a delegate to the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention, and was instrumental to the successful ratification effort in Virginia. During the drafting and ratification of the constitution, he favored a strong national government, though later he grew to favor stronger state governments, before finally settling between the two extremes.
In 1789, Madison became a leader in the new House of Representatives, drafting much of its legislation. He drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which led to his being called the "Father of the Bill of Rights". Madison worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government. Breaking with Hamilton and what became the Federalist Party in 1791, Madison and Thomas Jefferson organized what they called the Republican Party (later called the Democratic-Republican Party).
He served as Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809. In that capacity he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the nation's size. Madison was elected President in 1808, succeeding Jefferson. He presided over renewed prosperity for several years and after the failure of diplomatic protests and a trade embargo against Great Britain, he led the nation into the War of 1812. He was responding to end British encroachments on American rights, including impressment of its sailors and influence among Britain's Indian allies, whose resistance blocked United States settlement in the Midwest around the Great Lakes. Madison found the war to be a huge challenge. The nation did not have a strong army nor a strong financial system. When the war ended, he afterward supported a stronger national government and a strong military, as well as the national bank, all of which he had previously opposed.
Like most other Virginia statesmen of that era, Madison was a slaveholder who inherited his plantation known as Montpelier, and owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. Madison supported what was known as the "Three-Fifths Compromise", which allowed three-fifths of the enumerated population of slaves to be counted for representation.
When Madison left office in 1817, he retired to Montpelier. He was 65 years old and his wife Dolley was 49. Madison left the presidency a poorer man than when he entered, due to the steady financial collapse of his plantation, aided by the continued low price of tobacco and his stepson's mismanagement. In his later years, Madison became extremely concerned about his historic legacy. He took to modifying letters and other documents in his possession: changing days and dates, adding and deleting words and sentences, and doing other editing. For example, he edited a letter written to Jefferson criticizing the Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1826, after the death of Jefferson, Madison was appointed as the second Rector ("President") of the University of Virginia. He retained the position as college chancellor for ten years until his death in 1836. In 1829, at the age of 78, Madison was chosen as a representative to the constitutional convention in Richmond for the revising of the Virginia state constitution. It was his last appearance as a legislator. Between 1834 and 1835, Madison sold 25% of his slaves to make up for financial losses on his plantation.
In his latter years, even with his bad health, Madison wrote frequently on political subjects, including an essay against the appointment of chaplains for Congress and the armed forces. But Madison found himself ignored by the new political leaders. He died on June 28, and is buried in the Madison Family Cemetery at Montpelier.