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September 5th, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: James Madison

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you grade James Madison in his performance as President? Madison's presidency is remembered for his declared war on Great Britain in the War of 1812. The war didn't begin well. The city of Washington was burned and an invasion of Canada failed, but with naval victory and victory in later battles, the war resulted in a draw. He approved a national bank, a taxation system based on tariffs, and a standing professional military and he continued Jefferson's policy of assimilation of Native Americans. To give him your grade, go to this link.

But first, let's consider his legacy. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, was so concerned about his legacy and about how history would remember him, that late in life he took to making changes in his correspondence to present himself in a more favorable light. Madison is considered to be a great thinker, though not necessarily a great President.

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Madison has become known as the "Father of the Constitution" for his central role in drafting the United States Constitution and the United States Bill of Rights and in leading the fight for their passage. He also co-wrote The Federalist Papers, and, along with Thomas Jefferson, founded the Democratic-Republican Party. He also served as the fifth United States Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809, the entirety of Jefferson's term.

Madison was born into a prominent Virginia planting family. He served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Continental Congress during and after the American Revolutionary War. Over the course of his career, Madison would straddle the political fence between Federalists and Republicans. On the one hand, he became dissatisfied with the weak national government established by the Articles of Confederation and helped organize the Constitutional Convention, which produced a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. He was one of the most influential individuals at the convention. Madison became one of the leaders in the movement to ratify the Constitution, and he joined with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing The Federalist Papers, a series of pro-ratification essay, now considered to be one of the most influential works of political science in American history.

After the ratification of the Constitution, Madison was an important leader in the United States House of Representatives. He served as a close adviser to President George Washington. He was the main force behind the ratification of the United States Bill of Rights, and he was pleased that this document contained guarantees of personal freedoms and rights within the Constitution.

Madison broke with the Federalists during the early 1790s, when he opposed the economic program and accompanying centralization of power favored by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. While he had once firmly supported the notion of a strong central government, he now aligned with Thomas Jefferson, and the two of them organized the Democratic-Republican Party, which was one of the nation's first major political parties in the initial two-party system. After Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, Madison served as Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809. In that position, he supervised the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.

Madison succeeded Jefferson with a victory in the 1808 presidential election. When diplomatic protests and a trade embargo failed to end British attacks against American shipping, Madison led the United States into the War of 1812, a war which the nation was unprepared for. The war was an administrative disaster and ended inconclusively. However thanks to a series of last minute victories, many Americans saw it as a successful "second war of independence" against Britain, even though the was settled by returning to the pre-war status quo.

Madison changed his beliefs again as the war once again convinced Madison of the necessity of a stronger federal government. He presided over the creation of the Second Bank of the United States and the enactment of the protective Tariff of 1816. Madison retired from public office in 1817 and died in 1836.

James Madison is generally considered to be one of the most important Founding Fathers of the United States. His legacy has been best preserved not because he was a co-founder of a major political party, or even because he served as President of the United States. His legacy has largely been defined by his contributions to the Constitution. He was even called as the "Father of the Constitution" during his own life. His brilliance is especially seen in how he was able conceive of the modern ideal of an expanded, federal constitution that combined local self-government with national order. Madison's model in which the protection of individual liberty was key is perhaps the most influential American ideal in political science.

A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Madison as the twelfth best president. Those who rate Madison highly do so largely for his resolve to avoid expanding the president's power. However many historians have criticized Madison's tenure as president. He is seen by some as an incapable an weak President who mismanaged an unnecessary war. A 2006 poll of historians ranked Madison's failure to prevent the War of 1812 as the sixth-worst mistake made by a sitting president.

Today Madison's home of Montpelier has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The James Madison Memorial Building is a building of the United States Library of Congress and serves as the official memorial to Madison. In 1986, Congress created the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation as part of the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution. Several counties and communities have been named for Madison, including Madison County, Alabama and Madison, Wisconsin. Other things named for Madison include Madison Square, James Madison University, and the USS James Madison.

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Historian Garry Wills, who wrote the American Presidents Series biography of Madison, wrote of his subject, "Madison's claim on our admiration does not rest on a perfect consistency, any more than it rests on his presidency. He has other virtues. As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer. The finest part of Madison's performance as president was his concern for the preserving of the Constitution. No man could do everything for the country—not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any."

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