June 28th, 2020


Remembering James Madison

On June 28, 1836 (184 years ago today) James Madison, Jr. the 4th President of the United States, died at his home Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. He was 85 years of age. Born on March 16, 1751, Madison is remembered as a great statesman, and a great political theorist. He is considered by many to be the "Father of the Constitution" because he was instrumental in the drafting of the United States Constitution and was the author of the Bill of Rights. He was a career politician for most of his adult life.

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.

Presidents in Their Youth: James Madison

James Madison Jr. descended from a family of plantation owners that had lived in Virginia's Piedmont district for over a century before his birth. Madison was born on March 16, 1751, (March 5, 1750 according to the Julian Calendar, which had been in use at the time of his birth) at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway, Virginia. His parents were James Madison Sr. and Nelly Conway Madison. His family had lived in Virginia since the mid-1600s. James Madison's grandmother was the sister of Zachary Taylor's father, making the two presidents second cousins.

Madison was the oldest of twelve children. He had seven brothers and four sisters, but only six of his siblings would live to adulthood. His father was a tobacco planter who grew up on a plantation called Mount Pleasant, which he had inherited from his father. The plantation was operated by approximately 100 enslaved persons, and was 5,000 acres in size, making Madison's father was the largest landowner in the Piedmont region. In those days land holdings was the measure of status. Madison's maternal grandfather was also a prominent planter and tobacco merchant. In the early 1760s, the Madison family moved into a newly built house, which they named Montpelier. It was where James Madison would breathe his last breath in 1836.

The family connections for the Madison family were significant. The clergyman who presided over his baptism was a relative. So was his namesake, Bishop James Madison, the President of the College of William and Mary. As a child, James Jr. was called Jemmy, to distinguish him from his father, James Sr. His father's influence as the largest landholder in the region and patriarch of the family, resulted in his holding the offices of Justice of the Peace, vestryman of the church, and commander of the county militia.

From age 11 to 16, Madison was tutored by Donald Robertson, a Scottish instructor who also tutored the children of a number of prominent planter families. Madison was taught mathematics, geography, and modern and classical languages. He was said to have excelled at Latin. When he turned 16, Madison returned to Montpelier, where he began a two-year course of study under the Reverend Thomas Martin, to prepare him for college. As a child he experienced a number of health problems, and this affected his choice of school. Most children of prominent Virginians at this time were sent to attend the College of William and Mary. But his father was worried that the lowland Williamsburg climate might be a home infectious disease of the day such as cholera or scarlet fever. Instead, Madison was sent to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1769. There he studied Latin, Greek, theology, the works of the Enlightenment scholars, oratory and debate.

At Princeton, Madison became a leading member of the American Whig Society. His closest friend was future Attorney General William Bradford. Madison was able to complete Princeton's three-year bachelor of arts degree in just two years, graduating in 1771. Now at a crossroads in his career, Madison considered entering into either the clergy or the legal profession. Instead, he remained at Princeton to study Hebrew and political philosophy under President John Witherspoon before returning home to Montpelier in early 1772. Witherspoon had a profound influence on Madison's ideas on philosophy and morality. This was said to be where the seeds of Madison's passion for liberty were planted.

After returning to Montpelier, Madison tutored his younger siblings. Probably as a result of Witherspoon's influence, Madison appeared to have made his choice among prospective careers. He began to study law books on his own in 1773. He asked his Princeton friend William Bradford, who was now studying law under Edward Shippen in Philadelphia, to send him a written plan on reading law books. But by 1783, though he had studied a lot of law books, Madison still had not joined the bar or practiced law. He never did.

In 1765, Great Britain had passed the Stamp Act, and the British-American colonies of North America began to demand proper representation and independence. King George III declined to grant the British-American colonies representation in Parliament or independence. The British cited the high cost of aiding the colonists in their fight of the French and Indian War. By the early 1770s the relationship between the British-American colonies and Britain deteriorated over the issue of British taxation, and the American Revolutionary War began in 1775. The American colonists split between two factions, the Loyalists to King George III, and the Patriots. Madison joined the latter, and insisted that those in his county take a loyalty oath to their cause. Madison argued that Parliament had exceeded its authority by imposing taxation on the British-American colonies, without giving them representation in Parliament. He also favored de-establishing the Anglican Church in Virginia, arguing that an established religion was detrimental because it encouraged closed-mindedness and unquestioning obedience to the authority of the state.

In 1774, Madison, took a seat on the local Committee of Safety, a pro-revolution group that oversaw the local Patriot militia. In October 1775, he was commissioned as the colonel of the Orange County militia, serving as his father's second-in-command. This lasted until he was elected as a delegate to the Fifth Virginia Convention, which was charged with producing Virginia's first constitution. Madison was frequently in poor health, and he never saw battle in the Revolutionary War. But he was recognized for his service to his state and to his country as a wartime leader.

At the Virginia constitutional convention of 1776, Madison was able to convince delegates to alter the Virginia Declaration of Rights to provide for "equal entitlement," rather than mere "tolerance," in the exercise of religion. With the passage of the Virginia constitution, Madison was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and he was subsequently elected to the Virginia governor's Council of State. In that role, he worked closely with Governor Thomas Jefferson.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published formally declaring 13 American states an independent nation, no longer under the Crown or British rule. Madison served on the Council of State from 1777 to 1779, when he was elected to the Second Continental Congress, the governing body of the United States. The Continental Congress faced many difficult challenges: war against Great Britain, the world's leading military power, runaway inflation, lack of revenue to finance the war, and lack of cooperation between the different levels of government. Madison soon gained expertise on financial issues, as well as a master of parliamentary procedure. He was frustrated by the failure of the states to supply needed requisitions, and he proposed to amend the Articles of Confederation to grant Congress the power to independently raise revenue through tariffs on foreign imports. General George Washington, Congressman Alexander Hamilton, and many other leading figures favored the amendment, it was defeated because it failed to win the ratification of all thirteen states.

Madison was an ardent supporter of a close alliance between the United States and France, and, as an advocate of westward expansion. He strongly believed that the United States had the right to navigation on the Mississippi River and control of all lands east of it. After serving Congress from 1780 to 1783, Madison won election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784.