James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, as a British subject in the colony of Virginia. When Madison was 18 years old, he left his family’s plantation to study at what is now Princeton University in New Jersey. After he graduated from college, he became involved in the colonies’ bid for independence from Great Britain. He would go on to devote most of his early adulthood to creating the government for a new nation: the United States.
FATHER OF THE CONSTITUTION
During and immediately after the Revolutionary War—when the colonies fought for their independence from Great Britain—Madison served in the Virginia legislature, or government. In 1787, four years after the war ended, Madison was sent to represent his state at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There, he and other delegates spent 86 days creating the structure of the U.S. government, including its Congress, presidency, and court system. His detailed notes remain a valuable record of the entire event.
Madison and two other men, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote a series of anonymous articles that explained the kind of government they were proposing. These articles have come to be known as the Federalist Papers, and they helped convince all of the states to ratify, or accept, the new Constitution. Madison also helped secure passage of the Bill of Rights. This companion document to the Constitution sets down the basic civil liberties, or rights, of the nation’s citizens and states, including freedom of speech.
Because Madison played such a central role in these events, he became known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison and George Washington are the only signers of the Constitution who later became presidents.
PATH TO THE PRESIDENCY
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson asked Madison to join his new presidential administration as secretary of state. At the end of his two terms as president, Jefferson supported Madison as the next president. Madison easily defeated his opponent, Charles Pinckney, and became the fourth president of the United States in 1809.
Madison’s wife, Dolley—who he married in 1794—was so popular that she’s credited with helping him win. Pinckney himself said he “might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”
THE WAR OF 1812
During Madison’s first term as president, the United States went to war with Great Britain. Americans were frustrated because the British were stopping U.S. cargo ships bound for France, capturing their sailors and goods. If modern forms of communication had existed then, war might have been avoided. But unaware that the British had decided to stop these acts, the U.S. government declared war against Great Britain.
During the War of 1812—which actually lasted until 1815—American forces were beaten regularly on land and at sea. The greatest humiliation occurred late in the war when the British entered Washington, D.C., and set fire to the White House and the U.S. Capitol. (First Lady Dolley Madison gained lasting fame by rescuing government documents and a famous portrait of George Washington just hours before the British raided the capital.) The final contest of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, was fought in January 1815, after a peace treaty had been signed in Europe but before the news reached North America.
Madison was elected to a second term as president before the War of 1812 ended. But during the war trade, between the United States and Europe had stopped, causing economic difficulties for the people of the young nation. Many blamed Madison for these problems. The New England states even threatened to withdraw from the new country. But once the Battle of New Orleans resulted in a victory for the United States, U.S. citizens were less upset by their country’s involvement in the war.
Madison was eventually praised after the war for having allowed others to criticize his wartime policies without fear of trial or imprisonment. He insisted it was important for the United States to be able to fight a war without limiting the constitutional rights of its citizens, including the right of free speech.
After eight years in the White House, the Madisons settled in Montpelier, Virginia. Madison spent much of his time helping Jefferson create the University of Virginia. He also spoke with many of his peers about how to end slavery—even though he owned slaves himself.
When Madison was on his deathbed in late June of 1836, doctors offered to try to keep him alive long enough to die on the Fourth of July like fellow presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Madison refused, and passed away on June 28, 1836, six days shy of the nation’s 60th Independence Day celebration.
• The smallest president, Madison was just 5 feet 4 inches tall, and weighed only a hundred pounds.
• While enjoying a Sunday drive, Madison was once arrested with Thomas Jefferson because carriage riding was illegal on Sundays.
• Madison wrote George Washington’s first speech as president of the United States.