James Madison proved to be one of the most productive
of all the Founding Fathers, and stands tall in the
annals of American history. While many may argue what
Madison's greatest contribution to history was, few
dispute the fact that this was a man who lived his life
with a strong sense of duty and honor -- traits that
helped mark Madison's career of public service with
both tremendous success and longevity.
Madison was born March 16, 1751, the first of ten children
born to a farming family in Orange County, Virginia.
A sickly child, Madison grew up on the family estate,
Montpelier, which happened to be only thirty miles from
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate. Despite being
regularly infirmed, Madison proved an excellent student
and entered the College of New Jersey (now known as
Princeton) in 1769. Madison graduated in 1771 and then
continued with postgraduate study while considering
a career in the ministry. Upon return to the family
estate, Madison was uncertain about his profession,
sickly, and depressed.
Madison soon found his calling in public service and
was elected to his first public office, the Orange County
Committee of Safety, in December, 1774. Madison was
then elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention
in April, 1776. In October 1776, Madison entered the
Virginia House of Delegates established by the new constitution.
Despite failing to win re-election to the House, Madison
remained a promising young leader. Thus the House elected
Madison to serve on the Virginia Council of State. Madison
assumed his position in January 1778 and served under
governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. It was
during this time that Jefferson and Madison would form
the tight friendship that lasted until Jefferson's death
on July 4, 1826.
Madison began his rise to national prominence in December
1779 when he was elected to represent Virginia in the
Continental Congress for a three-year term. When Madison
began his term in March 1780 he already faced unsettling
political realities. The Articles of Confederation had
been adopted in 1777 and took effect in 1781, but Madison
realized that these articles allowed the states too
much freedom in executing plans decided upon by Congress.
It was during his stint in the Continental Congress
that Madison first displayed his flair for foreign policy.
Madison served as strong supporter of Benjamin Franklin
and the French alliance -an alliance that proved critical
in winning independence- that Franklin fostered. Madison
also drafted the 1780 letter that John Jay presented
to Spain justifying American claims regarding free navigation
of the Mississippi. This proved a key factor in America's
Realizing that America's future lay west of the Allegheny
range, Madison was a strong supporter of Virginia's
cession of its western claims. Many people forget that
early in American history Virginia claimed lands running
all the way to the Mississippi which included the Kentucky
territory, and the Northwest Territory. Madison, along
with George Mason and Joseph ones, formed the plan that
allowed for Virginia to cede these lands to the new
nation and allow for the orderly sale of land to pioneers.
From 1784 to 1786 Madison once again served in the
House of Delegates. Despite serving such a short term,
Madison proved to be remarkably productive and progressive.
It was during this period that he wrote his famous,
Memorial and Remonstrance arguing against Patrick Henry's
bill that would have imposed a tax to support teachers
of the "Christian Religion." Henry's bill
was defeated. While not successful, some of Madison's
other proposals during this period were very progressive.
For example, Madison sought to amend the Virginia constitution
to establish a public school system and to provide for
the gradual abolition of slavery.
Madison once again returned to national service by
serving as a member of the Virginia delegation to the
Constitutional Convention. In fact, Madison played a
key role in making Virginia's delegation a powerful
political force by successfully lobbying George Washington
to become a delegate. With, Washington, the hero of
the Revolution, on board Madison rightly believed that
the convention would succeed.
The Virginia delegates arrived early to the convention
and conferred amongst themselves and formed the Virginia
Plan that was to set the agenda for the debates at the
Convention. Madison is thought to have been the predominant
force in shaping the Virginia Plan. During the convention
Madison distinguished himself during debate and earned
the reputation as being the best informed of all the
delegates. Overall the convention proved to be a success
for Madison and his fellow Federalists as the new Constitution
contained most of the provisions they had sought.
With the battle for a new constitution only half-won
Madison focused his energy on ratification. In the Virginia
convention Madison advocated for ratification against
the likes of George Mason and Patrick Henry. Besides
Virginia, Madison also realized that New York stood
a must win state for the Federalists and their push
for ratification. Thus Madison gladly contributed to
Alexander Hamilton's series of essays known as the Federalist
Papers. Today it is Madison's contributions to the Federalists
Papers that are the best-known and most quoted.
Madison was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
It was during this time that he served as the primary
author of the first twelve proposed amendments to the
new Constitution. Of these, ten were adopted rather
quickly and are now known as the Bill of Rights. This
capped a five-year span of political creativity that
cemented Madison's place as an icon of American history.
For it was during this time that Madison contributed
heavily to the Constitution, the Federalist Papers,
and the Bill of Rights.
Besides authoring the Bill of Rights in the House,
Madison served as President Washington's floor leader.
It was during this time that Madison found himself opposed
to his friend and fellow Federalist, Alexander Hamilton,
over Hamilton's economic plans, especially Hamilton's
call to form the Bank of the United States. When Washington
sided with Hamilton, Madison left the Federalists and
allied himself with Thomas Jefferson and formed the
In 1797, Madison retired from the House and returned
to Montpelier with his wife Dolley. However, this retirement
was not to last too long. In 1801, Madison accepted
an offer from Thomas Jefferson to serve as Secretary
of State. As Secretary of State, Madison is best remembered
for two things. First, he was sued by William Marbury
when Madison refused to deliver Marbury a judicial commission
that had been awarded to him. Thus, Marbury v. Madison
became the first time the Supreme Court exercised judicial
review over another branch of the federal government.
Madison also helped arrange for the Louisiana Purchase,
which nearly doubled the size of the U.S. and gave Madison
his long sought-after goal of free passage of the Mississippi.
In 1809, Madison became the fourth president of the
United States. As president, Madison oversaw an important
transition of the American psyche. When Madison became
president most Americans were divided into two camps;
those who supported the Constitution and a strong union,
and those who wanted to return to a looser confederation
of states. The War of 1812 changed all of this. After
the British torched the White House and America once
again won her independence Americans became committed
to a strong union. Thus, Madison's commitment to winning
the war, a war he was initially loathe to engage, formed
a national sense of patriotism that would not be seriously
tested again until the Civil War.
After serving two terms as President, Madison entered
into a long retirement. He became America's elder statesman
and his advice on matters both domestic and foreign
was sought by the leaders of the day. Despite his sickly
nature he managed to outlive many of his peers and was
the last-living signer of the Constitution. Madison's
commitment to western expansion and a free Mississippi
led to a surge of western emigration to the more fertile
lands of the Northwest Territories. Ironically, this
decreased the value of Madison's lands and crops and
Madison saw his wealth erode towards the end of his
life. Madison was eighty-five years old when he died
on June 28, 1836. After his death his famous Advice
to My Country was opened. It read,
The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my
convictions is, THAT THE UNION OF THE STATES BE CHERISHED