||James Madison Jr. was the President of the United States.|
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|James Madison Jr.
of the United States
This timeline intermingles dates and events from genealogical, biographical, and historic perspectives.
Who is the “Father of the Constitution?”
George Washington? No, he’s the “Father of Our Country.”
Thomas Jefferson? No, he’s the “Father of the Declaration of Independence.”
Actually, the 4th President of the United States, James Madison, is considered to be the “Father of the Constitution.” He is also found at several turning points in the history of the new United States of America. He was certainly a Founding Father, dedicated to starting a new nation, but he was also so much more than a politician of his times.
As many Founding Fathers were, James Madison was born in Virginia. Born on March 16, 1751, he was the oldest of 12 children. His father, James Madison, Sr., was one of the largest tobacco planters in the state, raising his family on a large plantation, known as Mount Pleasant, in the Piedmont region. Slavery was the foundation of the economy of the times, and the Madisons owned several, but young James and his outlook on life would be affected by his experiences and education.
Being the son of a well-to-do family, his education was the best it could be. He attended a boarding school and excelled in Mathematics and Modern and Ancient Languages. At the age of 16, he returned to Mount Pleasant, now re-named Montpelier, and began a two-year course to prepare him for college. Instead of enrolling in the College of William and Mary in his home state, Madison decided to attend the College of New Jersey, which we know today as Princeton University.
An evangelical seminary known for debating various philosophies, the College of New Jersey gave Madison an introduction to “Republicanism,” a philosphy that would direct him the rest of his life. Republicanism was not a political philosophy but, rather, an ideology in which people lived in a “Republic.” Different than a Monarchy, as most governments of the time were found to be, the people directed the government, deciding how the government would be run by the simple process of voting. The will of the people, rather than the will of a single monarch, would determine the course of government, hopefully reducing war and turmoil while improving economic conditions for all the people.
While at college, Madison studied under Rev. John Witherspoon, who taught him to respect all religions. He excelled at languages, rhetoric, philosophy, and debate. Like many of the Founding Fathers, Madison became a Deist, believing in a single creator of the universe, but not holding to any particular theology.
Finishing at Princeton and returning to Montpelier in 1772, Madison was still a small man, standing 5’-4” and weighing about 100 pounds. As a result of his physical stature, he was underestimated several times throughout his life.
Entry Into Public Service
Madison’s first foray into public service was as a Colonel in the Orange County, Virginia Militia around 1774. In 1776, when Virginia held its first convention to discuss ongoing problems with England, he met Thomas Jefferson, and they became life-long friends. Madison, Jefferson, and George Mason were selected to write the Virginia Constitution. He continued to work closely with Jefferson while a member of the Virginia Legislature, 1776-1779. The two of them would write the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty in 1786, saying no person would be required to join a particular religion.
During the Revolutionary War, Madison would join the Continental Congress, becoming its youngest member. At the time, Virginia held land in what would become Ohio and areas further west and, in 1783, the land was designated the Northwest Territory. Continuing to serve as a delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates after the Revolution, Madison began to believe in Federalism, an ideology based on a strong central government also favored by George Washington and John Adams.
The Colonies were governed by the weak Articles of Confederation after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. As citizens returned to their pre-war lives, the debate began regarding a strong government versus states’ rights, where the states held the majority of the power. The problem remained, however, what the best way to pay for the government and protection they demanded might be. It was clear the Articles of Confederation were not sufficient, not being able to tax citizens or pay off the war debt. There was a fear the new nation would fail before it had a chance to succeed.
Writing A Constitution
Madison convinced George Washington it was time for a real Constitution, and states began appointing representatives to attend a Constitutional Convention beginning in Philadelphia in 1783. Madison joined 54 other delegates at the Convention. Having spent several months researching various philosophies of government, Madison proposed the Virginia Plan, putting forth the idea of a Republic again, but one in which the states and federal government could work together, rather than one dominating the other.
Important components of the Virginia Plan included a dual legislature, as well as a government with three branches - executive, legislative and judicial. Other changes were discussed and adopted, but the Virginia Plan remained the basic outline of the new government. That’s why James Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”
The final draft of a Constitution was signed in 1787, and sent to the states for individual ratification. Madison joined Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers, a series of articles explaining various aspects of the new Constitution and urging their passage. Ratification took place in 1788, and the First U.S. Congress met and elected George Washington the first President in 1789.
The rights of individual citizens missing from the Constitution prompted the need for a Bill of Rights. Madison undertook the task of writing the first amendments to the Constitution, although he believed it already limited government control in favor of the populace. Hundreds of amendments became 19, then 12, and then Madison settled on 10 in the end. He then served in the first House of Representatives.
At the time, two political parties existed - Federalist and Republican (later Democrat-Republicans). Washington, Adams and others still pushed for a stronger federal government (Federalists), while Madison and Jefferson pushed for governmental limits and local control by the states. This was a turn-around from strong Federalist leanings by Madison previously, but after he became President, he began favoring a strong central government again as a way of dealing with national debt and the need for a central bank, and an army and navy.
Still serving in Congress, Madison then served as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, 1801-1809. Two issues dominated the times - the Louisiana Purchase and the shipping violations and blockades by the French and English that would eventually lead to the War of 1812.
Madison was elected 4th President of the United States in 1808. France and England were still at war, and creating problems blockading U.S. ports and impressing American sailors into the British Navy. Domestically, the Federalist Party was almost non-existent, and Madison was asking Congress in 1810 for funding to expand the Army and Navy in preparation for war. A “War Hawk” Congress led by John C. Calhoun (South Carolina) and Henry Clay (Kentucky) gave permission to declare war against the British in 1812.
Indians supported by the British began a Northeast uprising in 1813 and, in 1814, the British invaded Washington, D.C. and burned the city, including the White House. The national anthem was written during a naval attack on Ft. McHenry in Charleston Harbor, and Gen. Andrew Jackson turned back invaders in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. The War of 1812 officially ended in 1815.
The “Era of Good Feelings” took over the U.S. after the war ended. Relations with the Indians were reasonably good as many moved from their ancestral homes to farms, people were beginning to move West into new territories, and most Americans felt good about the country. Slavery remained an issue to be dealt with at another time, and some of the Indians were being forced off their lands and not being given any rights.
In 1817, at the age of 65, Madison and his wife, Dolley, retired to Montpelier, a 4,000-acre tobacco plantation run by over 100 slaves. Madison was 43 years old when he married 26-year-old Dolley, a widow. She lost her husband, in-laws and a young son to Yellow Fever, but had another son, John Todd, who was adopted by Madison. She and Madison had no children of their own.
Madison enjoyed his retirement years writing and corresponding with his friends, and Dolley continued to welcome streams of guests to their home. Madison was as prominent as an ex-President in his times as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, having made many prominent and influential friends during their years of public service. Until his death in 1836, Madison continued to provide service on boards, commissions and societies related to his wide range of interests.
Typically, an ex-President left the White House poorer than when he went in, and Madison was no exception. Money, or the lack of it, became so severe toward the end of the 1820’s that Madison sold his notes related to the Constitutional Convention on the condition the funds earned would go toward his estate and take care of Dolley. He also sold 25% of his slaves to help offset expenses at the plantation, as well. Although feeble, he accepted an appointment to a group to revise the Virginia State Constitution in 1829.
Madison died at his beloved Montpelier on June 28, 1836, the last of the Founding Fathers. Despite his contributions and notoriety, he was ignored by up and coming politicians of the day. He was buried in the family cemetery on the plantation.
Dolley sold the mansion in 1842 and, finally, the land in 1844. Her son, John, and a nephew inherited half of the plantation’s slaves. Dolley then returned to Washington, D.C., where she died in 1849.
James Madison, the fourth President of the United States (1809-1817), was born in 1751.
He grew up in Orange County, Virginia and attended Princeton (known at the time as The College of New Jersey).
Madison was Princeton University’s first graduate student.
Madison was a student of history and government, and well versed in law. A distinct honor, Madison took part in the framing of the Virginia Constitution (1776), and later served in the Continental Congress and the Virginia Assembly.
Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he helped ratify the Constitution through the writing of the "Federalist Papers" essays. He also helped form the Bill of Rights and Republican Party (known as the Jeffersonian Party).
March 16, 1751
1780 – 1783
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Categories: Montpelier Estate National Historic Site, Montpelier Station, Orange County, Virginia | US Presidents | American Founding Fathers | US Secretaries of State | US Representatives from Virginia | Continental Congress | Signers of the United States Constitution | Namesakes US Counties