James Madison was born in Port Conway, Virginia on March 16, 1751 to James Madison Sr. and Nelly (née Conway) Madison. Though born into a wealthy family, Madison faced challenges as a youth such as stress-induced seizures and other health issues. In spite of these poor health conditions, he was extremely successful in his intellectual pursuits. Madison showed a great capacity for ancient philosophy, history, languages, and law and completed his studies at Princeton in two years, then went on to become the university’s first graduate student.
In 1774, Madison became involved in the Orange County Committee of Safety, a local Patriot militia group, before being elected as a delegate to the Virginia Convention in 1776. In 1778, he was appointed to the Virginia Council of State, which oversaw state governance during the Revolution. During this period, Madison formed strong and enduring ties with fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson.
At the age of 29, Madison was the youngest member of the 1780 Continental Congress, where he argued for a more centralized government before returning to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784. Unsatisfied with the Articles of Confederation, he led the way in calling for the Constitutional Convention of 1787, at which he presented the Virginia Plan, a precursor to the Constitution with its three branches of government, bicameral legislature, and independent judicial branch. Unsurprisingly, the “father of the Constitution” was one its biggest champions and encouraged ratification by publicly debating the antifederalists and anonymously authoring some of the most powerful Federalist Papers. In addition to his work on the original Constitution, he may be credited with compiling the Bill of Rights – Madison proposed 19 amendments from the plethora of suggestions received, of which 10 became our Bill of Rights.
Under the new constitutional government, Madison served in the House of Representatives. He broke with Washington and Hamilton over financial and foreign policies, formed the Democratic-Republican Party with Jefferson, and served as Secretary of State during the Jefferson administration. Afterwards, Madison easily won the 1808 presidential election and served two terms. Much of his time in office was consumed with foreign affairs, namely the War of 1812. The war’s outcome, while generally considered a draw, nevertheless cemented America’s place as a world power. After retirement, Madison spent his final years editing his papers, including his notes from the Constitutional Convention. He died peacefully on June 28, 1836 at his estate of Montpelier.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing James Madison’s immense impact on American political thought and the structure of our constitutional government. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
Selected online resources on James Madison:
JMC Board Member James Ceaser on James Madison as a Founder
JMC board member James Ceaser has spoken extensively on Madison’s role as not only a founder, but the founder of American founding. In this video, Professor Ceaser sits down with fellow board member, Bill Kristol on Conversations with Bill Kristol:
Americans today refer regularly to our founders and our founding, honoring those who led the Revolution and created the Constitution. Yet did Americans at that time understand these figures to be founders? Was this idea, which we now take for granted, part of the political understanding of the day? Almost certainly not. In this talk at Texas Tech University, Professor Ceaser discusses how it took a bold step by James Madison to introduce the classical theme of the founder into American thought and ask Americans to see events of the time through the lens of founding. This simple yet powerful shift has changed how we understand our entire political heritage:
The National Archives has digitized its entire collection of the Madison Papers, making them available online. The Papers include young Madison’s commonplace book, numerous pieces of correspondence, and notes on the Constitutional Convention.
James Madison’s wife, Dolley Madison, was an intelligent, independent person in her own right. She was well-known for her political acumen and social skills that greatly aided her husband in his career. An example of Dolley’s quick-thinking occurred in August 1814 when the British were burning Washington D.C. – Dolley saved many important papers, and, most famously, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
The National Constitution Center convened a bipartisan national commission comprised of top constitutional scholars, leading thought leaders, and members of Congress. A key component arising from the commission was an essay series examining the various issues and challenges presented by the unique features of the Madisonian Constitution, and proposing solutions and ways to ensure the future of American democracy while preserving Madisonian principles. The essays feature top scholars with both conservative and liberal perspectives and include pieces by JMC faculty partners Colleen Sheehan and Greg Weiner.
The Library of Congress’s online exhibit, “Madison’s Treasures,” showcases some of Madison’s lesser-known works, including a list of objections to the Constitution (written to Thomas Jefferson in their private shorthand), a hand-drawn family tree, and “Memorial and Remonstrance,” a piece arguing for religious liberty.
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