James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth president of the United States, was one of the principal founders of America's republican form of government.
James Madison lived all his life in the county of Orange, Va., on a 5,000-acre plantation that produced tobacco and grains and was worked by perhaps 100 slaves. Though Madison abhorred slavery and had no use for the aristocratic airs of Virginia society, he remained a Virginia planter, working within the traditional political system of family-based power and accepting the responsibility this entailed. Like his neighbors and friends Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, Madison worked creatively if not always consistently to make republican government a reality amid a social system and a slave economy often deeply at odds with principles of self-government and individual fulfillment.
After learning the fundamentals at home, Madison went to preparatory school and then to the College of New Jersey at Princeton. The bookish boy got a thorough classical education as he learned Latin and Greek. Since all of his teachers were clergymen, he was also continually exposed to Christian thought and precepts. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1771 and remained for six months studying under President John Witherspoon, whose intellectual independence, Scottish practicality, and moral earnestness profoundly influenced him. Madison also had gained a wide acquaintance with the new thought of the 18th century and admired John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Voltaire, and others who fashioned the Enlightenment world view, which became his own.
From his first consciousness of public affairs Madison opposed British colonial measures. He served on the Orange County Committee of Safety from 1774, and two years later he was elected to the Virginia convention that resolved for independence and drafted a new state constitution. His special contribution was in strengthening the clause on religious freedom to proclaim "liberty of conscience for all"—an exceptionally liberal view. Elected to the governor's council in 1777, he lived in Williamsburg for two years, dealing with the routine problems of the Revolutionary War. He also began a lifelong friendship with Governor Thomas Jefferson.
Madison's skill led to his 1780 election to the Continental Congress, where he served for nearly four years. During the first year he became one of the leaders of the so-called nationalist group, which saw fulfillment of the Revolution possible only under a strong central government. Madison thus supported the French alliance and Benjamin Franklin's policies in Europe. He also worked persistently to strengthen the powers of Congress. By the end of his service in 1783, after ratification of the peace treaty and demobilization of the army, Madison was among the half dozen leading promoters of stronger national government. He had also earned a reputation as an exceedingly well-informed and effective debater and legislator.
After three years in Virginia helping enact Jefferson's bill for religious freedom and other reform measures, Madison worked toward the Constitutional Convention, which gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787. There, Madison spent the most fruitful months of his life. He advocated the Virginia plan for giving real power to the national government, guided George Washington and other Virginia delegates to support this plan, worked with James Wilson and other nationalists, accepted compromises, and—altogether—became the most constructive member of the convention.
Madison's basic theoretical contribution was his argument that an enlarged, strengthened national government, far from being the path to despotism its opponents feared, was in fact the surest way to protect freedom and expand the principle of self-government. His concept of "factions" in a large republic counteracting each other, built into a constitution of checks and balances, became the vital, operative principle of the American government. In addition to taking part in the debates, Madison took notes on them; published posthumously, these afford the only full record of the convention.
Madison shared leadership in the ratification struggle with Alexander Hamilton. He formulated strategy for the supporters of the Constitution (Federalists), wrote portions of the Federalist Papers, and engaged Patrick Henry in dramatic and finally successful debate at the Virginia ratifying convention (June 1788). Then, as Washington's closest adviser and as a member of the first Federal House of Representatives, Madison led in establishing the new government. He drafted Washington's inaugural address and helped the President make the precedent-setting appointments of his first term.
In Congress, Madison proposed new revenue laws, ensured the President's control over the executive branch, and proposed the Bill of Rights. From the Annapolis Convention in 1786, when he had assumed leadership of the movement for a new constitution, through the end of the first session of Congress (October 1789), Madison was the guiding, creative force in establishing the new, republican government.
However, Hamilton's financial program, presented in January 1790, and Madison's quick opposition to it marked the beginning of Madison's coleadership, with Jefferson, of what became the Democratic-Republican party. Madison opposed the privileged position Hamilton accorded to commerce and wealth, especially when it became apparent that this power could awe and sometimes control the organs of government.
Madison and Jefferson saw republican government as resting on the virtues of the people, sustained by the self-reliance of an agricultural economy and the benefits of public education, with government itself remaining "mild" and responsive to grass-roots impulses. This attitude became the foundation of their political party, which was fundamentally at odds with Hamilton's centralized concept of government, requiring strong leadership.
As Madison and Jefferson organized opposition to Hamilton, they seized on widespread public sympathy for France's expansive, revolutionary exploits to promote republican sentiment in the United States. The Federalists, on the other hand, cherished America's renewed commercial bonds with Britain and feared disruptive, entangling involvement with France. Madison opposed Jay's Treaty, feeling that it would align the United States with England in a way that was dependent and betrayed republican principles. Thus, the final ratification of Jay's Treaty (April 1796), over Madison's bitter opposition, marked his declining influence in Congress. A year later he retired to Virginia.
Madison viewed with alarm the bellicose attitude toward France of John Adams's administration. He felt that the "XYZ" hysteria, resulting in the Alien and Sedition Acts, severely threatened free government. With Jefferson, he executed the protest against these acts embodied in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. Madison's drafts of the milder Virginia Resolutions and the Report of 1800 defending them are his most complete expression of the rights of the states under the Constitution. He did not, however, advocate either nullification or secession, as some later claimed. The political frustrations of the years 1793-1800 were relieved by Madison's happy marriage in 1794 to the vivacious widow Dolley (or Dolly) Payne Todd, whose name became a symbol for effusive hospitality in Washington social life.
Madison worked hard to secure Jefferson's election as president in 1800 and was appointed secretary of state. With the President and the new secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, he made up the Republican triumvirate that guided the nation for eight years. Madison skillfully took advantage of Napoleon's misfortune in the West Indies to purchase Louisiana in 1803 and supported suppression of the Barbary pirates by American naval squadrons (1803-1805). The renewed war between France and Britain, however, became a major crisis, as both powers inflicted heavy damage on American shipping. Britain also engaged in the outrageous impressment of American sailors. Finding appeals to international law useless, and lacking power to protect American trade, Madison promoted the 1807 embargo, which barred American ships from the high seas. However, an unexpected capacity by the belligerents to replace American trade, and substantial smuggling and other evasions by Americans, prevented the embargo from having real force. Madison therefore accepted its repeal at the end of Jefferson's administration.
Elected president in 1808, Madison continued his struggle to find peace with honor amid world war. Republican doctrine, which he shared in part, precluded a heavy military buildup, so Madison's administration lurched from one ineffective commercial policy to another. At the same time, interparty squabbling, Cabinet shuffles, and powerful opposition in Congress undermined his authority. Finally, in November 1811, receiving only insults and deceit from Europe and most heavily injured by Britain, Madison asked Congress for war. "War Hawks," led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, spurred Congress to some inadequate defense measures, and, as final peace attempts failed, war with England was declared in June 1812. Bitter, active opposition to the war by virtually all New England preachers and politicians (near treasonable in Madison's eyes) severely hindered the war effort and added to the President's difficulties. He nonetheless was reelected easily in 1812.
Madison hoped that American zeal and the vulnerability of Canada would lead to a swift victory. However, the surrender of one American army at Detroit, the defeat of another on the Niagara frontier, and the disgraceful retreat of yet another before Montreal blasted these hopes. Then victories at sea, and the 1813 defeat of the British by Commodore O. H. Perry on Lake Erie and by Gen. W. H. Harrison on the Thames battlefield, buoyed American hopes. Yet the chaos in American finance, Napoleon's debacles in Europe, and another fruitless military campaign in New York State left Madison disheartened. His enemies gloated over his nearly fatal illness in June 1813. New England threatened secession, and the republican government seemed likely to fail the test of survival in war.
The summer of 1814 brought to the American battlefields thousands of battle-hardened British troops. They fought vastly improved American armies to a standstill on the Niagara frontier and appeared in Chesapeake Bay intent on capturing Washington. Madison unwisely entrusted defense of the city to a sulking secretary of war, John Armstrong, and to an inept general, William H. Winder. A small but well-disciplined British force defeated the disorganized Americans at Bladensburg as Madison watched from a nearby hillside. His humiliation was complete when he saw flames of the burning Capitol and White House while fleeing across the Potomac River. However, after he returned to Washington 3 days later, he was soon cheered by news of the British defeat in Baltimore Harbor. News also arrived that two American forces had driven back a powerful British force coming down Lake Champlain.
Thus, with Armstrong dismissed and a new secretary of the Treasury, Alexander J. Dallas, restoring American credit, Madison felt that his peace commission in Ghent could demand decent terms from Britain. On Christmas Eve, 1814, a peace treaty was signed restoring the prewar boundaries and ensuring American national self-respect. Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans achieved on the battlefield what the treaty makers recognized at Ghent: Britain had lost any remaining hope of dominating its former colonies or blocking United States expansion into the Mississippi Valley.
In his last two years as president, Madison urged a sweeping program of internal development. Madison's program, though only partially enacted by Congress, showed that republican principles were not incompatible with positive action by the Federal government. He retired from office in March 1817, enjoying a popularity unimaginable a few years earlier.
In happy retirement at Montpelier, Madison practiced scientific agriculture, helped Jefferson found the University of Virginia, advised Monroe on foreign policy, arranged his papers for posthumous publication, and maintained wide correspondence. He returned officially to public life only to take part in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829. However, informally, he wrote influentially in support of a mildly protective tariff and the national bank, among other issues. Most important, he lent intellectual leadership and vast prestige to the fight against nullification, which in Madison's eyes betrayed the benefits of the union for which he had fought all his life. But his health slowly declined, forcing him more and more to be a silent observer. By the time of his death on June 28, 1836, he was the last of the great founders of the American Republic.
Madison's writings are collected in W.T. Hutchinson and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date, 1962-1969). The standard biography is Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols., 1941-1961); a one volume abridgment of this is The Fourth President: The Life of James Madison (1970). Another account is Ralph Ketcham, James Madison (1971). Adrienne Koch, Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration (1950), discusses Madison's views on selected topics. On the elections of 1808 and 1812 see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections, vol. 1 (1971).