James Madison

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.
James Madison

James Madison (March 5, 1751 [OS] – June 28, 1836 [NS]), an American politician, political theorist, Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, and fourth President of the United States of America, was one of the most influential Founding Fathers of the United States. Considered the "Father of the Constitution," Madison played a bigger role in designing the 1787 document than anyone else. In 1788, he wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers, still considered the most influential commentary in support of ratifying the Constitution. As a leader in the first Congresses, he drafted many basic laws and was responsible for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and thus is also known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights."[1] As a political theorist, Madison's most distinctive belief was that the new republic needed checks and balances to limit the powers of special interests, which Madison called factions.[2] He believed very strongly that the new nation should fight against aristocracy and corruption (especially of British origin), and was deeply committed to creating mechanisms that would ensure Republicanism in the United States.[3]

As leader in the House of Representatives, Madison worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government. Breaking with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1791, Madison and Thomas Jefferson organized what they called the Republican Party (and historians call the Democratic Republican Party).[4] The new party opposed Hamilton's financial and foreign policies, especially the national bank and the Jay Treaty. In 1798 to protest the Alien and Sedition Laws Madison secretly coauthored, along with Thomas Jefferson, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions that called for states to block federal laws.

As Jefferson's Secretary of State (1801-1809), Madison supervised the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the United States' physical size, and sponsored the ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807. As president (1809-1817), he led the United States into the War of 1812 against Great Britain in order to protect America's economic rights. That conflict began poorly as Americans suffered defeat after defeat by smaller forces, but ended on a high note in 1815, after which a new spirit of nationalism swept the country. During and after the war, Madison reversed many of the positions he had held previously. By 1815, he supported the creation of the second National Bank, a strong military, and a high tariff to protect the new factories that had opened during the war.

Personal life

James was the oldest of James Madison, Sr., and Nelly Conway's twelve children. His father, a vestryman, a justice of the peace, and Orange County's leading planter, owned 4,000 acres and about 100 slaves. James attended a local academy and was home-schooled, and went off to Princeton (College of New Jersey) in 1769. Although small, frail and sickly, he was a brilliant student who finished the three year course in two years and stayed on as Princeton's first graduate student. Studying under erudite president John Witherspoon, Madison absorbed the classics, and the main books in Enlightenment thought.

Dolley Madison

On September 14, 1794, Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, who cut as attractive and vivacious a figure as he did a sickly and anti-social one. Dolley is largely credited with inventing the role of First Lady as political ally and adviser to the president. They had no children.

Early political career

Madison served in the Virginia state legislature (1776-79) and became known as a protégé of Jefferson, attaining prominence in state politics; he helped draft the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It disestablished the Church of England, and disclaimed any power of state compulsion in religious matters (including Patrick Henry's plan to compel citizens to pay for a congregation of their own choice). He persuaded Virginia to give its claims to northwestern territories (consisting of most of modern-day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) to the Continental Congress.

As delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-83), Madison was considered a legislative workhorse and a master of parliamentary detail.

Father of the Constitution

Back in the Virginia state legislature, Madison welcomed peace, but soon grew alarmed at the fragility of the Articles of Confederation, and especially at the divisiveness of state governments. He strongly advocated a new constitution to overcome this divisiveness. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison's draft of the Virginia Plan and his revolutionary three-branch federal system became the basis for the final plan. Though Madison was a shy man, he was one of the more outspoken members of the Continental Congress. He envisioned a strong federal government that could overrule actions of the states when they were deemed mistaken. His notes were the most detailed record, but he refused to allow them to be published until after his death, leaving commentators and judges puzzled for 50 years over what the authors intended by various provisions.[5]

The Federalist Papers

To aid the push for ratification, Madison joined Alexander Hamilton (and also John Jay) to write The Federalist Papers, essays that immediately became the single most important interpretation of the Constitution, and remains so among jurists and scholars. Madison wrote paper #10, in which he explained how a large country with many different interests and factions could support republican values better than a small country dominated by a few special interests. His interpretation was largely ignored at the time, but in the 20th century became a central part of the pluralist interpretation of American politics.[6] Madison is often hailed as the "Father of the Constitution" for his role in its drafting and ratification. However, he protested the title as being "a credit to which I have no claim... [The Constitution] was not, like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, the offspring of a single brain. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands".[7]

Back in Virginia in 1788, Madison led the fight for ratification of the Constitution at the state's convention, oratorically dueling with Patrick Henry and others who tried to block the nationalistic document. The compromise reached was ratification together with the promise of a Bill of Rights that would be promptly added.

Author of Bill of Rights

Patrick Henry persuaded the Virginia legislature not to elect Madison as one of their first Senators; but Madison was directly elected to the new House of Representatives and became a dominant leader from the First Congress (1789-90) through the Fourth Congress (1797-98).

Initially Madison "adamantly maintained ... that a specific bill of rights remained unnecessary because the Constitution itself was a bill of rights."[8][9] But the anti-Federalists demanded a bill of rights in exchange for their support for ratification. Over two hundred proposals were submitted from throughout the country. Madison ignored the proposals for structural change of the government, and synthesized the others into a list of proposals for the protection of civil rights, such as free speech and "habeas corpus." Still ambiguous as late as 1788 in his support for a bill of rights,[10] in June 1789 Madison offered a package of twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution.[11] Madison eventually completed the reversal of his original opposition and "hounded his colleagues relentlessly" to accept his proposed amendments.[12]

By December 1791, the last ten of Madison's proposed amendments were ratified and became the Bill of Rights. It did not apply to the states until the passages of Fourteenth Amendment restricted the powers of the states. [13]

Opposition to Hamilton

The chief characteristic of Madison's time in Congress was his work to limit the power of the federal government. Wood (2006a) argued that Madison never wanted a national government that took an active role. He was horrified to discover that Hamilton and Washington were creating "a real modern European type of government with a bureaucracy, a standing army, and a powerful independent executive".[14]

When Britain and France went to war in 1793 the U.S. was caught in the middle. The 1778 treaty of alliance with France was still in effect, yet most of the new country's trade was with Britain. War with Britain seemed imminent in 1794, as the British seized hundreds of American ships that were trading with French colonies. Madison (in collaboration with Jefferson, who had returned to private life), believed that Britain was weak and America strong, and that a trade war with Britain, although it threatened retaliation by Britain, probably would succeed, and would allow Americans to assert their independence fully. Great Britain, he charged, "has bound us in commercial manacles, and very nearly defeated the object of our independence". As Varg explains, Madison had no fear of British recriminations for "her interests can be wounded almost mortally, while ours are invulnerable". The British West Indies, he maintained, could not live without American foodstuffs, but Americans could easily do without British manufactures. This same faith led him to the conclusion "that it is in our power, in a very short time, to supply all the tonnage necessary for our own commerce".[15] However, George Washington avoided a trade war and instead secured friendly trade relations with Britain through the Jay Treaty of 1794. Madison tried and failed to defeat the treaty, and it became a central issue of the emerging First Party System. All across the country, voters divided for and against the Treaty and other key issues, and thus became Federalists or Republicans.

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton built a nationwide network of supporters that became the Federalist Party, and promoted a strong central government with a national bank. Madison and Jefferson organized the "republican party", which became known as the Democratic-Republican Party, opposing these policies and the Federalists overall as centralizers and pro-British elitists who would undermine republican values. Madison led the unsuccessful attempt to block Hamilton's proposed Bank of the United States, arguing the new Constitution did not explicitly allow the federal government to form a bank.[16]

Most historians argue that Madison changed radically from a nationally-oriented ally of Hamilton in 1787-88 to a states-rights-oriented opponent of a strong national government by 1795. Madison started with opposing Hamilton[2]; by 1793 he was opposing Washington as well[3]. Madison usually lost and Hamilton usually achieved passage of his legislation, including the National Bank, funding of state and national debts, and support of the Jay Treaty. (Madison did block the proposal for high tariffs.) Madison's politics remained closely aligned with Jefferson's until the experience of a weak national government during the War of 1812 led Madison to appreciate the need for a stronger central government. He then began to support a national bank, a stronger navy and a standing army. However, other historians, led by Lance Banning and Gordon S. Wood, see more continuity in Madison's views and do not see a sharp break in 1792.

Secretary of State: 1801-1809

The main challenge which faced the Jefferson Administration was navigating between the two great empires of Britain and France, which were almost constantly at war. The first great triumph was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, made possible when Napoleon realized he could not defend that vast territory, and it was to France's advantage that Britain not seize it. Madison and President Jefferson reversed party policy to negotiate for the Purchase and then win Congressional approval. Madison tried to maintain neutrality between Britain and France, but at the same time insisted on the legal rights of the U.S. under international law. Neither London nor Paris showed much respect, however. Madison and Jefferson decided on an embargo to punish Britain and France, forbidding Americans to trade with any foreign nation. The embargo failed as foreign policy, and instead caused massive hardships in the northeastern seaboard, which depended on foreign trade.

Jefferson and Madison looked to the yeoman farmer for virtues that were founded on an agrarian economy like that of Virginia. They were determined to avoid war, because war meant large armies, permanent navies, military virtues in opposition to the yeoman, new taxes, and increases in executive power. The result they feared would weaken liberty and republicanism. But they were not isolationist. Instead Jefferson and Madison put their faith in the power of American commerce to achieve their objectives, though threats like the boycott. The boycotts failed and Madison took a poorly prepared nation to war in 1812. [17]

The party's Congressional Caucus chose presidential candidates, and Madison was selected in the election of 1808, easily defeating Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, riding on the coattails of Jefferson's popularity. Congress repealed the failed embargo as Madison took office.

Presidency 1809–1817

The Bank of the United States

The twenty year charter of the first Bank of the United States was scheduled to expire in 1811, the second year of Madison's administration. Madison failed to block the Bank in 1791, and waited for its charter to expire. Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin wanted the bank rechartered, and when the War of 1812 broke out discovered how difficult it was to finance the war without the Bank. Gallatin's successor as Treasury Secretary Alexander J. Dallas proposed a replacement in 1814, but Madison vetoed the bill in 1815. By late 1815, however, Madison asked Congress for a new bank, which had strong support from the younger, nationalistic republicans such as John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, as well as Federalist Daniel Webster. Madison signed it into law in 1816 and appointed William Jones as its president.

War of 1812

British insults continued, especially the practice of using the Royal Navy to intercept unarmed American merchant ships and "impress" (conscript) all sailors who might be British subjects for service in the British navy. Madison's protests were ignored, so he helped stir up public opinion in the west and south for war. One argument was that an American invasion of Canada would be easy and would provide a good bargaining chip. (Since 1940 American and Canadian historians have agreed that Americans did not desire to acquire Canadian lands, but to stop British aid to the hostile Indians.) Madison carefully prepared public opinion for what everyone at the time called "Mr. Madison's War", but much less time and money was spent building up the army, navy, forts, and state militias. After he convinced Congress to declare war, Madison was re-elected President over DeWitt Clinton but by a smaller margin than in 1808. Some historians in 2006 ranked Madison's failure to avoid war as the sixth worst presidential mistake ever made.[18]

American cartoon 1812, Madison gives King George a black eye and bloody nose, referring to an American naval victory in 1813.

In the ensuing War of 1812, the British, Canadians, and Indian allies won numerous victories, including the capture of Detroit after the American general there surrendered to a smaller force without a fight, and a British raid burned the White House. The British alliance with the western Indians proved a failure, as Tecumseh was killed and his Indian coalition destroyed at the Battle of the Thames. A standoff was reached on the Canadian border, as Americans controlled lake Erie and the British controlled Lake Ontario after a ship-building race. The Americans defeated the British fleet to throw back a major invasion of New York in 1814. At sea, the British blockaded the entire coastline, cutting off both foreign trade and domestic trade between ports. Economic hardship was severe in New England, but entrepreneurs built factories that soon became the basis of the industrial revolution in America.

Madison faced formidable obstacles--a divided cabinet, a factious party, a recalcitrant Congress, obstructionist governors, and amazingly incompetent generals, together with militia who refused to fight outside their states. Most serious was lack of unified popular support. There were serious threats of disunion from New England, which engaged in massive smuggling to Canada and refused to provide financial support or soldiers.[19] However Andrew Jackson in the South and William Henry Harrison in the West destroyed the main Indian threats by 1813.

After the apparent defeat of Napoleon in 1814, both the British and Americans were exhausted, the causes of the war had been forgotten, the Indian issue was resolved, and it was time for peace. New England Federalists, however, set up a defeatist Hartford Convention that discussed secession. The Treaty of Ghent ended the war in 1815. There were no territorial gains on either side as both sides returned to status quo ante bellum, that is, the previous boundaries. The Battle of New Orleans, in which Andrew Jackson defeated the British regulars, was fought fifteen days after the treaty was signed but before the news of the signing reached New Orleans.

With peace finally established, the U.S. was swept by a sense of euphoria and national achievement in finally securing solid independence from Britain. In Canada, the war and its conclusion represented a successful defense of the country, and a defining era in the formation of an independent national identity. This, coupled with ongoing suspicion of a U.S. desire to again invade the country, would culminate in creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. In the U.S., the Federalist Party collapsed and eventually disappeared from politics, as an Era of Good Feeling emerged with a much lower level of political fear and vituperation, although political contention certainly continued.


Although Madison had accepted the necessity of a Hamiltonian national bank, an effective taxation system based on tariffs, a standing professional army and a strong navy, he drew the line at internal improvements as advocated by his Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. In his last act before leaving office, Madison vetoed on states' rights grounds a bill for "internal improvements", including roads, bridges, and canals:

Having considered the bill ... I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States.... The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified ... in the ... Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.[20]

Madison rejected the view of Congress that the General Welfare Clause justified the bill, stating:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms "common defense and general welfare" embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

Madison urged a variety of measures that he felt were "best executed under the national authority", including federal support for roads and canals that would "bind more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy".


When Madison left office in 1817, he retired to Montpelier, his tobacco plantation in Virginia; not far from Jefferson's Monticello. Madison was then 65 years old. Dolley, who thought they would finally have a chance to travel to Paris, was 49. But as with both Washington and Jefferson, Madison left the presidency a poorer man than when he entered, due to the steady financial collapse of his plantation. Some historians speculate that his mounting debt was one of the chief reasons why he refused to allow his notes on the Constitution Convention, or its official records which he possessed, to be published in his lifetime.[21] Madison's financial troubles and deteriorating mental and physical health would continue to consume him. By the 1830s, troubled by debts that were threatening to bankrupt him, Madison's mental agitation led to physical collapse. [22]

In 1829, at the age of seventy-eight, Madison was chosen as a representative to the constitutional convention in Richmond for the revising of the Virginia state constitution; this was to be Madison's last appearance as a legislator and constitutional draftsman.

The issue of greatest importance at this convention was apportionment. The western districts of Virginia complained that they were under-represented because the state constitution apportioned voting districts by population, and the count included slaves even though slaves could not vote. Westerners had few slaves, while the Eastern planters had many, and thus the vote of a white easterner outweighed the vote of a white westerner.

Madison, who in his prime was known as "the Great Legislator", tried to effect a compromise, such as the 3/5 ratio for a slave then used by the U.S. Constitution, but to no avail. Eventually, the eastern planters prevailed. Slaves would continue to be counted toward their masters' districts. Madison was crushed at the failure of Virginians to resolve the issue more equably. "The Convention of 1829, we might say, pushed Madison steadily to the brink of self-delusion, if not despair. The dilemma of slavery undid him."[23]

Although his health had now almost failed, he managed to produce several memoranda on political subjects, including an essay against the appointment of chaplains for Congress and the armed forces, on the grounds that this produced religious exclusion, but not political harmony.[24]

Madison lived on until 1836, increasingly ignored by the new leaders of the American polity. He was the last remaining signatory of the United States Constitution.

As historian Garry Wills wrote:

Madison's claim on our admiration does not rest on a perfect consistency, any more than it rests on his presidency. He has other virtues.... As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer.... The finest part of Madison's performance as president was his concern for the preserving of the Constitution.... No man could do everything for the country – not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That was quite enough.[25]


  1. Wood, 2006b.
  2. Robert Alan Dahl, "Madisonian Democracy," in Dahl, et al., eds. The Democracy Sourcebook (MIT Press, 2003), pp. 207-16.
  3. Banning, 1995; Kernell, 2003; Riemer, 1954.
  4. Thomas Jefferson to President Washington, May 23, 1792 said, "The republican party, who wish to preserve the government in its present form, are fewer in number. They are fewer even when joined by the two, three, or half dozen anti-federalists."
  5. Wood, 2006, pp. 163-64.
  6. Kramer, 1999
  7. Lance Banning, "James Madison: Federalist," note 1, [1].
  8. Matthews, 1995, p. 130.
  9. Madison had three main objections to a specific bill of rights: (a) it was unnecessary, since it purported to protect against powers that the federal government had not been granted; (b) it was dangerous, since enumeration of some rights might be taken to imply the absence of other rights; and (c) at the state level, bills of rights had proven to be useless paper barriers against government powers. Wood, 2006b.
  10. Matthews, 1995, p. 142.
  11. http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=105_cong_documents&docid=f:sd011.105
  12. Wood, 2006b.
  13. Wood, 2006b.
  14. Wood, 2006a, p. 165.
  15. Paul A. Varg, Foreign Policies of the Founding Fathers (Michigan State Univ. Press, 1963), p. 74.
  16. As early as May 26, 1792, Hamilton complained, "Mr. Madison cooperating with Mr. Jefferson is at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration. Hamilton, Writings (Library of America, 2001), p. 738. On May 5, 1792, Madison told Washington, "with respect to the spirit of party that was taking place ...I was sensible of its existence". Madison Letters 1 (1865), p. 554.
  17. Smith 2004
  18. CTV
  19. Stagg, 1983.
  20. Tax Foundation
  21. "He knew the value of his notes, and wanted them to bring money to his estate for Dolley's use as his plantation failed -- he was hoping for one hundred thousand dollars from the sale of his papers, of which the notes were the gem." Wills, 2002, p. 163.
  22. McCoy, 1989, p.151.
  23. Ibid., p. 252.
  24. He was tempted to admit chaplains for the navy, which might well have no other opportunity for worship. The text of the memoranda
  25. Wills, 2002, p. 164.