James Madison

James Madison was the fourth President of the United States, serving in that capacity from 1809 until 1817. Before that, he had served as President Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State from 1801 until the day of his own inauguration as President. In both capacities, Madison had a profound impact on the politics of the day and was the second of three consecutive Presidents to hail from the state of Virginia, leading some to refer to the administrations that ran from 1801 until 1825 as the Virginian Dynasty. As a young man, Madison was very active in the cause of independence, serving in both the state and federal legislatures. He was influential in the adoption of the Constitution of the United States as a reaction against the poorly thought-out Articles of Confederation that made the exercise of practical political power difficult in the early republic. For his role in hammering the finer points of the Constitution, Madison is often regarded as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and is historically called the Father of the Constitution.

Early Life

James Madison was born in 1751 to Eleanor and James Madison, Sr., and received the upbringing considered appropriate for the Southern aristocracy of the day. He was a sickly child (and indeed would grow into a sickly man), but he was a brilliant student and studied a variety of languages before the age of 16, including French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He attended what would later become Princeton University from 1767 until 1769, graduating ahead of schedule with a general degree in only two years. He continued studying both philosophy and law after his graduation, but the events of the day compelled him to return to Virginia in 1772 without completing an advanced degree in either field.

By the 1770s, tensions between the 13 Colonies and Great Britain were high, regarding such controversies as taxation, religious freedom, and the quartering of His Majesty's soldiers in colonial houses without consent. It was around this time that Madison made the acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson, then a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia's legislature. Jefferson had authored an inflammatory essay called A Summary View of the Rights of British America in which he declared that the colonists owed no money to the King and that the British Parliament had no power over any place outside of Britain. Although it was initially poorly received by most of the rest of the legislature, Madison was enthralled by it. He and Jefferson struck up a fruitful partnership that would last for a half a century.

By 1774, the ideas set forth in Jefferson's treatise received broad acceptance as relations between the colonies and the home country further deteriorated. This state of affairs led to the creation of the First Continental Congress, a self-actuating answer to the problem of taxation without representation. At first, the Congress maintained the pretense of loyalty to King George III. Their complaint, they said, was with the outrages of a corrupt Parliament and they asked for official recognition from the Crown to represent their own interests. Thomas Jefferson declared in 1775, "by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection {to Britain} on such terms as the British Parliament propose." Well, needless to say, this sort of sentiment was pretty common and did not really help matters at all. In the same year, real fighting broke out between the colonial militias and the British, the news of which caused the King to declare the colonies rebels. He authorized a full invasion of the American colonies with the goal of suppressing the revolt.

Legislative Career

On July 4, 1776, representatives to the Second Continental Congress signed the Jefferson-authored Declaration of Independence, in which the colonials officially divested themselves of the British. James Madison was elected to his first term in the Virginia legislature at this time as well. Due to his fragile health and lack of military acumen, he did not see action during the Revolutionary War. Instead, he took a leading role in the transition toward independence in Virginia. Madison was not a Christian, but he understood that most of his countrymen were, so he worked with his cousin (a Bishop, also named James Madison) to develop a uniquely American form of Christianity unassociated with British or Roman Catholic interests. He and Jefferson joined forces to develop the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served as one of the earliest documents in the nation's history regarding the separation of church and state. Bishop Madison and his legislator cousin were instrumental in the development of what we call the Episcopalian Church.

In 1779, Madison was appointed to the Continental Congress. He took to the job with zeal, compensating for his lack of a military career. During his tenure in the Continental Congress, he set about developing the framework for what would become the United States. In 1781, the Articles of Confederation were approved by the Continental Congress, contigent upon the successful conclusion of the War. Madison was instrumental in securing the passage of the Articles by getting all states to agree to drop their claims for land past the boundary of the Ohio River. The Articles of Confederation were essentially the lowest common denominator upon which the delegates could agree. There was no strong, central government, which Madison regarded as the central weakness of the Articles. However, he was a fervent supporter of anything that could bring the states together, so he silenced his criticism for the time being.

Confederation was a great idea in theory. In a way, this early period of the United States was a lot like the structure of the European Union in that all of the states were independent in most forms of policy. Now unfortunately, what this had the effect of doing was hamstringing the effectiveness of the newly born American government. The war ended in 1783, but the struggle for international acceptance and stability was far from over. Both the central government and the state governments minted their own currencies, and exchange rates fluxuated wildly. Seeking to resolve the bitter memories regarding taxes, the Continental Congress was prohibited from mandating them, and could instead only merely request money from the states. Needless to say, the treasury was interminably empty. All treaties had to be approved by the Continental Congress as well as all of the individual state legislatures, which brought a new degree of regional factionalism to the young country. The Northeastern states were primarily industrial and still had extensive commercial links with Great Britain, while the Southern states were generally the opposite. Even worse, border skirmishes and minor wars broke out between some of the states. By 1786, it was clear that something had to be done to rectify the situation.

The Constitution

In 1787, 12 of the 13 states sent delegates to the Philadelphia Convention to draw up plans for a new constitution. Rhode Island was the lone hold-out. The notion was controversial, with no less a personage than Patrick Henry declaring that the whole convention was a conspiracy to install a monarchy in the United States. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both conspicuously absent from the convention, serving diplomatic assignments in France and Great Britain, respectively (the latter being a horribly thankless position for reasons it should be easy to imagine). It was Madison, then, who was thrust to the forefront of the debate. There were several competing ideas for the new constitution, with the most prominent being Madison's (called the Virginia Plan) and the New Jersey Plan championed by William Patterson. Alexander Hamilton came up with his own as did South Carolina. The chief questions were of representation and the division of governmental responsibilities. Madison favored proportional representation based on a state's population while Patterson prefered the system set up under the Articles of Confederation in which each state enjoyed equal representation. Eventually, the representatives from Connecticut came up with a compromise calling for a bicameral legislature with one being based on population and the other being based on equality. This agreement was the genesis of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, respectively. Madison kept meticulous records of the debate and his notes are the most complete record we have of what was supposed to be a secret meeting. When the basic points were agreed upon, it was Madison who was chiefly tasked with drafting the constitution.

In 1787 and 1788, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay began collaborating on a collection of pseudonymous essays that we now refer to as the Federalist Papers, in which the three men argued vociferously under the collective name Publius (so named for the Roman consul Publius Valerius Publicola) for the ratification of the new constitution. Although Hamilton wrote more than half of the articles, Madison's are the most memorable and influential. Among others, he wrote Federalist #10, which provides an eloquent plea against factionalism and deals with effectively balancing special interest groups. Madison's contention was that there were two ways to deal with the passions of the masses; either remove their liberty or treat them blindly and equally. It was on this basis that Madison argued for the adoption of the Constitution since, through its size and diversity of thought, it provided a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority over the minority. The essays by Madison were and remain some of the most nuanced defenses of the concept of the American state and its founding republican principles.

Madison and Jefferson were in constant contact (or at least as constant as a correspondence across the Atlantic Ocean could be in the 18th century) during the convention until the latter's recall to the US in 1789 after the start of the French Revolution. There were lingering concerns about the Constitution's ability to protect personal freedoms since the document primarily dealt with governmental organization and what the different branches of government could actually do. To clear up these worries (presented primarily by smaller states), Madison added ten amendments to the document; generally speaking, we refer to these as the Bill of Rights. Certain of these amendments remain controversial for the differing interpretations to which they are subject (specifically the first two) but overall, the addition of these amendments made it possible for the Constitution to be approved by all states by 1790. The actual amendments went into effect in 1791, by which time Madison was representing Virginia in the First Congress of the United States House of Representatives. By this time as well, George Washington had been elected as the country's first President and upon his return to the US, Thomas Jefferson was intalled as the first Secretary of State.

Political Parties

One of the chief ideological complaints made by the Revolutionaries was that political parties were destructive entities. Washington himself warned against them, which would have been a bit like hearing one of your parents say that they weren't angry with you for spray-painting your car, they were just disappointed. Although Washington had been elected President with a full 100% of the electoral votes cast, his administration was not universally popular or even united. His Vice President, John Adams, was considered suspect because he wanted the Presidency to have an almost royal aura to it. Alexander Hamilton was Washington's boisterous, flamboyant Secretary of the Treasury who was perceived to have an undue amount of influence, exercising control over everything from taxes to foreign policy, which put him into conflict with Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Hamilton were convinced that a strong executive branch was the only way to secure prosperity and liberty, and they formed the nucleus of the Federalist Party. Jefferson was aghast at these developments and began gathering friends and supporters for a run at the Presidency after Washington's retirement. The party that grew up around Jefferson was called the Democratic-Republican Party, known primarily simply as the Republicans (the connection to the modern party of the same name is debatable). Madison had to make a choice; would he support Hamilton, with whom he had worked on the most effective American political philosophy up to that point, or would he side with Jefferson, who had promoted his career and been his mentor for the last 15 years? In the end, Madison chose Jefferson, fearing that the logical extreme of the Federalist ideology would undermine the Bill of Rights for which he had worked so hard. The conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans led to the creation of the First Party System of the United States.

Washington declined to run for a third term as President in 1796, saying that eight years was enough for any man to hold the office. The way the Electoral College worked in the early years of the United States is much different from how it works now. Each elector had two votes which were supposed to go to two different people; the person with the most votes would become the President and the person with the second largest number of votes would be the Vice President. It was understood that each candidate's chosen running mate would receive a large but still secondary number of votes to secure election. Adams was running for President with Thomas Pinckney, the ambassador to Spain, as his Vice Presidential nominee. Thomas Jefferson was also running for President, and he had selected Aaron Burr as his running. Hamilton hated Adams, Jefferson, and Burr, and attempted to influence the Electoral College in such a way that it would make Pinckney President and keep Adams as Vice President. What wound up happening, however, was that Adams was elected President and Jefferson was elected Vice President.

The following administration was miserable. Jefferson used his position as Adams' subordinate to undermine him at every turn and Madison did his best to whip up opposition to Adams in the House. Indeed, the strife became so pronounced that Adams' allies in Congress passed the hugely unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, which effectively made it against the law to oppose the government (i.e. Adams). A dispute with Napoleonic France in 1798 turned into a full-blown diplomatic crisis where war seemed imminent and people blamed Adams for the issue. In 1799, George Washington died unexpectedly at the age of 67. This was the final blow for the Federalist Party, now rapidly losing its majority in both houses of Congress. In the election of 1800, Hamilton again interfered and this time succeeded in ousting Adams. Unfortunately, Jefferson and Burr received the same number of votes. With the election now up the House of Representatives, Hamilton used all of his power to secure the election for Jefferson, determining that he hated Burr more. Aaron Burr would never forgive Hamilton for this.

Secretary of State

Up until the day before Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, Adams had made a series of last-minute judicial appointments designed to (a) provide public offices to his Federalist allies and (b) ensure the legality of his acts committed while President. Jefferson selected Madison as his Secretary of State, which at the time was considered more of a stepping stone to the Presidency than was the office of Vice President. Although all of the appointments had been signed by Adams before leaving office, they were supposed to be delivered to the intended recipients by the Secretary of State. When Madison asked what he was supposed to do with them, Jefferson simply told him not to deliver them, which would render them void. One of the appointees, William Marbury, demanded that he be given his judgeship and to this end sued James Madison for not delvering the letter to him. The case made it to the very young Supreme Court, then headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, who had briefly served as Adams' Secretary of State. As a Federalist, it seemed likely that Marshall would come down on the side of Marbury, but determined that the original act under which the appointment had been made was unconstitutional and therefore not enforceable. What this had the effect of doing was giving the Supreme Court -- and by extension the entire United States judiciary -- more of a share in the powers of government. Today, we call this concept judicial review. Madison had completely unintentionally defined an entirely new branch of the federal government.

The rest of his time in office was eventful if controversial. The Republicans were generally pro-French in outlook and had a good relationship with Napoleon. Unfortunately, this was during the same time that France was conquering Europe and fighting wars against the British, the latter of whom controlled Canada, directly to the north of the US. Napoleon also had a vast tract of land on the continent known as the Louisiana Territory. Realizing that it would be impossible to fight both in Europe and in North America, Napoleon approached the administration with an offer to sell certain parts of the territory to the US. This created something of a constitutional crisis, as there was nothing in the Constitution which specifically allowed the government to buy land. When the negotiators arrived in France, however, Napoleon was badly in need of funds and offered the entire territory for only about 50% more than what he had wanted for just a few port cities. Madison urged Jefferson to accept the offer. A motion requesting funds for this endeavor passed through Congress by only two votes, and led to talk of secession by some of the northern Federalists. The Federalists were Anglophiles and were afraid that the acquisiton of that much territory -- which would double the size of the country -- would bring in a host of people disinclined to vote for the Federalist Party. And indeed, within a few years, the Federalist Party ceased to exist as a real entity. This put Hamilton and Burr back into conflict, as Burr was offered the Presidency of the hypothetical new country. Burr refused, but Hamilton made much of his supposed disloyalty. The relations between the two men deteriorated further, but the deal was concluded in 1803. This caused Jefferson to drop Burr from his planned reelection campaigin for 1804.

In 1804, Burr decided to run for the governorship of New York, but again Hamilton's interference prevented him from winning. Hamilton then made a disparaging remark about Burr at a dinner party that he refused to retract. Infuriated by these insults, Burr finally challenged Hamilton to a duel, which Hamilton accepted. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton and was charged with murder. Although he was not found guilty, he was ostracized by all corners of society, and became embroiled in a scandal that had him on trial for his life. Burr was accused of colluding with a group of militia men to seize parts of Mexico and Louisiana for the purpose of making himself President or even King of the area and putting it under the protection of Great Britain. Jefferson accused Burr of treason and demanded a conviction. Burr escaped this charge as well, retiring forever from public life in 1807.

The war between France and England was heating up at this same time. Jefferson, while unabashedly pro-France, was prudent enough to realize that joining the war on their side would be a serious mistake. At the same time, however, he did not want to show favor to the British, especially after the Burr debacle. Madison came to him with a solution: a double trade embargo, making it illegal for any citizen or company in the United States to trade with any country involved in the war until the said war was over. The Embargo Act of 1807 would have worked out great if (a) the US had had anything resembling a huge industrial infrastructure at the time and (b) every major Western country were not in some way involved in the Napoleonic Wars. This effectively destroyed the US shipping industry at this time and increased opposition to the Republicans. Embarrassingly, Jefferson had to repeal the law in 1809, just days before his term ended.


Following Washington's example, Jefferson decided to retire after the end of his second term. There was no real question who he would choose to succeed him; his only competition came from Vice President George Clinton (no, not that one) and future President James Monroe. He handily secured the Democratic-Republican nomination. His Federalist opponent in the election of 1808 was Charles Pinckney, the brother of Thomas Pinckney who had almost become President 8 years earlier. Madison won in a popular and electoral landslide, picking up 65% of the vote. Interestingly, Clinton was reelcted as Vice President, holding the unusual distinction of serving that office under two different Presidents.

The first couple of years of Madison's administration were actually pretty uneventful. By the time of his election, the Republicans were the dominant party in both houses of Congress, which allowed him a fairly smooth couple of years. Then came 1811. In this year, the charter for the Bank of the United States expired. Madison hated the bank. It had been the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, against whom he had been hardened since he caused Jefferson to lose the election in 1796. Even in death, he despised Hamilton's ideas as encroaching too much onto the rights of the citizens. Madison elected not to renew the charter, much to the dismay of the remaining Federalists in Congress.

Around this same time, another issue was boiling. The problem was called impressment. What this involved was the British Navy raiding American merchant ships and forcing crewmembers into service. Relations with Britain had improved somewhat since the end of the Revolutionary War, but given America's rapprochement with Napoleon, tension still existed. When Britain declined to recognize the neutrality of American ships and American sailors, Madison was stuck in a bind. Concurrently, there was a (fairly accurate) belief that the British were arming Native Americans who understandably did not want settlers coming into the Louisiana Territory and stealing their land. Hawks in both the Executive and Legislative brances saw the concept of a new war as an opportunity to eject the British from Louisiana and then conquer Canada. In 1812, former President Jefferson approvingly told Madison that American soldiers in Quebec would be greeted with cheers from the native population. There was also a firm belief that Napoleon would prove victorious in his latest campaign against Russia and England and that the British would simply abandon their position in North America to deal with that threat. In August of that same year, Madison requested and received a declaration of war against Britain. This conflict is known as the War of 1812. Madison's popularity, especially in the South and the newly populated West, was reasonably high. However, he faced a challenge from disgruntled elements of his own party, and had the strange experience of running in a general election against another Republican. His opponent was DeWitt Clinton, the nephew of the recently deceased George Clinton. Madison won reelection in 1812, but he did so with almost no support from New England and with a much smaller margin than in the 1808 contest.

Well, needless to say, things didn't quite go as planned. Since Madison had allowed the bank to expire, there was little money to fund the war. Not only that, the New England states refused to cooperate with the government since their commercial ties to England had been ruined for the second time in five years. The American expedition into Canada was a disaster. Both English and French Canadians were uninterested in joining the US and the American force was on the verge of being pushed out of the country and into a defensive position within 6 months. The retreating American army burned much of York (present day Toronto) down. The British would have their revenge after invading Washington, D.C., and burning down the Executive Mansion, which Madison and his family had been forced to flee mere hours earlier. It was as humiliating blow to the prosecution of what the Federalists now derisively referred to as "Mr. Madison's War."

The war continued indecisively until 1815. Although the Americans fought generally well on their own territory, the Canadian invasion had been a fiasco and the British had virtually uncontested control of the Atlantic seaboard. It got to the point where port towns actually started paying money to the British so as not to suffer their wrath! The Americans maintained control of the Gulf of Mexico, severely disrupting British commercial operations there. Then in April of 1814, Napoleon was decisively defeated and forced to abdicate from the French throne.

Madison feared the worst; with their chief ally removed from power, Britain's attention could be fully returned to the US. By that time, however, the British were just as tired of the war as the Americans were. The policy of impressment was abandoned, removing the whole (stated) reason for the war in the first place. Not only that, the two wars had produced a considerable drain on the economies of both countries, which were still inextricably tied together through trade. Madison knew that he would never be able to conquer Canada and the British knew that they would never be able to regain any of the possessions that they had lost three decades earlier. With this in mind, both sides agreed to sit down for talks in Ghent, Belgium. There was political pressure on the Duke of Wellington to demand territorial concessions from John Quincy Adams, Madison's chief negotiator and son of John Adams, but he correctly pointed out that it would be impossible to make that claim when Britain had been unable to actually capture any land. On Christmas Eve of 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, and everything returned to the way that it had been before the war.

Unfortunately, as we had already established, lines of communication were not particularly speedy in those days. In January of 1815, a United States force led by the charismatic Andrew Jackson scored a decisive victory against a British force at the Battle of New Orleans. The British suffered almost 2,000 casualties while the Americans took less than a hundred. The British then scored a decisive victory four weeks later at the Battle of Fort Bowyer near Mobile, Alabama. Almost immediately after the second battle, news of the peace treaty reached both sides and the fighting ceased.

The whole war was an exercise in futility that allowed neither side to claim victory, although both did. A certain segment of Americans considered it the Second Revolutionary War that confirmed their independence from Britain and made them be taken seriously by the world. The British saw it as a confirmation of their army's professionalism and tactical superiority that they were able to fend off a hostile, politically radical power allied with their greatest enemy. The Canadians saw the war as a source of unity, bringing together French and English Canadians in a way that only an invasion can do.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, Madison benefited greatly from the war, politically speaking. The previous talk of secession by the Federalists in New England destroyed their party's credibility forever. They were seen as pessimists at best and traitors at worst. Still, Madison took some of their ideas to heart. He rechartered the Bank of the United States and developed a coherent taxation plan to stabilize the government's budget. In 1816, Madison decided to follow the precedent set by Washington and Jefferson and decided to retire from office. His own Secretary of State, James Monroe, would win the election that year and be inaugurated the following year.

Final Years

Toward the end of his life, Madison's health constantly plagued him. He corresponded with his friend, Thomas Jefferson, who was now serving as the President of the University of Virginia. Jefferson had also buried the hatchet with John Adams, a sign of the general good will of the time. On July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, both Adams and Jefferson died. Madison fell into a morbid depression that would last for the rest of his life but accepted the post of President of the University, once again following his friend and mentor. He was later asked to help resolve an issue regarding the state constitution of Virginia, but the politics of the day were different than they had previously been. The question was no longer about liberty, but rather slavery. His suggestions regarding population distribution in federal districting were not taken and he angrily ceased work on the problem. The times had changed and of the men of his generation, only he and the politically poisonous Aaron Burr remained alive. Great minds like Madison's were no longer sought after; what the republic wanted was force and action. On June 28, 1836, James Madison died at his home at the age of 85.

I have no idea of knowing when the node for James Madison was created and indeed if there had previously been anything in it. If it has really taken ten years for someone to actually say something about the fourth President of the United States, it's a telling commentary on contemporary perceptions of him, or perhaps more appropriately, the lack thereof. Madison appears on no currency and does not have a "doctrine" named after him. He is easily lost in the shuffle between Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, which is unfortunate, since James Madison did so much for the country that he loved and helped to create. He wasn't perfect; certain of his economic policies bordered on ruinous and he launched a war whose only purpose is to serve as a possible refutation of the democratic peace theory. And yet he gave the US its Constitution, its Bill of Rights, almost a quarter of the territory it now possesses, and to some extent its place in the world. While perhaps not the greatest President the country has ever known, I would certainly rank him in the top 10. I hope that one day a world that values a refined intellect over a marketable personality will hold him in higher esteem.

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