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  James Madison (1751–1836), by Gilbert Stuart, 1805–7 James Madison (1751–1836), by Gilbert Stuart, 1805–7
Madison, James (1751–1836), revolutionary politician in America and president of the United States of America, was born on 5 March 1751 in King George county, Virginia, near the Rappahannock River (on the estate of his maternal grandmother, at the site of the future town of Port Conway), the first of a dozen children of James Madison (1723–1801) and Nelly Conway (1732–1829). His father was a vestryman and justice of the peace in Orange county, where he owned 4000 acres and perhaps 100 slaves.

Early years

Madison's father, not himself formally educated, provided his son with more appropriate preparation for a future place among the great Virginia gentry. ‘James Madison, jr’, as he signed himself until his father's death, attended Donald Robertson's boarding-school in King and Queen county from 1762 to 1767, and was then taught at home for two years by the local rector, the Revd Thomas Martin, who encouraged him to travel north to the College of New Jersey, Princeton. The selection of Princeton possibly arose from the enthusiastic support of Martin and the Madisons for the patriotic party in the growing debate concerning the American colonies' relations with Britain as well as from its progressive and exciting curriculum. Princeton students rejected imported cloth and dressed in homespun, and the college's president, John Witherspoon, an immigrant from Scotland and major figure in the Presbyterian denomination, later signed the Declaration of Independence. Madison passed examinations with the freshman class in September 1769 and graduated two years later instead of taking the usual three. He remained at Princeton during the winter of 1771–2, recovering from debility and reading law, theology, and Hebrew under Witherspoon's direction. On his return to the family plantation, he tutored his younger siblings and pondered a career, two years before the imperial crisis culminated in the Coercive Acts of 1774. As Orange county mobilized, Madison trained with the militia and joined his father on the local committee of safety. As he reflected later, ‘he was under very early and strong impressions in favour of liberty both civil and religious’ (Adair, 198).

For Madison, civil and religious liberty were closely linked. He did not record his religious views after 1776, but he had been brought up in the Church of England and occasionally attended episcopalian services in later life. Clearer is his commitment to the most advanced Enlightenment position on freedom of religion. His first intervention in Virginian politics, in 1774, had been to oppose the imprisonment of unlicensed preachers in Culpeper county. When his weak health excluded him from active military service, the gratitude of Baptist neighbours perhaps assisted his election to the state convention of 1776, which framed one of the earliest and most widely imitated revolutionary constitutions. When only twenty-five he made his first important contribution to the revolutionary reconstruction: an amendment to replace a commitment to religious ‘toleration’ with an assertion of an equal, universal right to the free exercise of religion, thus introducing into Virginia's declaration of rights a standard unprecedented in any society's organic law. Madison also supported fully Thomas Jefferson's attempts to liberalize the state's religious statutes.

Madison was defeated at the next election after refusing voters their customary treats, but was selected by the legislature for the executive council and, in December 1779, for congress. There he won a nationwide reputation for his grasp of legislative business. He was active in bringing Virginia to cede its north-west lands—thus facilitating ratification of the articles of confederation and the creation of a national domain—and also supported Robert Morris's attempts to rationalize the department of finance. Madison introduced the compromise leading to the congressional recommendations of 18 April 1783, which asked the states to amend the articles in order to permit congress to levy a 5 per cent duty on foreign imports, to complete their western cessions, and to authorize other measures to meet the interest on the continental debt.

State and federal reform

Under the articles of confederation, delegates were chosen annually and limited to three successive terms. Madison retired in November 1783 and promptly stood for the state assembly once more. There he sought approval of the federal reforms proposed in 1783 and also of a variety of state reforms that Jefferson had introduced before replacing him in congress. Madison hoped that peace would facilitate states' satisfaction of their federal requisitions, and that better times and rapid adoption of these limited reforms would enable congress to fulfil its obligations and repair its damaged prestige. He knew, however, that the central legislature's absolute dependence on the states for revenues, as well as for enforcement of its treaties, undermined its effectiveness and could endanger its very existence. Taking an apprehensive, continentalist view, Madison was sure that revolutionary liberty would be doomed by disintegration of the continental union, and with it the republican experiment's protection against foreign intervention and the states' safeguard against the rivalries which condemned Europe to fragmentation, oppressive taxes, enlarged armies, tyranny, and wars. He also urged a grant to congress of a power to retaliate against Great Britain for restrictions on American trade.

In fact the peace was followed by an economic downturn. The states did not approve amendments to the articles of confederation and fell increasingly behind with their federal requisitions, while mutual animosities escalated perilously as several attempted legislative retaliation against commercial restrictions, only to be baffled by their neighbours' conflicting regulations. Without a steady source of independent funds, the continental congress could not manage its domestic debt, and only with increasing difficulty could it secure European loans to meet its foreign obligations. Deadlocked over the negotiation of a commercial treaty with Spain in 1786 and over new proposals for a federal power over commerce, both northerners and southerners talked of imminent separation into smaller, regional confederations.

Madison, who had doubted the usefulness of extra-legal meetings and feared undermining the authority of congress, backed only one motion to consider improved regulation of trade after other motions had failed. He and other delegates assembled in the Annapolis Convention of 1786 in an atmosphere of deep and urgent concern for the union's survival. After seven days it was apparent that attendance would be poor, and reports from congress were increasingly alarming. It was more from desperation than from a real expectation of success that the dozen delegates present recommended the appointment of another general convention to consider all the problems of the union, a course to which Madison was thoroughly committed from September.

By now, moreover, Madison no longer thought that the country's problems could be solved by a revision of the articles. Faced with economic troubles, many of the states passed measures—issuing paper money, suspending private suits for debt, postponing taxation—that he thought interfered with private contracts, threatened security of property, or undermined states' financial ability to satisfy their individual and federal obligations. During the autumn of 1786 Madison's correspondents warned him of increasing disillusionment, leading in Massachusetts to an armed rising by rural inhabitants led by Daniel Shays. Though Virginia was so far immune from insurrection or serious abuses, Madison's motions for major state and federal reform had been often defeated. Madison believed that his single greatest triumph, the statute for religious freedom (19 January 1786), had been successfully enacted only because a bill granting tax support to teachers of religion—in his view, a serious threat to freedom of conscience—had failed owing to rivalry between Virginia's many sects. Disgusted with the multiplicity, the mutability, and the injustices of local laws, Madison feared that such abuses would alienate increasing numbers of people if the revolutionary enterprise appeared unable to advance individual interests or protect fundamental rights. The crisis of confederation government was, he believed, further aggravated by a crisis of republican convictions, neither of which could be overcome by minor alterations to the articles of confederation. An effectual reform, he told one correspondent, must ‘perpetuate the union’; more, it must ‘redeem the honour of the republican name’ (Madison to Edmund Pendleton, 24 Feb 1787, Papers, 9.295).

No one played a more vital part in the subsequent developments. On his return from Annapolis, Madison quickly secured the state assembly's endorsement of the plan for a federal convention and also George Washington's consent to lead the Virginia delegation, encouraging other states also to choose distinguished delegates. Madison was also selected, and—being again eligible—re-elected to the confederation congress. He may already have compiled his notes on ancient and modern confederations; in April 1787 he wrote a formal memorandum entitled ‘Vices of the political system of the United States’. Here and in private correspondence he argued that the crisis in both confederation and state government made it necessary to replace the existing federal system with a central government derived directly from the people. He also argued that it should have effective, full, and independent powers over matters of general concern, incorporating so many different economic interests and religious groups that popular majorities could rarely form ‘on any other principles than those of justice and the public good’.

The framing and ratification of the constitution

Madison, the best-prepared delegate to the convention, made numerous distinctive contributions towards framing the constitution. He had urged other Virginia delegates to arrive in Philadelphia in time to agree some introductory proposals and was the main author of the propositions introduced on 29 May by Edmund Randolph, which served throughout the summer as a basis for the convention's sweeping reconsideration of the federal system. Madison and other supporters of the ‘Virginia plan’ argued that effective reform must free central government from dependence on the states. He and other delegates from larger states insisted on proportional representation in both houses of congress, popular ratification of the new federal charter, and a careful balance of authority between a democratic house of representatives and branches less immediately responsive to majority demands. Madison also insisted on the need to address not only the confederation's ills but also the vices of republican government apparent in the revolutionary states. He argued that a sound reform had to enable the central government to fulfil its delegated functions but also to respond to majority abuses, limiting states' powers and correcting the frequent structural mistakes of early revolutionary constitutions. In all these respects Madison compelled the great convention to reconsider fundamentally the nature of a sound republic, even as other members compelled him to reconsider his first thoughts on federal reform. In several respects the constitution departed significantly from Madison's original proposals; but his peers and later writers have agreed he was unmistakably its most important framer.

Yet even this does not entirely explain why Madison is often called the father of the constitution. Before he returned to Virginia, where his leadership was vital in securing the approval of a narrowly divided state convention, Madison resumed his seat in the confederation congress, helped provide some central guidance for the ratification contest, and collaborated with Alexander Hamilton in producing the most important exegesis and defence of the finished constitution. Madison's numbers of The Federalist, generally regarded as the greatest classic of American political thought, justified the convention's compromises, explained the partly national and partly federal government created by the charter, and served from the outset as an essential guide to the intent of the constitution's framers. Their great theme—the constitution's faithful adherence to the principles of 1776 and its necessity as a democratic remedy for the diseases most destructive to republics—contributed as surely as the convention to the shaping and success of the constitution.

Launching the new republic

The newly constituted government assembled in New York in April 1789. Madison immediately assumed the leading role in the first federal congress, which was responsible for filling in the outline of the constitution as well as for the legislation which it had been created to permit. He took the lead in introducing the first federal tariff and in the creation of executive departments, carrying the point that executive officials should be subject to removal only by the president. Most importantly, he took upon himself the preparation of the constitutional amendments that became the Bill of Rights.

Throughout the process of constitutional reform Madison's insistence on a stronger federal government had been accompanied by commitment to a system that could not escape popular control. His numbers of The Federalist described the new regime as neither wholly national nor strictly federal in structure, but rather as an unprecedented compound in which state and central governments, each dependent on the people, would each be restricted to the responsibilities each was best equipped to meet while still able to check intrusions by the other. His commitment to a system only partly national in structure, and his recognition that a Bill of Rights would conciliate critics, led him to reverse his opposition to immediate constitutional amendment and persevere against the opposition of others in congress.

These ideas may help explain the ‘reversal’ of positions often imputed to Madison. Even by the second session of the new congress he was alarmed by the dangers he saw in the proposals of Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury, including sectional inequities and the broad construction of the constitution involved in their justification. He protested against Hamilton's proposed chartering of a national bank in 1791 as exceeding the powers allowed by the constitution—excessive reliance on implied congressional authority would tend to transmute a limited, republican regime into a unitary system detrimental to the revolution. He and Jefferson encouraged Philip Freneau to found the National Gazette, a semi-weekly watchdog over the usurpations of government. Madison contributed nineteen unsigned essays to this, seeking to alert the people to the danger, while organizing an opposition in the house. Before the end of 1792, he and Jefferson were the acknowledged leaders of a movement that soon became the first political party of the modern sort: the Jeffersonian or democratic republicans, ancestors of the later Democratic Party, but generally referred to in this period as the republicans.

Jefferson resigned as Washington's secretary of state in December 1793; Madison remained in the house of representatives as leader of the opposition party until adjournment of the fourth congress in March 1797, when a number of considerations led him to decline re-election. On 15 September 1794, at Harewood, in the Shenandoah valley, Virginia, after a courtship of four months, the long-time bachelor married the attractive young widow Dolley Payne Todd (1768–1849), daughter of John Payne, a Quaker and former plantation owner from Virginia who had freed his slaves and unsuccessfully set up as a starch manufacturer in Philadelphia, and Mary, née Coles. Her first husband, John Todd, a lawyer, had died in the previous year's yellow fever epidemic. The couple were childless, though Dolley had one surviving son from her previous marriage, John Payne Todd. Also in 1794 Madison's brother Ambrose, who had been largely responsible for managing the family plantation, died; with his father ailing and Jefferson newly elected vice-president, Madison decided that his thirty years of steady public service entitled him to retire to Montpelier, as the estate was now called.

This retirement proved brief. In 1795 the Washington administration had avoided a crisis in relations with Britain by concluding a commercial treaty which, to the disgusted Madison and the republicans, sacrificed vital national interests as well as offending Britain's opponent, revolutionary France, which began to prey on US merchant shipping. By the spring of 1798 negotiations with France had failed: the consequent surge of patriotic fury allowed federalists in congress to launch a naval war with France and a bloodless reign of terror against the republican opposition, notably the Alien and Sedition Acts directed against the press.

The quasi-war with France, expansion of the army, and efforts to intimidate domestic opposition seemed to the republicans open signs of a conspiracy to undermine the constitutional republic and to forge a permanent alliance, maybe even reunion, with Great Britain. Jefferson and Madison responded by drafting resolutions condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional and void, which were respectively passed by the legislatures of Kentucky (16 November 1798) and Virginia (24 December 1798).

No other state was willing to follow Virginia and Kentucky on a path which led, years later, to nullification and secession. This reluctance prompted Madison to stand for re-election to the state assembly in 1799 and to draft his great Report (1800), defending the 1798 resolutions, explaining the compact theory of the constitution, and initiating modern, literalist interpretations of the first amendment as proscribing any interference by government with the free development and circulation of opinion. The Kentucky and Virginia resolutions also opened the 1800 election campaign, which ended in victory for the republicans.

The Jeffersonian ascendancy

Madison returned to federal office as first lieutenant to his old ally Jefferson—not only secretary of state from 1801 to 1809 but also a principal adviser to the president on the policies arising from the latter's conviction that the federal balance required redress and the central government should be confined within the boundaries set at the ratification of the constitution. The Hamiltonians had relied on rapid economic growth as a path to the emergence of an integrated state with new native manufactures producing exportable goods and a large domestic agricultural market. The Jeffersonians stressed the republic's foundation on independent farmer–owners and the need to revitalize it through continuous overland expansion to the west; they hoped to free its maritime trade and provide new markets for its farmers but to delay urbanization and industrialization. Where Hamilton had seen the national debt as a useful backing for a stable currency supply, the republicans made its reduction a priority, seeing interest payments as a transference of wealth from the productive to the non-productive classes, also connecting dangerously and corruptingly (in the manner of the British system of finance) central government and special interest groups. In foreign policy, the republicans saw themselves as dedicated to a policy of genuine neutrality between Great Britain and the French republic, not the subservience to the former with which they reproached Washington and Adams.

What Jefferson called ‘the revolution of 1800’ was extraordinarily successful. The interlude in twenty years of European warfare between 1801 and 1803 facilitated his administration's concentration on its domestic programme and consolidation of popular support. The resumption of the war prepared the way in 1803 for the republic's purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon, doubling its size. None the less, Madison's ideas for taking advantage of the renewal of European conflict substantially contributed towards a crisis that damaged his own presidency. By 1805 Napoleon controlled all western Europe while Britain ruled the seas. Neither was willing to allow the other the benefits of trade with neutrals, of which the United States, not itself a military power, was the most significant, and in the next two years they condemned between them some 1500 American ships and passed decrees threatening most of its remaining commerce. Both Jefferson and Madison had believed US trade to be just as effective as war in defending national interests, since (in their view) America exported necessities upon which European countries and their West Indian colonies depended, but imported only ‘niceties’ or ‘luxuries’, either dispensable or replaceable domestically. Thus denial of US trade should be able to force to terms a European power, particularly Britain, without resort to war, with its increased taxation, debt, and armed forces, which would endanger a sound republic.

The complete embargo on American trade with which Jefferson responded in 1807 to French and British depredations led in the next two years to a sharp depression, giving the Federalist Party the opportunity for revival, and the compromising of Jeffersonian concern for civil rights by a ferocious enforcement policy. Congress finally repealed the embargo in favour of non-intercourse with belligerents, a course of which Jefferson and Madison did not approve, but which neither would intervene with his party to oppose.

When Madison succeeded his friend Jefferson in 1809, his administration immediately faced problems it was ill-adapted to resolve. Out of principle a supporter of legislative independence, Madison was diffident in his relations with congress, where his party suffered divisions as the federalists declined. It proved impossible to adjust non-intercourse to hurt the Europeans more than the United States: the policy was therefore abandoned in 1810, with the proviso that it would be reimposed on either belligerent if the other would respect US neutrality. Napoleon gave an ambiguous reply, suggesting possible American exemption; when Britain declined Madison's call to follow suit, he reimposed non-intercourse.

The winter of 1811–12 was thus the fourth year of commercial warfare of some sort, damaging the United States while still producing no British concessions. The federalists capitalized on popular discontent to win state elections; fighting continued with north-western tribes, assisted by British administrators in Canada. Before the twelfth congress met, Madison reluctantly decided that, if he refused submission to British policies, the only alternative was a declaration of war, which was accordingly passed, on a vote that largely followed party lines, on 18 June 1812.

The Anglo-American War of 1812–1814 and Madison's retirement

The Anglo-American War of 1812–14 condemned Madison's administration to being assessed by posterity as mediocre. Madison had advocated a high state of readiness for war, but in the event the United States entered war with fourteen warships and fewer than 7000 well-trained troops. Years of economic confrontation had so exacerbated divisions that New England governors would not let their militia, the country's best, leave their states; until the battle of New Orleans, western forces had only limited success. Congress's refusal to preserve the national bank had left the treasury crippled, and Madison sought to limit the war's expense to the republican and federal nature of the country. Thirty months of war imperilled the survival of an intact republic, and the eventual treaty of Ghent (24 December 1814) settled none of the original disputes.

Nevertheless the administration impressed contemporaries, if not historians. John Adams, no admirer, wrote that Madison had won more glory and secured more union than all the preceding presidents combined. His presidency ended in an outburst of national pride and harmony, and with significant readjustments to the fiscal and administrative structure of the country arising from the lessons of the war. The great co-architect of Jeffersonian beliefs finally proposed, in his last annual message (5 December 1815), a federal programme of ‘internal improvements’ encompassing road and canal construction to improve communication between the states for the purposes of defence and trade, some tariff protection for the nascent industries which had emerged during the war, and the creation of a new national bank—all measures enacted by congress early in 1816 amid federalist collapse. Madison still required, before signing the bill for internal improvements, a constitutional amendment to confirm the federal government's authority to act. His veto of the bill was consistent with his republican principles, but disappointed and puzzled his adherents. Having long feared that such measures would entail civic evils, Madison trusted that these would be checked by education, the capacity for enlargement to the west, and the leadership and integrity of the legitimate defenders of the constitution. He hardly surrendered to federalist ideas, but his partial adoption of them helped heal the division dating back to the adoption of the constitution. James Monroe's essentially unanimous election (1820) to a second term heralded a period of single-party rule by the triumphant Jeffersonian republicans.

Madison retired to Orange county and helped Jefferson create the University of Virginia. He also acted in his last years as an oracle on the creation and interpretation of the constitution, if haunted by his own insistence that the federal charter was a compact between the several states' sovereign peoples and that they alone could definitively decide its meaning. He opposed both the southern use of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions to elaborate a doctrine of interposition and nullification and the broad constructions imposed by Chief Justice John Marshall that restricted state sovereignty. Respectively he feared that the constitution would be constricted to such narrow limits that the confederation's fatal problems would recur and that it would be stretched beyond endurance. He always aimed above all to preserve the continental union, which could be achieved only by mutual conciliation and restraint—the spirit that had marked the great convention. Madison died at breakfast at Montpelier days before the sixtieth anniversary of independence, on 28 June 1836, and was buried there the following day—the last, as he had once been first, of the framers of the constitution.

Lance Banning


The papers of James Madison, ed. W. T. Hutchinson and others (1962–) · The writings of James Madison, ed. G. Hunt (1900–10) · Letters and other writings of James Madison (1865) · A. Hamilton, J. Madison, and J. Jay, ed. J. Cooke, The Federalist (1961) · I. Brant, James Madison, 6 vols. (1941–61) · R. Ketcham, James Madison: a biography (1971) · J. N. Rakove, James Madison and the creation of the American republic (1990) · L. Banning, The sacred fire of liberty: James Madison and the founding of the federal republic (1995) · D. R. McCoy, The last of the fathers: James Madison and the republican legacy (1989) · J. N. Rakove, Original meanings: politics and ideas in the making of the constitution (1996) · G. S. Wood, The creation of the American republic (1969) · R. A. Rutland, The presidency of James Madison (1990) · D. Adair, ed., ‘James Madison's autobiography’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 2 (1945), 191–209 · H. C. Shulman, ‘Madison, Dolley’, ANB


L. Cong. · NYPL · Princeton University, New Jersey · University of Virginia, Charlottesville


C. W. Peale, miniature, oils, 1783, L. Cong. · C. W. Peale, oils, c.1792, Thomas Gilcrease Institute, Tulsa, Oklahoma · G. Stuart, portrait, 1805–7, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine [see illus.] · T. Sully, oils, 1809, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC