James Madison was born in Port Conway, Virginia, to James Madison, Sr., and Eleanor Rose Conway. They owned a prosperous tobacco plantation, run by slaves, at the Montpelier estates in Orange County. The eldest of 12 siblings, Madison was sickly as a child, but excelled in school and entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1769 and graduated in 1771.
Madison returned to Virginia where he engaged in local politics. He was too frail for military service himself during the American Revolution, but in 1774 was appointed to the Orange County, Virginia, Committee of Safety—a local wartime provisional government—and was heavily engaged in fundraising for the county militia.
In 1776 he was elected to the Virginia Convention and worked on the state constitution. In the same year Madison entered the Virginia House of Delegates, where he met Thomas Jefferson.
From 1777 to 1780 he was a member of the Governor’s Council before being elected to the Continental Congress in 1779. There he became a spokesman for stronger central government. Under the Articles of Confederation each state remained sovereign, while the weak central government could not even raise enough revenue to pay the expenses generated by the American Revolution.
Another major deficiency of the Articles of Confederation, in Madison’s eyes, was that it tied states, not individual citizens, to the federal government. Further, any amendment was impossible, since it required the unanimous consent of the states.
In 1783 three years after the British surrender, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Madison left the Continental Congress. Back in Virginia, he studied law and entered into real estate and served in the Virginia House of Delegates again, from 1784 to 1786, where he drafted Virginia’s declaration on religious freedom.
In 1786 Madison was Virginia’s delegate to the Annapolis Convention on interstate trade, where he decided to work for a revision of the U.S. Constitution and a stronger federal government, expressed in his Virginia Plan. Again a member of the Continental Congress from 1787 to 1788, he joined forces with Alexander Hamilton and Jon Jay.
Together they wrote the Federalist Papers, published in newspapers and booklets, to prepare the citizens of New York for the Convention and proposals for a stronger federal government. Madison’s contributions are an important source of political philosophy.
When the Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia, Madison’s Virginia Plan became the cornerstone of the ensuing work. This and his contribution during the Convention earned him the title of father of the U.S. Constitution.
Checks and balances, modeled on the theories of the French philosopher Charles Montesquieu, between the legislature, the courts, and the executive, were put in place to safeguard against abuse of power. Still the Constitution did cause alarm during the process of ratification.
As a member of the House of Representatives, Madison sponsored the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments that protect basic individual rights against violations from the federal government.
The Federalists desired an ever-stronger central government. Madison denied any aristocratic preference once the act of founding was complete. He also had a more fundamentalist view of the role assigned to the Constitution.
Together with Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe he formed the Republican Party (later known as the Democratic-Republican Party) in 1791. Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a widow from Philadelphia, in 1794. In 1797 Madison left Congress.
In the Virginia Resolutions, he condemned the centralist policies of the Federalists, especially the Alien and Sedition Acts. Their drive toward stronger central government produced a resentment that led to the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800 and the downfall of the Federalists.
After serving in the Virginia legislature between 1799 and 1800, Madison became Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state, a post he held until 1809. As secretary of state he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803.
Madison was elected the fourth president of the United States in 1808, beating Federalist candidate Charles Pinckney 122 to 47 electoral votes. George Clinton, one of his sworn opponents, became vice president.
The tension between Britain and the United States mounted and, after much pressure from both Federalists and Republicans alike, Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
Britain offered negotiations that were unsatisfactory and Madison refused to end hostilities. The United States also experienced trade disputes with France and territorial quarrels with Spain along the gulf coast.
Despite American surrender of the Michigan and Detroit territory to the British, Madison was reelected for his second term in 1812, with Elbridge Gerry as vice president. In 1813 U.S. forces fared a little better, capturing York (modern-day Toronto).
A British invasion was not regarded as very likely and it was a great shock when British troops landed and captured Washington in 1814, burning the Capitol and the White House.
Peace negotiations concluded with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814. The Rush-Bagot Agreement on demilitarization of the U.S.-Canadian border, negotiated by Madison but ratified after he left office, substantiated this fragile peace.
Madison had let the mandate of the First Bank of the United States expire in 1811. The unsuccessful war with Britain led Madison to propose the charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1815, calling for the establishment of a standing army and navy, a protective tariff, and direct internal taxation.
Federal funds for the Cumberland Road, linking Maryland with the Ohio Valley, and other road and canal works were also proposed. All went through Congress virtually unopposed since these issues had long been on the agenda of the Federalists.
James Monroe became president in 1817, and Madison retired to Montpelier to run the family plantation. Madison retained his slaves but also cofounded the American Colonization Society, of which he became president in 1833 sponsoring the repatriation of free blacks to Africa.
He was also elected president of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, but only his savings and selling off land kept his own plantation afloat through times of bad harvests and low prices.
Together with Jefferson and other prominent Virginians, Madison sponsored the establishment of the University of Virginia, which opened in 1825. He also held the post of rector from 1826 to 1834. In 1829 Madison performed his last public service as a member of the Virginia constitutional convention. In 1834, he wrote “Advice to My Country” and planned to publish his memories of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, but died before he finished.