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James Madison: Impact and Legacy

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For many historians, Madison is a puzzle: "the Father of the Constitution," co-founder of the Democratic-Republican Party, and brilliant secretary of state under Jefferson, yet he is not rated as a spectacular President. Part of the explanation for this contrast has to do with Madison's personal strengths. He is said to have been a master of the small arena. Studious, keenly political, and a perceptive judge of men and issues, Madison could shape constitutions and influence legislation with few peers, but he was too cautious for the kinds of presidential leadership that left clear marks upon the political landscape. Moreover, unlike the tall, statuesque Washington and Jefferson, Madison's shorter-than-average body seldom dominated the scene. Even the very short John Adams, with his rocklike character, had exuded authority, yet among his contemporaries, Madison had trouble outshining anyone else in the room. Behind the scenes, in small intimate groups, few men, however, could resist his sharp mind or his persuasive reasoning.

But for his good luck, such as Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans and England's preoccupation with Napoleon, Madison might have lost more than his high place in history. He barely escaped capture when the British sacked the capital, for example. And in Dolley, he had the great fortune of a wife who endeared the Madison family to the nation. She always made him look good, reflecting good luck on his part rather than style of leadership or executive ability.

Recently, however, historians have begun to pay more attention to Madison, seeing his handling of the war as similar to Lincoln's wartime management. Madison's government marshaled resources, faced down secessionist threats from New England, and proved to the British the folly of fighting wars with the Americans. He established, once and for all, respect for American rights on the high seas and emerged from the war with more support than he had when he was first inaugurated in 1808. Had Madison been assassinated by a British sympathizer a week after the Battle of New Orleans or killed by the British in resisting their attack on the White House, he would have died a national hero.

Also, historians note in Madison a flexibility of temperament—equaling Jefferson's practical mood—which did not undermine his basic principles. A strong nationalist and supporter of a powerful central government as the author of the Constitution, Madison nevertheless resisted extreme centralism with his Bill of Rights, Virginia Resolution, and opposition to Hamilton. Similarly, when he became President, Madison saw the need for a national bank and supported its establishment, enlarged government powers during the war, and took a firm federal stance in the face of treason and sedition. His executive sense of priorities, in other words, always considered first and foremost the immediate demands of crisis and the national needs of the moment. In some ways—because he was on the winning side of every important issue facing the young nation from 1776 to 1816—Madison was the most successful and possibly the most influential of all the Founding Fathers.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

J.C.A. Stagg

Professor Stagg is the editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison Project and a history professor at the University of Virginia. In addition to the volumes of Madison’s papers, his writings include:

Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830 (Princeton University Press, 1983)