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American President Essays: James Madison

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James Madison: Life in Brief

Like his close friend Thomas Jefferson, James Madison came from a prosperous family of Virginia planters, received an excellent education, and quickly found himself drawn into the debates over independence. In 1776, he became a delegate to the revolutionary Virginia Convention, where he worked closely with Thomas Jefferson to push through religious freedom statutes, among other liberal measures. The youngest member of the Continental Congress, Madison was small in stature. His soft spoken, shy demeanor was a foil for his brilliant persistence in advocating his political agenda. Madison emerged as a respected leader of the congress, known for his hard work and careful preparation.

Leader of Political Battles

Believing that the Articles of Confederation rendered the new republic subject to foreign attack and domestic turmoil, James Madison helped set the wheels in motion for a national convention to draft the young nation's Constitution. Madison led the Virginia delegation to the Philadelphia meeting, which began on May 14, 1787, and supported the cry for General Washington to chair the meeting. Madison's "Virginia Plan" became the blueprint for the constitution that finally emerged, eventually earning him the revered title, "Father of the Constitution." Having fathered the document, Madison worked hard to ensure its ratification. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he published the Federalist Papers, a series of articles arguing for a strong central government subject to an extensive system of checks and balances.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1789, Madison served as Washington's chief supporter. In this capacity, he fulfilled a promise to Thomas Jefferson, introducing the Bill of Rights, a constitutional guarantee of civil liberties. As Washington continued to move closer to Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton's Federalist vision of a strong central government that promoted commercial and financial interests over agrarian interests, Madison broke with Washington, joining Jefferson to form the opposition party of Democratic-Republicans. During John Adams's presidency, Madison led the Republican fight against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which attempted to quell Republican opposition to Federalist foreign policy toward France. Madison authored the Virginia Resolutions, which declared the laws unconstitutional. Under Thomas Jefferson, Madison served as secretary of state, supporting the Louisiana Purchase and the embargo against Britain and France. Indeed, Madison shaped foreign policy during Jefferson's administration, emerging from behind the scenes in 1808 to succeed him as the fourth President of the United States.

It was not at all clear that Madison would carry the day. Jefferson's embargo of all trade with Britain and France had devastated the nation. New England states spoke of open secession from the Union. The Federalists, convinced they would ride national outrage to victory, re-nominated their 1804 contender, Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina. Meanwhile, George Clinton, who had agreed to run as Madison's vice president, also consented to run for President! Madison swamped the opposition, winning 122 votes to Pinckney's 44. His reelection was also dramatic. Madison's nomination for a second term came just fifteen days prior to his war message to Congress, listing American grievances against Britain. Congress voted the United States into the War of 1812, largely guaranteeing Madison's reelection.

Second War of Independence

The War of 1812 amounted to a second war of independence for the new republic, and quickly helped Madison's popularity. Much of the War of 1812 centered on bloody battles against the Native American tribes that were aided by the British, such as the Creek tribe led by the notorious Tecumseh, who was finally defeated by General William Henry Harrison. In 1814 the British took the nation's new capital, torching the White House and other federal buildings. They were finally defeated at the epic battle of New Orleans by General Andrew Jackson's ragtag army, many of whom were volunteers, including free blacks and slaves, and nearly 1,000 French pirates! The victories against Tecumseh and at New Orleans revitalized the nation and earned him the esteem of his constituents. Madison's critics, who organized the Hartford Convention to protest his policies, looked like traitors to the victorious nation; their anti-war criticism further weakened the Federalist Party.

Life of Surprises

Everyone was shocked when the shy and reticent James Madison announced his marriage to the vivacious Dolley Payne Todd, who became one of the most popular and vibrant First Ladies to ever grace the White House. Dolley Madison was already familiar with her role in Washington, since she had occassionally served as Jefferson's hostess during his administration. A beautiful woman who enjoyed a party, Dolley Madison quickly earned a reputation among conservatives and political enemies, who criticized her for gambling, wearing make-up, and using tobacco. Dolley was hurt by her critics, but was gratified to keep her popularity and public acclaim long after her husband had left office.

Despite Madison's popularity and his outstanding achievements, he has traditionally been misjudged in the past as a less-than-spectacular President. Recently, however, historians have begun to pay more attention to Madison, seeing his handling of the war as similar to Lincoln's war-time 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 respect for American rights on the high seas, and emerged from the war with more popular support than when he was first inaugurated in 1808. Additionally, when considering the fact that he ended up on the winning side of every important issue that faced the young nation from 1776 to 1816, Madison was the most successful—and possibly the most influential—of all the founding fathers.

James Madison: Life Before the Presidency

Raised on a plantation in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, James Madison, born on March 16, 1751, was a sickly child who never strayed far from his mother's side. His father, James Madison Sr., acquired substantial wealth by inheritance and also by his marriage to Nelly Conway, the daughter of a rich tobacco merchant. James's youth was marked by extreme changes. His most vivid childhood memories were of his fears of Indian attacks during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and of the day his family moved from their little farmhouse to a large plantation mansion, Montpelier. He also suffered from psychosomatic, or stress-induced, seizures, similar to epileptic fits, that plagued him on and off throughout his youth.

Surrounded by seven younger siblings who loved and respected him, James devoured books and the study of classical languages. By the time he entered the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University, Madison had mastered Greek and Latin under the direction of private tutors. He completed his college studies in two years but stayed on at Princeton for another term to tackle Hebrew and philosophy. Back at Montpelier in 1772, Madison studied law at home but had no passion for it. In 1774, he took a seat on the local Committee of Safety, a patriot prorevolution group that oversaw the local militia. This was the first step in a life of public service that his family's wealth allowed him to pursue.

Friendship with Jefferson

Events then moved quickly for the young man. Within two years, the colonies were on the brink of war with England, and young Madison found himself caught up in the debates over independence. In 1776, he became a delegate to the revolutionary Virginia Convention and would later push through statutes on religious freedom, among other measures, that he had worked on with Thomas Jefferson. In the regular election of delegates to the new state assembly, Madison lost to a less inhibited candidate who supplied the voters with plentiful helpings of free whiskey. Though defeated in the general election, he won appointment in 1778 to the Virginia Council of State, a powerful government body that directed state affairs during the Revolutionary War. In that capacity, he cemented his relationship with Thomas Jefferson, who served as governor of Virginia during the war years. From that time until Jefferson's death in 1826, Madison functioned as Jefferson's closest adviser and personal friend.

Earning Political Respect and Clout

At age twenty-nine, Madison became the youngest member of the Continental Congress, and within a year, the small, soft-spoken, shy young man had emerged as a respected leader of the body. It was a tribute to his hard work and understanding of the issues. No one ever came to a meeting more prepared than Madison. For three years, he argued vigorously for legislation to strengthen the loose confederacy of former colonies, contending that military victory required vesting power in a central government. Most of his appeals were beaten down by independent-minded delegates who feared the emergence of a monarchical authority after the war. Along with Jefferson, the young Virginian persuaded his home state to cede its western lands, which extended to the Mississippi River, to the Continental Congress, a move which undermined numerous land-grabbing schemes by hordes of greedy speculators.

Returning to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784, Madison battled Patrick Henry's attempts to tax citizens in support of the Christian religion. Henry, though a strong supporter of independence, nevertheless believed in state support of religion. Among the proposed laws that fell victim to Madison's relentless pressure were those designed to establish religious tests for public office and to criminalize heresy, though this later measure was not one that Henry supported.

Father of the U.S. Constitution

Believing that weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation rendered the new Republic subject to foreign attack and domestic turmoil, Madison persuaded the states' rights advocate John Taylor to call for a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, to address problems of commerce among the states. The poorly attended assembly issued a call for a national convention "to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." Madison led the Virginia delegation to the Philadelphia meeting, which began on May 14, 1787, and supported the cry for General George Washington to act as its chair. When Washington accepted, the body achieved the moral authority it needed to draft a new constitution for the nation.

In the weeks that followed, Madison emerged as the floor leader of those forces supporting a strong central government. His so-called Virginia Plan, submitted by Delegate Edmund Randolph, who was then governor of Virginia, became the essential blueprint for the Constitution that eventually emerged. Its major features included a bicameral national legislature with the lower house directly elected by the people, an executive chosen by the legislature, and an independent judiciary including a Supreme Court. Madison's extensive notes, which are the best source of information available of the closed-door meetings, detailed the proceedings and his activist role in shaping the outcome. By September 1787, Madison had emerged from the Constitutional Convention as the most impressive and persuasive voice in favor of a new constitution, eventually earning the revered title "Father of the Constitution."

Once the document was presented to the states for ratification, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, published a series of newspaper essays that became known collectively as the Federalist Papers. Writing under the pseudonym "Publius," Madison authored twenty-nine of the eighty-five essays. He argued the case for a strong central government subject to an extensive system of checks and balances wherein "ambition" would be counteracted by competing ambition. This collection of documents, especially Madison's essay No. 51, are classic statements on republican government and stand as a significant early interpretation of the meaning and intent of the U.S. Constitution.

In achieving ratification, Madison confronted his old opponent Patrick Henry, who successfully worked to keep Madison from gaining a seat in the newly created U.S. Senate. Instead, Madison won election to the U.S. House of Representatives over James Monroe in 1789. For the next several years, Madison served as Washington's chief supporter in the House, working tirelessly on behalf of the President's policies and politics. Most importantly, Madison introduced and guided to passage the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which were ratified in 1791. Known as the Bill of Rights, these amendments protected civil liberties and augmented the checks and balances within the Constitution. In achieving the ratification of the Bill of Rights, Madison fulfilled his promise to Jefferson, who had supported the Constitution with the understanding that Madison would secure constitutional protections for various fundamental human rights—religious liberty, freedom of speech, and due process, among others—against unreasonable, unsupported, or impulsive governmental authority.

Breaking New Ground

Madison eventually broke with Washington over the chief executive's foreign and domestic policies. He criticized Washington's support of Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury, who sought to create a strong central government that promoted commercial and financial interests over agrarian interests. He also found fault with the administration's handling of commercial relations with Great Britain and its seeming favoritism of Britain over France in the French Revolution. Madison's displeasure with the direction of national policy led him to join with Jefferson—who resigned as secretary of state in 1793—to form an opposition party known as the Democratic-Republicans.

To the surprise of most of his friends, on September 15, 1794, Madison married twenty-six-year-old Dolley Payne Todd, a lively Philadelphia widow with one infant son. The mature Madison, age forty-three at the time, had not noticed women much since a decade earlier, when the young Kitty Floyd had broken his heart to marry another suitor. Dolley had been introduced to Madison by their mutual friend Aaron Burr at a Philadelphia party. She immediately knew that he was a man whom she could love because of his gentle ways and high regard for women. She abandoned her Quaker religion, though not her Quaker family, to marry Madison. The two developed a bond of love and affection that lasted their entire lives.

During the presidency of John Adams, Madison led the fight against the Federalist-supported Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws, which attempted to suppress opposition to a Federalist foreign policy that favored England over France, were viewed by Democratic-Republicans as fundamental violations of the Bill of Rights. Madison authored the Virginia Resolution, adopted by the state legislature in 1798, which declared the laws unconstitutional—Jefferson authored a similar Kentucky Resolution. Returning to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1799, Madison campaigned for the election of Thomas Jefferson as President. When Jefferson won, Madison became secretary of state, a position which he retained until his own election to the presidency in 1808.

As secretary of state, Madison supported the Louisiana Purchase, the war against the Barbary pirates, and the embargo against Britain and France in response to their constant harassment of American ships and impressment of American sailors. Although it is difficult to know with certainty, due to Madison's tendency to avoid the spotlight, most historians agree with the French foreign minister at the time who said that Madison "governed the President" in foreign affairs. Rather than suggesting a weak President, Madison's domination of foreign policy actually rested upon the President's confidence in Madison and their mutual agreement on all matters of diplomacy. By 1808, the man behind-the-scenes stood poised to succeed Jefferson as the fourth President of the United States.

James Madison: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1808:

In line with the precedent established by Washington, Thomas Jefferson refused to stand for a third term, endorsing instead his friend Madison as his successor. Jefferson's wish was fulfilled by a Democratic-Republican caucus in Congress, although not without some opposition. The fifty-seven-year-old Madison, along with Jefferson's vice president, George Clinton, headed into the contest fearing the worst.

Jefferson's embargo of all trade with England and France had devastated the nation. New England states spoke openly of secession from the Union. The Federalists, convinced that they would ride the national anger to victory, renominated—without the benefit of a formal caucus—their 1804 contenders, Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York.

Anti-Madison newspapers swung into action with stories and cartoons that ridiculed Madison's small physical stature and the controversy associated with the embargo. "Why is the embargo like sickness?" asked one critic. "Because it weakens us." More serious were the Federalist charges that Madison had supported the embargo to build up domestic manufactures at the expense of foreign trade. A strong contingent of anti-Madison Democratic-Republicans were convinced that Madison's quiet demeanor sheltered a strong Hamiltonian-Federalist—one who favored a strong central government—in disguise. It took all of Jefferson's prestige and charm to convince dissident Democratic-Republicans, who had rallied around fellow Virginian James Monroe, not to stray into the Federalist camp out of spite for Madison. Even George Clinton, who had accepted the vice presidential nomination, denounced the caucus process and announced his own candidacy for President.

By the time the electoral college delegates cast their individual ballots on December 7, few political pundits harbored any doubts about the election's ultimate outcome, though the contests in Rhode Island and New Hampshire were still shrouded in some doubt. The results announced by Congress on February 8, 1809, came as little surprise: Madison had swamped the opposition. He won 122 votes to Pinckney's 44. The hapless Clinton garnered only six electors from his home state. Madison carried twelve states to Pinckney's five, all of which were in the New England region. The Virginia dynasty had remained intact.

The Campaign and Election of 1812

In the four years from 1808 to 1812, Madison's popularity fluctuated between extreme lows and incredible highs, depending upon the state of affairs with Britain. From the moment he assumed office in 1809, Madison was consumed by Britain's continued violations of America's neutral rights at sea. Nothing he did seemed to satisfy his critics. Challenges to his alleged pro-French policies reached fever pitch in the New England states, which had been impoverished by the actions that Jefferson and Madison took to cut off trade with England.

Some congressmen from the Midwest and South, determined to drive the British from Canada and the Spanish from west Florida, called on Madison to confront British-instigated Indian attacks in the Ohio River Valley. In June 1812, Madison sent Congress a special message listing American complaints against Britain. Not a declaration of war, which offended Madison's strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, the message asked Congress to decide the proper course of action. Later that month, after much debate, the House (79 to 49) and then the Senate (19 to 13) voted the nation into the War of 1812.

Madison's nomination for a second term came just fifteen days prior to his war message to Congress. On May 18, 1812, Madison received the endorsement of congressional Democratic-Republicans in their nominating caucus. Nevertheless, roughly one-third of Republican legislators boycotted the caucus altogether, vowing not to participate in renomination of the President. For second place, the caucus chose John Langdon of New Hampshire. Langdon declined the invitation, leading the caucus to select the venerable Elbridge Gerry, the "Gentleman Democrat" from Massachusetts and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, for the vice presidency.

A rebellious group of New York Democratic-Republicans who had participated in the caucus boycott supported the mayor of New York City, DeWitt Clinton, the nephew of former Vice President George Clinton, who had died in office. Clinton supporters hoped to forge a winning coalition among Republicans opposed to the coming war, Democratic-Republicans angry with Madison for not moving more decisively toward war, northerners weary of the Virginia dynasty and southern control of the White House, and disgruntled New Englanders who wanted almost anyone over Madison. Dismayed about the prospects of beating Madison, a group of top Federalists met with Clinton's supporters to discuss a unification strategy. Difficult as it was for them to join forces, this assembly of notables nominated Clinton for President and Jared Ingersoll, a Philadelphia lawyer, for vice president.

The Clintonians, who had no official party name, tailored their message to the region and the audience. They said one thing to war Democratic-Republicans, another to peace Democratic-Republicans, and something else again to antiwar Federalists. Their tactics turned the honorable John Quincy Adams, son of the former Federalist President John Adams, against his former party colleagues. The elder Adams, in fact, not only endorsed Madison but also agreed to head Madison's electoral ticket in his home district of Quincy, Massachusetts.

While the New England and mid-Atlantic opposition gave 89 votes to Clinton, Madison carried eleven states and 128 electoral ballots. He won all the southern states as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Vermont. The Federalists had seriously weakened, if not completely destroyed, their status as an established party by their fusionist strategy. To be fair, it is unlikely that any other strategy would have achieved victory against a seated President waging what many at the time called the Second American Revolution. (See Foreign Affairs section for more on the Second American Revolution.) No incumbent wartime President before or since Madison has ever lost his bid for reelection.

James Madison: Domestic Affairs

During the James Madison presidency, domestic affairs took a backseat to foreign affairs, as would be expected of a nation at war. The President made this point clear in his public addresses. For example, Madison's first inauguration speech stressed his commitment to neutrality in the French-English conflict while insisting that U.S. neutrality be respected without conditions by the warring parties. His second speech, delivered on March 13, 1813, ten months into the war, accused the British of arming frontier "savages" in vicious acts of war upon the American citizenry. Indeed, almost everything else seemed trivial in comparison to the conflict with Britain.

Among the domestic issues that did stand somewhat apart from the war itself was the struggle over the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, whose charter was scheduled to terminate in 1812. The move to recharter the Bank met stiff oppositon from three sources: "old" Republicans who viewed the Bank as unconstitutional and a stronghold of Hamiltonian power, anti-British Republicans who objected to the substantial holdings of Bank stock by Britons, and state banking interests opposed to the U.S. Bank's power to control the nation's financial business. When the anti-Bank forces killed the recharter drive, the U.S. confronted the British without the means to support war loans or to easily obtain government credit. In 1816, with Madison's support, the Second Bank was chartered with a twenty-year term. Madison's critics claimed that his support for the Bank revealed his pro-Federalist sympathies.

James Madison: Foreign Affairs

Just prior to James Madison's assumption of office, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which replaced Jefferson's failed embargo. It allowed the resumption of world trade with the exclusion of trade with England and France, thus barring French and British vessels from American ports. In the event that one of these nations removed its restrictions against American trade, the President was empowered to remove restrictions against that country, leaving the restrictions in place against the other. When neither country replied, Congress passed Macon's Bill No. 2, a perplexing law that removed all restrictions on American trade, including those against France and Britain, empowering the President to reimpose the restrictions on France or Britain only after one of them had repealed its restrictions on American trade and the other had failed to follow suit within three months. France met the challenge through the Cadore letter of August 1810, leading Madison to implement the provisions of Macon's Bill No. 2 in two stages, first in November 1810 and then in March 1811. The British insisted that American ships would continue to be seized until France lifted all restrictions on British trade. This proclamation essentially treated U.S. exports and the merchant marine as part of the British war strategy.

Congress voted for military preparations and, in April 1812, a ninety-day embargo. When Madison came before that body with his list of complaints against the British, which included the continued impressment of American sailors, the arming of Indians who attacked American settlers, and the trade restrictions embodied in the British Orders in Council, the House lost little time debating the issue, voting for war on June 4. The Senate, however, debated for more than two weeks and would not sanction war until June 17. In a regionally divided vote, Congress declared war on Britain the following day.

Second War for Independence

For Madison and the War Hawks, the declaration amounted to a second war of independence for the new Republic. It also provided the opportunity to seize Canada, drive the Spanish from west Florida, put down the Indian uprising in the Northwest, and secure maritime independence. In the preparations for battle, it became clear that most of the War Hawks wanted a land invasion of Canada above all else. Accordingly, the United States moved quickly to mount an offensive against Canada. The plan was aimed at separating Upper Canada (Ontario) from the Northwest, thus cutting off the Shawnees, Potawatomi, and other pro-British tribes from British support. Unfortunately, the move ended in disaster for American forces. By the fall of 1812, one American force had surrendered at Detroit, another had been defeated in western New York near Niagara Falls, and a third never even managed to get across the Niagara River. In just a few months, much of the Northwest Territory had fallen to British forces.

Things went better for the Americans in the spring of 1813. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over the British fleet on the southwestern tip of Lake Erie, following the sacking of the Canadian capital city of York (present-day Toronto), enabled the United States to send a force commanded by William Henry Harrison, who would become the ninth President of the United States, against the Native American leader, Tecumseh, at the Battle of the Thames River in western Ontario. A vengeful force of Kentucky militia beat the Indians badly. The following spring, General Andrew Jackson's Tennessee militia, aided by Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee allies, slaughtered what was left of the late Tecumseh's forces at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, deep in the Mississippi Territory (present-day Alabama).

Burning of the White House

Events swung back against the Americans in late spring of 1814 as the British, who had now defeated Napoleon, went on the offensive. British ships raided American ports from Georgia to Maine, occupying half the district of Maine in the process. They also launched an invasion down the Champlain Valley that was repelled after an American naval victory on Lake Champlain in September 1814. British forces were more successful in targeting the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. The seat of American government fell, with British troops torching the White House and most other federal buildings in retaliation for the burning of the Canadian Parliament buildings in York. Their offensive stalled in Baltimore, however, as they were unable to blast their way past Fort McHenry. It was this battle, in fact, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," which became the American national anthem in the 1930s.

Victory at New Orleans

Next, the British turned their attention to New Orleans, hoping to use the city as a bargaining chip in the coming peace negotiations. A massive British Army of 6,000 soldiers moved against the city, which was protected by Andrew Jackson's diverse command of 4,000 regular soldiers, Kentucky and Tennessee militia, and New Orleans citizens, including many free blacks and slaves and nearly 1,000 French pirates. When the British charged across an open field a few miles below the city on January 8, the entrenched Americans laid down such heavy fire that 2,000 Redcoats fell dead within minutes. Those who survived the first blast simply threw down their weapons and withdrew. Only seventy Americans died. Unbeknownst to either army, the battle came two weeks after a peace treaty had been signed in Ghent, Belgium.

Repercussions of War

Although Madison fared poorly during the war, the victories against Tecumseh and at New Orleans lifted American spirits and returned Madison to a high point of public respect. If nothing else, the war swelled national pride, broke the Indian threat in the Northwest, and reaped tremendous political benefits for those lucky enough to have fought and survived. The Battle of the Thames River alone, for example, was used to produce a President of the United States (Harrison), a vice president, three governors of Kentucky, three lieutenant governors, four U.S. senators, and twenty congressmen. General Jackson, moreover, emerged as a genuine war hero, equal in public esteem to George Washington. The 2,200 dead Americans undoubtedly left behind families proud of the men who had won the Second American Revolution.

Not all Americans, however, had wrapped themselves in the flag of patriotism. New England states seldom met their quotas of militiamen, and many New England merchants and farmers traded freely with the enemy. After the British offensive included northern ports, some New England Federalists talked about seceding from the Union. In an attempt to block secessionist sentiment, moderate Federalists called a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, to propose a series of constitutional amendments protecting sectional rights. The convention leaders brought their proposals to Washington just as news broke of the Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent. To most of the nation, the participants of the Hartford Convention looked like traitors, or at least unpatriotic troublemakers. Their antiwar criticism and regional concerns helped to doom the weakened Federalist Party as a national entity on the political scene.

James Madison: Life After the Presidency

Madison left the White House and retired to his Virginia plantation, Montpelier, where he spent his remaining years supervising his large plantation holdings and slaves. Being a gentleman planter scarcely utilized all his energies, however, and the sixty-eight-year-old former President exercised his quill, a pen made from a feather, and gave his voice to several causes. High on his list of activities was Jefferson's University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded after leaving office. Madison served on its Board of Visitors and succeeded Jefferson as rector, or head, of the university in 1826.

Three years later, Madison served as a delegate at the Virginia Constitutional Convention, negotiating once again, as he had done in youth, compromises between large slaveholders and western farmers. In the great constitutional debate over the high protective tariff passed in 1828, Madison denounced the doctrine of nullification, the right of states to declare federal laws unconstitutional when they undermined state interests. Additionally, Madison was a founding member of the American Colonization Society, which favored a gradual abolition of slavery and the resettlement of slaves and free blacks in Africa.

Death took the aging President quietly at his breakfast on June 28, 1836, after having been confined to his room for chronic rheumatism and severe attacks from liver dysfunction for six months. His family and much of the nation had hoped that the eighty-five-year-old Madison would live to July 4, so as to join Jefferson and Adams in the list of former Presidents who had died on that historic date. More than 100 slaves, family friends, and relatives attended his burial the next day at the family cemetery at Montpelier.

James Madison: Family Life

The mild-mannered James Madison had no children of his own, and his wife's son, John Payne Todd, age eighteen in 1808, spent as much time away from the Madison household at school as he did at home. The President enjoyed few leisure hobbies other than playing chess and devouring classical literature in the original Greek and Latin. He did take an occasional horseback ride, and he enjoyed walking in the woods observing nature. But principally, family life at the White House consisted of little private time with Dolley or John. Rather, James Madison, following the inclinations of his wife, socialized, partied, danced, and dined grandly in what appears to have been one continuous entertainment saga. By the end of Madison's second term, moreover, the young John Todd had proven himself to be a rather witless playboy, given to alcohol, low-class women, and free spending, much to the dismay of both the President and the First Lady.

James Madison: The American Franchise

In 1810, the most populous state in the Union was Virginia, with 975,000 people, followed by New York (959,000), Pennsylvania (810,000), and North Carolina (556,000). The newest state, Ohio, which was admitted to the Union in 1803, held 231,000 people, nearly reaching the population of New Jersey (246,000). In addition to the seventeen states, five western areas had been designated as territories: Michigan (5,000), Illinois (12,000), Louisiana-Missouri (20,000), Indiana (25,000), and Mississippi (31,000). Two other regions, Alabama (9,000) and Arkansas (1,000), also had significant populations. Almost all of these new western lands supported Madison and strongly supported the War of 1812.

Emergence of the New West

Despite the fact that these western territories held only about 2.5 percent of the nation's total population in 1810, they were destined to yield great political influence: their populations had great potential for growth while the territories themselves could be divided into numerous states. Understandably, over the next generation, this potential western vote captured political attention and dominated the national agenda. A whole new breed of politicians emerged in these years, men dedicated to representing the "new West" by supporting cheap and even free land (Homestead legislation), internal improvements, and Indian removal. In his State of the Union address in 1815, Madison proposed support for Henry Clay's American System, which embraced policies designed to tie the East to the West in a national market. These policies included a national bank, protective tariffs, and a national system of roads. Ironically, all three of these items had first been proposed by Hamilton and opposed by the Democratic-Republicans in the 1790s.

Decline of Federalist Power

During the Madison presidency, the Democratic-Republicans dominated Congress. In the four congressional terms, the Federalists never held more than 31 percent of the membership of the House of Representatives and the Senate. By the end of Madison's term of office, the Federalist Party had lost its status as a national political organization. Even Abigail Adams, the wife of Federalist President John Adams, declared her support for Madison in 1812.

Unifying the Country: Heroes and Transportation

Although most Americans still farmed and the poor condition of roads continued to isolate them from one another, a new bond of unity linked much of the nation together in the Madison years. For all the opposition of the New England region to the War of 1812, almost all other Americans looked with pride upon the exploits of Generals William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. When Commodore Oliver Perry defeated the British squadron on the Great Lakes, a new seam in the national fabric was stitched into place.

Travelers, moreover, still walked westward on foot more often than they rode. It took weeks and months to move slaves from upstate Virginia overland and across the mountains, following old Indian trails, to link up to the Natchez Trace for a final journey to the slave markets in Natchez or New Orleans. Yet the signs were everywhere that changes in transportation would create a new electorate less regional and less isolated. In 1815, for example, a stagecoach company advertised a regular thirty-six-hour run between Boston and New York City. And Robert Fulton's newly invented steam-powered paddle wheelers would soon be adapted for use on inland rivers; this was an innovation that would usher America into a veritable transportation revolution, bonding the nation together into a national market that would only be broken by civil war.

Issue of Slavery

Slavery had not yet become the ultimate test of regional identity when Madison took office. Indeed, in 1810, no one in the nation would have believed that a tremendous upsurge in the world demand for cotton, which would divide the nation into half slave and half free by 1830, was just around the corner. Most Americans applauded the newly enforced end to the importation of slaves from Africa, which occurred in 1808 and was facilitated by U.S. ships that patrolled the southern ports. It had become respectable, moreover, for southern slave masters like James Madison to support the American Colonization Society's plan to transport blacks back to Africa as the solution to the so-called race problem in America. In 1816, when Madison left office, the American electorate was, for the most part, of one mind about most things. It would, however, be a short-lived unity.

James Madison: Impact and Legacy

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)