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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Fourth President • 1809-17
James Madison
James Madison

Madison was a brilliant political philosopher and pragmatic politician. He won recognition as the "Father of the Constitution," served in the Continental Congress as well as the House of Representatives, and founded the Democratic-Republican Party with his mentor, Jefferson. As President, Madison's efforts to keep the peace through diplomacy failed, and he led the Nation through the indecisive War of 1812 against Britain and the beginning of the ensuing period of nationalistic fervor. Domestically, with the support of Congress, he strengthened U.S. military forces, created the Second Bank of the United States, and enacted a protective tariff.

A scion of the planter aristocracy, Madison was born in 1751 at Port Conway, King George County, Va., while his mother was visiting her parents. With her newborn son, the first of 10 children, in a few weeks she journeyed back to Montpelier estate, in Orange County, which became his lifelong home. He obtained his early education from his parents, tutors, and a private school.

An excellent scholar though frail and sickly in his youth, in 1771 Madison graduated from the College of New Jersey (present Princeton University), where he demonstrated special interest in government and the law. But, considering the ministry for a career, he stayed on for a year of postgraduate study in theology.

Back at Montpelier, still undecided on a profession, Madison soon embraced the patriot cause, and State and local politics absorbed much of his time. In 1775 he served on the Orange County committee of safety; the next year, at the Virginia Convention, which advocated various revolutionary steps and framed the Virginia constitution; in 1776-77 in the House of Delegates; and in 1778-80 in the Council of State. His ill health precluded military service.

Madison was chosen in 1780 to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress (1780-83 and 1786-88). Although originally the youngest Delegate, he played a major role in its deliberations. Meantime, in the years 1784-86, he had again sat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Madison was a guiding force behind the Mount Vernon Conference (1785), attended the Annapolis Convention (1786), and was otherwise instrumental in the convening of the Constitutional Convention (1787). Preeminent at the Convention, he served on key committees and tirelessly advocated a strong Government. His Virginia Plan was in large part the basis of the Constitution. And his journal of the Convention, which was not published until after his death, remains the best single record of the event.

Madison and Washington
Early in his career, Madison won the epithet "Father of the Constitution," the instrument he was later to uphold as President. In this painting, which portrays its adoption, he is seated directly to the left of the group of three standing men. (Oil, ca. 1856, by Junius Brutus Stearns, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.)

Madison also played a major part in guiding the Constitution through the Continental Congress. Leading the pro-ratification forces in Virginia, he successfully defended the instrument against powerful opponents. Earlier, in New York, where he was serving in the Congress, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in a series of essays that in 1787-88 appeared in the newspapers and were later published in book form as The Federalist (1788), a classic in political theory.

Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison

As a U.S. Representative (1789-97), Madison helped frame and pass the Bill of Rights. He also assisted in organizing the executive department and creating a system of Federal taxation. As leaders of the opposition to Hamilton's policies, he and Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party.

In 1794 Madison married a vivacious widow who was 16 years his junior, Dorothea ("Dolley") Payne Todd, who had a son; they were to raise no children of their own. Although spending the period 1797-1801 in semiretirement, Madison authored the Virginia Resolutions, which attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts. While he served as Secretary of State (1801-9), his wife often acted as President Jefferson's hostess. Her lavish parties at the White House dazzled the Capital City for years.

In 1809 Madison succeeded Jefferson. Like the first three Presidents, Madison was enmeshed in the ramifications of European wars. Diplomacy had failed to prevent the seizure of U.S. ships, goods, and men on the high seas; and a depression wracked the country. Madison continued to negotiate with the warring parties and applied economic sanctions, eventually effective to some degree.

But continued British interference with American shipping created strong congressional sentiment for war. The "War Hawks," a group of mostly young Democratic-Republican Congressmen from the South and West who were territorial expansionists as much as defenders of the national pride, urged naval action to punish the British, the conquest of Canada, and military measures to end British fomenting of the Indians in the West. Eventually agreeing that U.S. honor and economic independence were at stake, in 1812 Madison asked Congress to declare war against Britain.

New England opposition hampered Madison's conduct of the War of 1812. This cartoon shows him "beheading" or repealing, his 1814 embargo (snapping turtle). He was forced to do so because of the objections of northeastern merchants, who profited by supplying British forces. (Engraving, detail, 1814, by Alexander Anderson, after a drawing, 1814, by John W. Jarvis, in the New York Evening Post, Apr. 25, 1814, Library of Congress.)

The young Nation was ill prepared. Federalist alienation in New England sapped the war effort. Poor generalship, inadequate troop strength, and supply and transportation problems frustrated the Army's efforts to conquer lightly defended Canada. At sea, despite victories in individual encounters, the U.S. Navy found itself unable to cope with the Royal Navy, which blockaded the coast.

The British captured Washington, burned the White House, Capitol, and other buildings, and forced the Government to flee the city for a time. The war ended in stalemate in December 1814 when the inconclusive Treaty of Ghent, which nearly restored prewar conditions, was signed.

But thanks mainly to Andrew Jackson's spectacular victory at the Battle of New Orleans (Chalmette) in January of 1815, most Americans believed they had won. Twice tested, independence had survived and an ebullient nationalism marked Madison's last years in office, during which period the Democratic-Republicans held virtually uncontested sway.

Imaginative British version of their attack on Washington in 1814, near the end of the War of 1812. The letters indicate key actions. (Engraving, published by G. Thompson, Library of Congress.)

Octagon House

During the last 3 years of his administration, Madison concentrated on his domestic program. Congress, concurring in three of his proposals, strengthened land and naval forces to avoid the repetition of raids on the Capital and to protect the country as a whole and its commerce; established the Second Bank of the United States; and enacted a protective tariff on foreign manufactures. Although Madison favored internal improvements, he vetoed on constitutional grounds a congressional bill that sought to finance the building of roads and canals with Federal funds.

In retirement after his second term, Madison managed Montpelier, but continued to be active in public affairs. He served as cochairman of the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829-30 and as rector of the University of Virginia after 1826. Writing newspaper articles defending the administration of Monroe, he also acted as his foreign policy adviser.

Madison spoke out, too, against the emerging sectional controversy that threatened the existence of the Union. Although a slaveholder all his life, he was active during his later years in the American Colonization Society, whose mission was the resettlement of slaves in Africa. He passed away at the age of 85 in 1836.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004