James Madison

Portrait of James Madison with powdered white hair, black coat and ruffled necktie
James Madison by Catherine A. Drinker, after Gilbert Stuart, 1875


Quick Facts

Although as America’s shortest president James Madison was never a physically imposing man, he remains an intellectual giant in the history of the early United States. Madison’s short stature and sickly nature as a child encouraged him to dedicate himself to academics. His brilliant mind, and the wealth that accompanied his status as the scion of the Virginia planter aristocracy, allowed him to excel at his legal studies at the College of New Jersey (present Princeton University), graduating in 1771.

When Madison returned to his family plantation in Virginia, he became involved in local politics, soon embracing the patriot cause. Too small and weak for the military, instead Madison threw himself into framing the Virginia constitution, and serving in the Virginia state legislature.

In 1780, Madison was chosen to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress. Although its youngest delegate, his strong grasp on the law and passionate belief in the promise of the American state made him a charismatic leader. Madison tirelessly advocated a strong, central government among the Constitutional Conventions which would develop the Constitution that American government is based upon. Along with statesmen Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he authored the Federalist Papers in1787arguing this point, a document which is still studied by political theorists today. After the Constitution was adopted in 1787, Madison continued to be involved in the process of its refinement. As a Representative of Virginia, he helped frame and pass the Bill of Rights, as well as create a system of federal taxation.

Madison married the vivacious Dolley Payne Todd in 1794, and took a leave of absence from public service in 1797 to enjoy her company. This rest would be short; he was asked to serve as Secretary of State under his friend and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson in 1801.       

After eight years as Secretary of State, Madison was elected to succeed Jefferson as President of the United States. He was immediately 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 some members of Congress felt that it wasn’t enough, and that American honor and economic independence were at stake. Agreeing, Madison asked Congress in 1812 to declare war against Britain.

After the war, Madison concentrated his administration on domestic affairs: strengthening land and naval forces to avoid another raid on the Capital and to protect the country and its commerce as a whole, establishing the Second Bank of the United States, and enacting a protective tariff on foreign manufacturers. After the conclusion of his second term, Madison retired from public service. However, he continued in his concern of domestic affairs, speaking out against the emerging sectional controversy that threatened the existence of the Union – slavery. 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.

Last updated: February 22, 2019