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.
The youngest member of the Continental Congress, Madison was small in stature. His soft-spoken manner was offset by 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 he 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 the 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, and 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! However, 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 Madison 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 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 occasionally 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 she 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.
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