History of the 4th: James Madison

James Madison has correctly been called “the Father of the Constitution,” and one might think that the Constitution went into effect on July 5, 1776, but this is not how it happened. The American Constitution didn’t go into effect until almost a decade and a half after the Declaration of Independence. How did this philosopher, diplomat, and Founding Father influence this?


James Madison was born into a prominent planter family in Virginia, as had George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before him. As a boy, his secondary education was conducted by a popular local Scottish tutor who taught him geography and mathematics as well as languages both modern and ancient. He was very good at Latin. A local reverend did his college preparatory work. In contrast to other Virginian young men, like Thomas Jefferson, for college, he did not attend William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. His health was somewhat fragile and the lowlands of that area would, it was believed, be harmful to his health.

Instead, the shy, quiet, and diminutive Madison — he was 5’4” to Washington’s 6’4” — attended Princeton, then called the College of New Jersey, where he came under the influence of the President of the college, a Scottish Presbyterian minister named John Witherspoon. Madison’s undergraduate studies included the ancient languages of Latin and Greek, as well as law, theology, and significant works of the then-popular Enlightenment writers. While there he participated in debating society and finished the traditional 3-year course of study — like English universities — in only two years. In 1771 he remained at Princeton an additional year to study under John Witherspoon political philosophy and Hebrew, which along with Greek would enable him to read the Bible in the original languages. The Scottish minister had a strong influence on Madison’s morality and philosophy, and other values of the Enlightenment, at that time increasingly popular in America.


Virginia House of Delegates

Soon his life turned to issues related to the Revolutionary War which began in 1775, especially his animosity to perceived excessive taxation of the American Colonies. Though he never saw battle during that war, he held positions of leadership in Virginia in both the militia as a colonel and in politics as a leader in the Virginia Constitutional Convention. This led to his election to the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia governor’s Council of State where he came to befriend Governor Thomas Jefferson.

After his election to the Virginia House of Delegates, he pushed for real religious freedom in the state, recommended the “disestablishment” of Anglicanism (Church of England) as the state religion of Virginia and called for not just “tolerance” for other denominations but “equal entitlement” of the exercise of religion. He worked with Thomas Jefferson in writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

When he was elected to the Second Continental Congress as the youngest member, he sought to amend the existing Articles of Confederation which had been the guiding document of the new nation beginning in November 1777. Madison recognized their weaknesses: they established a poor democracy, a weak federal government, and allowed each state (colony) to establish its own foreign trade policy.


As a friend and protege of Thomas Jefferson, Madison exchanged correspondences with Jefferson — sometimes in code — who was serving in Paris. Though Jefferson did not have a direct hand in crafting the Constitution, he sent Madison a “literary cargo” of some 200 books from France. Madison consumed them and used the resulting knowledge in his formulation of the Federalist Papers and ultimately the Constitution. But he was no puppet of the older Jefferson. They lived about 30 miles from each other in Virginia. Madison helped dissuade Jefferson from his idea that armed revolution every 19 years should recreate a new Constitution for each generation.

Constitutional Convention

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Following conferences that he was involved in at Mount Vernon, Annapolis, and Philadelphia, Madison recognized that amending the Articles of Confederation was insufficient and worked with Edmund Randolph and George Mason to develop the Virginia Plan. It was the outline that became the basis for what would become the Constitution of the United States of America. He called for a robust federal government made up of three branches of government with a “separation of power” — based, no doubt, on his Calvinistic education under Witherspoon that taught the “depravity of man.” Madison is famously quoted as saying

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

He further proposed a bicameral Congress with a Senate of two representatives from each state and a House made up of representatives whose number was determined by the population of the state. Finally, there was a federal Council of Revision that could veto laws made by Congress. Benjamin Franklin did not initially favor a bicameral Congress, but he eventually consented to the arrangement.

Federalist Papers

Federalist Papers

Not all the states initially agreed to the proposed Constitution. Several of the smaller states insisted on stronger “States’ Rights.” Madison’s Council of Revision was abandoned during this time, and its power of veto was passed to the Executive Branch. He called for a single executive, a President, who would be elected by an Electoral College. Nevertheless, Anti-Federalists campaigned against ratifying this Constitution.

Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay (who would become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) were publishing a series of article supporting the Pro-ratification position. Jay left the project and Hamilton asked Madison to take his place. Altogether the three wrote 85 articles which became known as The Federalist Papers, which after the Declaration of Independence and Constitution have become the most important works of political government written in the US. Madison himself wrote some 29 articles arguing for a “representative democracy” rather than the “excessive democracy” he felt the Articles of Confederation promoted, which caused social decay.

Not even all Virginians supported this constitution. Patrick Henry of “give me liberty or give me death” fame was the most strongly opposed, but Madison caucused with the undecided and Virginia became the 10th state to ratify it.



With the ratification of the Constitution, Madison resumed his work in politics. The newly elected President George Washington urged him to run for Senate, but he lost to Patrick Henry. He won election to Congress though on his platform of passing Amendments to the Constitution, which he had previously opposed before its ratification. These became known as the Bill of Rights ensuring individual rights, following the listing of the federal powers of the central government.

As an advisor to the President, he helped Washington by ghostwriting his first inaugural address and encouraged the appointment of Thomas Jefferson to the position of Secretary of State.

Madison’s association with Hamilton did not last. Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury advocated a strong national bank to support loans to emerging industries. This served the needs of the North and favored financial relations with Britain. Madison, along with Jefferson, believed instead that this was a threat to the republican nature of the new Constitution. They supported the agricultural needs of the South and alliance with French interests.

Nevertheless, Congress did create the First Bank of the United States. Along with his mentor Thomas Jefferson, Madison created the Democratic-Republican Party, in opposition to the Federalist Party represented by Hamilton and John Adams. Both parties supported Washington in the next national election, with Adams becoming his Vice President.

Adams became the next President, Thomas Jefferson became the third President in 1800, along with Madison’s help, and Madison was made Jefferson’s Secretary of State. As France was at war with most of Europe at this time, Napoleon needed funds. Madison, as Secretary of State, helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, effectively doubling the territory of the United States. He dispatched Louis and Clark to survey this purchase. Madison, Wisconsin is named in his honor.


British Burning Washington, D.C.

As the fourth President of the United States, the main event during Madison’s presidency was the War of 1812. France and Britain were at war, but Madison did not want to enter the war. However, Britain was seizing US trade ships, and he finally felt he had no choice. In 1812 he asked Congress to declare war on Britain.

He was the first President to accompany his troops into battle during the War of 1812 when the British marched into Washington, D.C. Grabbing a pair of dueling pistols he led his men both into battle as well as a retreat as the British set the White House and Capitol building on fire.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s Vice President, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and later Alexander Hamilton’s dueling partner, had once lived at the Payne boarding house as did the young widow Dolley Payne Todd. Burr, Madison’s classmate at Princeton, introduced the two and they married four months later in 1794. Dolley, 17 years his junior, was a popular ‘First Lady” effectively defining the role as the social secretary to the President. Indeed, after Thomas Jefferson’s wife died in 1782 and his daughter came to Washington less frequently, Dolly often accompanied Jefferson when a hostess was required.

A popular and natural beauty, she was known for her exuberance, wit, and warmth. Unlike her shy husband she was a social butterfly and as the White House hostess organized the first Inaugural Ball in Washington.

Her drawing-room attracted foreign ministers as well as politicians and leaders every week. She began the tradition of First Lady public charities by acting as Directress for a girls’ orphanage. Notably, just before the British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812, she took the time to pack the silver and save many important documents as well as the canvas portion of a famous portrait of George Washington by Lansdowne before they escaped the British.

Throughout Madison’s Presidency, he loved ice cream and popularized it at the White House. His wife’s favorite flavor was one that went back to the time of the Pilgrims: oyster.

Twilight Years

Madison retired at 65 but returned to work at 74 upon Thomas Jefferson’s death, as Rector of the University of Virginia, which he had helped Jefferson establish by bequeathing most of his personal library. Jefferson had already sold his first library to create the Library of Congress after the original government library burned in the War of 1812. At 79 Madison joined a 96-person group to amend the State Constitution of Virginia.

Though he was considered sickly for much of his life, he lived to the age of 85, outliving all other signers of the Constitution. When his doctor offered him stimulants that would keep him alive until July 4 on the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Both Jefferson and Adams had died on the 50th anniversary of that date. But Madison declined and died on June 28, just six days short of the anniversary.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, and historian. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, pop culture, and world travel. https://billpetro.com @billpetro