James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States, is better known as the Father of the Constitution. As a leading player at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he helped design the system of checks and balances that operate among Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. He also was instrumental in creating the United States federal system, which divides the power between the central government and the various states.
Madison was born on March 16, 1751, in the home of his maternal grandparents located about 12 miles from Fredericksburg, Virginia. He was the eldest of twelve children. His ancestors on both sides of his family settled in Virginia during the 1600s. The Madison plantation, Montpelier, was located near present-day Orange, Virginia, and was worked by many slaves.
Madison was sickly and frail as a child. He studied with private tutors as well as attended school. He entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age 18 and had an active interest in politics. He completed his college work in two years and graduated in 1771. He spent the next six months studying Hebrew, philosophy and other subjects searching for answers to his religious questions. He had a weak speaking voice, which kept him from becoming a preacher. He entered politics in 1774 as a member of the Committee of Safety in Orange, Virginia. In 1776 he helped to draft a new constitution for Virginia and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. These documents were used as patterns by other colonies.
Madison met Thomas Jefferson in 1776 while serving in Virginia's revolutionary assembly, and they became friends for life. In 1779 Madison was elected to the Continental Congress. Madison represented Virginia at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at age 36. He fought for a stronger central government and drafted the Virginia Plan, which is also called the Randolph Plan. This plan foreshadowed the Constitution that was adopted.
Madison was knowledgeable about political history and knew of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the basic law replaced by the Constitution. Of all the people at the convention, Madison kept the most complete record of the debates there. Madison next served as a member of Virginia convention called to consider ratifying the new Constitution. He also joined Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing the Federalist, a series of letters to newspapers encouraging ratification. These letters are still considered the best explanation of the constitutional system in America.
Madison lost an election for a seat in the first United States Senate in 1788. The next year he defeated James Monroe in an election for the United States House of Representative. There he proposed ideas for organizing the Departments of State, Treasury and War, drafted most of the first tariff act, and helped draft the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which became the Bill of Rights.
Madison met and married a young widow named Dolley Payne Todd in Philadelphia in 1794. The couple had no children but raised Dolley's son from her first marriage. [Mrs. Madison gave lavish parties in the White House and is said to have saved national treasures from burning when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.]
Thomas Jefferson appointed his friend James Madison as secretary of state. Together they achieved the most important success in foreign relations in Jefferson's presidency - the Louisiana Purchase. They failed to force England and France to respect the rights of American ships at sea. Jefferson favored Madison to succeed him as President.
The War of 1812 was known as "Mr. Madison's War." Madison knew that America was not prepared for war, but he also knew that the United States could not tolerate further insults from Great Britain. He recommended war with England, and Congress approved it on June 18, 1812. The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent, which went into effect in February 1815. The war preserved American territorial integrity, but it didn't settle any of the causes for the war. The war ended without a victory for either side.
Other historical events of President Madison's time were: 1) In 1811 the National Road, which went from Maryland to Illinois, was started and became a major route to the West. 2) Also in 1811, the steam-powered printing press, invented by a German printer, made newspapers cheaper to print in large numbers. 3) During the War of 1812, British troops captured Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings. 4) Jane Austen's novels established her as a great writer of English literature. Her novels included Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). 5) "The Star-Spangled Banner," which became our national anthem, was written by Francis Scott Key after watching the British attack Baltimore during the War of 1812. 6) Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, ending his plans to rule Europe. 7) The stethoscope, used to listen to the heart, etc, was invented by a French doctor in 1816. Facts and information in this blog post are from an article by Robert J. Brugger, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 13, pp. 32-36.