James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 at his grandparent's home in Port Conway, King George County, Virginia, while his mother was visiting her parents. A few weeks after his birth, mother and child returned to the family's Montpelier estate in Orange County. Born the oldest son of prosperous Virginia farmers, Madison would become a guiding force behind the establishment of the United States Constitution, and the republic's fourth President.
Madison was often in poor health as a child, spending long periods of convalescence reading and studying. In 1769, he entered the College of New Jersey at Princeton. He was a brilliant student, completing four years of history and government courses in just two years. Considering a career in the ministry, he stayed on at Princeton for a year to study theology.
Back at Montpelier and undecided on a career, Madison soon became involved in politics. In 1775, he served on the Orange County committee of safety. A year later he was elected to the Virginia Convention of 1776, where he was a staunch supporter of freedom of religion. He met his lifelong friend, Thomas Jefferson, while both men served in the Virginia House of Delegates.
In 1779, Madison was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He served in Congress through the end of the Revolutionary War. His poor health precluded any military service during the revolution. From 1784 to 1786 he served in the Virginia House of Delegates, where his most notable accomplishment was blocking the establishment of state supported religion. Madison was also a delegate to a Virginia convention on interstate trade. The report of this meeting called for a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation to make "the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the Virginia delegation of which Madison was a member, presented a plan he authored to scrap the weak central government defined in the Articles of Confederation in favor of a strong national government. Madison took a leading role at the convention, taking the floor more than 150 times to speak on various issues. He was instrumental in shaping the Constitution that emerged from the convention.
Madison devoted himself to ratification of the new Constitution, defending it against opponents such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee. He collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing a series of essays on the benefits of the new Constitution. These essays were collected and published in 1788 as The Federalist Papers, which has become a classic of political theory.
In later years, when Madison was referred to as the "Father of the Constitution," he protested that the document was not "the off-spring of a single brain," but "the work of many heads and many hands."
Next, Madison served in the new United States House of Representatives, where he sponsored a series of amendments to the Consitution to safeguard individual liberties. Ten of these were ratified by the states and became the Bill of Rights. In 1794, Madison married a young Philadelphia widow named Dolley Payne Todd. In 1797, he went into semiretirement at Montpelier.
Madison returned to national scene in 1801 as President Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State and right-hand man. In addition, Dolly served as White House hostess. He succeeded Jefferson as President in 1808. Throughout his first term Madison was preoccupied by disputes with European powers. In 1810, he seized the province of West Florida from Spain. In June 1812, he asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain. Except for a few naval and military victories, including Andrew Jackson's triumph at New Orleans, the War of 1812 was nearly disastrous for America. With the capital burned by British invaders in 1814, Madison accepted peace on the basis of the prewar relationship with Great Britain.
During Madison's final years in office he turned his attention to domestic affairs. Ironically, he proposed several measures he previously opposed, including the recharter of a national bank. He retired to Montpelier in 1817.
Madison had a long and active retirement. He managed his plantation, becoming interested in scientific farming. He devoted long hours to editing his journal of the Constitutional Convention, which the government published four years after his death. He participated in the planning of University of Virginia, and when Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, he became the university's second rector. His last public political appearance was in 1829 at the Virginia convention to draw up a new state constitution. He died at his home on June 28, 1836 at age 85.
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