James Madison's life (1751–1836) spanned the entire period of the gestation and birth of the United States of America. He was involved in the political movement toward American independence. He was the genius behind the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. He was the fourth U.S. president, overseeing the prosecution of the War of 1812 and entering into a long period of retirement in which he actively served the causes of higher education and the anti-slavery movement in his native Virginia, which remained his home throughout his eighty-five years.
Along with George Washington, John Adams, and his close friend Thomas Jefferson, Madison was one of the giants of America's founding era. Alongside Washington and Jefferson, his fellow Virginians, Madison devoted the prime of his life to the cause of American independence and free government. He entered politics two years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and he took a seat in the Continental Congress several years later. By 1781, the thirteen revolutionary American states were well on their way to real independence. Fighting ceased with the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, and the Treaty of Paris was signed between Great Britain and the United States in 1783.
The 1780s were the critical period for the formation of the American government. James Madison was one of the most avid supporters of a strong, central government. He was the chief architect of the Virginia Plan for the American Constitution which was adopted by the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia as its working model. The Virginia Plan proposed the formation of a strong federal republic with a popularly elected Executive, a Legislature composed of a Senate and a House of Representatives, and a Judicial branch of the government which would guard the rule of law.
After much debate at the Convention itself and throughout the American nation, a modified version of the Virginia Plan was ratified and cemented into law. A great deal of the support the Constitution received came about as a result of the convincing arguments for federalism set forth in the anonymously penned publication The Federalist. The publication was in fact the work of Madison and ardent Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Their arguments aimed and succeeded at dispelling many fears that a central government would endanger the freedom of the people more than would a confederate system of sovereign states.
In the succeeding years, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson each took their turn as Chief Executive of the new nation. During the years of their presidencies, the nation contended with sharp partisan divisions between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Adams and Jefferson were the key figures at the two ideological poles. Madison himself came to favor Republicanism and to differ sharply with the Federalists on many issues, particularly their general opposition to France in the 1790s, when that nation was brimming over with revolutionary violence as well as declaring war on nations such as Great Britain.
With Jefferson's 1801 inauguration as president came an era of great expansion for America. The 1803 acquisition from Napoleon's France of the giant territory known as Louisiana Purchase just about doubled the size of the United States. Lewis and Clark explored this territory as far as the Pacific northwest, and subsequent years saw the movement of many Americans out west in a drive to stake land claims and settle parts of the American Midwest. James Madison was Jefferson's Secretary of State during these years and oversaw the diplomatic missions which attended the purchase.
During Madison's term as president (1809–1817), he addressed many foreign policy issues, the foremost of which wwas the ongoing trading dispute between the United States, Great Britain, and France. After a series of British acts of aggression on the high seas toward American cargo ships, Congress declared war against Great Britain in the spring of 1812. The War of 1812 lasted the following year and a half, and Americans witnessed the burning of their capital at Washington, D.C. by invading British troops.
Madison was a popular president when he stepped down in 1817. By that time, the United States was dealing with the first major controversies of northern and southern sectionalism over states' rights and slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allayed some of the controversy for a short time. At the close of the 1820s, the election of populist Andrew Jackson brought America into a new era of assertive democratic politics, forging new ideological splits in the electorate.
James Madison died at the end of Jackson's term in 1836, having authored and witnessed some of the great political developments of the modern age. American constitutionalism was considered the foremost of these developments, as it has served as a most prominent model for democracies all over the world for over two centuries. We owe much of the credit for American constitutionalism to Madison's mind and political determination. His life is closely related to that of the early part of his country's, which gives his story a visible significance shared by few men of America's founding era.