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James Madison

Early Days in Politics

The Young Virginian

Becoming a Leader

In the early months of 1774, the British Parliament deliberated on how the Americans ought to be punished for the infractious behavior displayed at the Boston Tea Party in December the previous year. A series of bills known by incensed Americans as the Intolerable Acts were passed in the House of Commons, among them an order that the port of Boston should be shut down. This action infuriated not only American colonists in the northeast, but also southerners such as the young James Madison.

Politics increasingly became Madison's main preoccupation. The issues that concerned him most were the religious establishment in Virginia and the more general issues of trade policies between Crown and colonies. Having developed a strong affinity for dissenting religious communities while at Princeton, Madison came to look very critically upon the established Anglican Church in Virginia. He was particularly upset by the various punishments meted out by the government against Protestant dissenters who resisted the rule of the Anglican episcopacy.

On December 22, 1774, when he was twenty-three years of age, Madison formally entered politics in Virginia when he was elected as a member of the Orange County Committee of Safety. This Committee was part of a movement to boycott British manufacturers. Early in the same year, the Virginia House of Burgesses defied Governor Dunmore's dissolution of the assembly. Madison and his Committee and many other public men in Virginia were standing in open defiance of the British.

The situation came to a head on April 19, 1775, when gunshots were fired against uniformed British troops at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Revolutionary war was imminent, and along with Massachusetts, Virginia came to play a leading role in the struggle. One of her leading citizens, George Washington, soon took to the field as the commanding general of the Continental Army. Madison himself was unfit to don the uniform. His health was still unstable, and the closest he came to the military fight was his receiving an honorary commission as a colonel in the Orange County militia.

Madison played an important role in the political developments during the Revolution. In April 1776, he was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention–a revolutionary assembly which gathered in opposition to the British rule of the colony. Critical decisions were made at this Virginia Convention that affected the course of events throughout the American colonies. On May 15, the body unanimously told its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to call for a declaration of independence from the British Crown. Among these delegates were Thomas Jefferson, who soon became a close friend of Madison's, as well as Richard Henry Lee, who read the proposal to the Congress on June 15, 1776. The American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed shortly thereafter on July 4, marking the creation of the United States of America.

Near this time, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopted a Declaration of Rights, primarily the work of the prominent supporter of independence, George Mason. Significantly, it was the young James Madison who was responsible for that Declaration's strong-worded commitment to the idea of religious freedom. His was the hand behind its revolutionary provision that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience."

The Virginia Constitutional Convention succeeded in establishing a legislative assembly for the new revolutionary government of the state, the Virginia House of Delegates. Madison was elected as a member to this House in October 1776. Also elected was Jefferson, who quickly moved to disestablish the Anglican Church from its privileged position in Virginia. Madison supported Jefferson's efforts. In the 1777 elections, however, he failed to win back his seat in the House, allegedly because he refused to lure voters to the polls with free liquor.

Madison was not completely deprived of political office in 1777. The House itself voted to put him in the Virginia Council of State, whose members worked under the governor of the state, who was then the great revolutionary orator, Patrick Henry. Madison continued to serve on the Council after Thomas Jefferson became Virginia's governor in June 1779. At this time, Virginia was reeling from the aftermath of the first of several British invasions. Madison was a witness only to this first invasion of his home state, as he was elected in December 1779 as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

At the time that America's military fortunes seemed to be at their darkest hour, young James Madison's rise as a political leader of national stature had commenced. He arrived in Philadelphia in March 1780, the same time that General Washington's Army was encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, experiencing a harsher, hungrier winter than the one they had spent at Valley Forge the winter before. It would be a major concern of the Continental Congress, in which Madison was the youngest member at age twenty- nine, to support the struggling army with money and supplies, a task made very difficult by the depreciation of the paper money upon which the Americans had been floating the economic cost of the war.

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