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James Madison

Becoming a Leader

Early Days in Politics

Father of the Constitution

When James Madison entered the Continental Congress in March 1780, the war-torn American states were set to be loosely governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had been passed in 1777, but would not go into effect until 1781. They were informed by the principle that the thirteen infant states were sovereign entities, and that any national union of which they might be apart was dissoluble by the will of the state governments. A number of men in Congress opposed such a clear-cut view of states' rights, James Madison among them. He saw an essential unity in the American states that went far beyond their struggle against a common enemy, the British. To Madison, the American people were a single people, and they should have a strong national government which would represent them in that unity. This idea would eventually inform the doctrine known as Federalism.

In 1781, the British commander, General Cornwallis, surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the American Revolution and marking the American patriots' victory in their struggle against British rule. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris formally ended the conflict, and Great Britain recognized the United States as an independent country. In Congress, members such as Madison turned their eyes in a more focused way toward the government of the new American nation. Debates ensued over whether the United States would be a confederation of thirteen small republics, or a single, federated republic. Madison favored the latter view, and in its interest he worked toward strengthening Congress's power over the state governments. In 1783, he helped secure the passage of an amendment to the Articles of Confederation that would give Congress a new taxing power over the states. The state governments rejected this amendment.

Madison made a name for himself early on in Congress for his involvement in foreign policy and trade questions. He was a leading figure in supporting a continued alliance with the French. He defended Benjamin Franklin's closeness to the French, angering many in Congress who favored closer ties with Britain after the revolutionary controversies had subsided. He also served on a committee which dealt with boundary and trading disagreements with the Spanish. The Americans wished to transport and trade freely up and down the Mississippi River, particularly at its Spanish-controlled delta. Americans also wished to mark their western boundary along the Mississippi. Much of the land west of the thirteen states was claimed by Virginia; though he was a proud Virginian, Madison worked toward Virginia's ceding those claims to the Congress as national property. This action reinforced his federalist position.

In the early months of 1783, Madison's hopes for a strong national union were dashed by the breaking up of nationalist efforts in the Continental Congress. He desired to return home to Virginia, but was kept in Philadelphia by a personal preoccupation: he had fallen in love with a young lady named Catherine Floyd, the daughter of a New York delegate to the Congress. The two became engaged that year, but at the end of the summer, Catherine broke the engagement and decided she should marry a young medical student instead of James Madison. Madison was hurt by the affair, and in October 1783, with Congress's adjournment, he left Philadelphia behind and returned home.

Back in Virginia, Madison quickly found himself involved once again in politics. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in the spring of 1784. Before immersing himself entirely in legislative affairs, however, he spent the summer of that year on an extended tour of the northern states. While on the road, he ran in with the Marquis de Lafayette, the famous young Frenchman who had fought alongside General George Washington. The two traveled together as far as the Mohawk Valley in New York, where Lafayette helped settle a boundary dispute with the Iroquois people. Madison returned to Virginia in the fall, and found himself at odds with Patrick Henry over the question of religious establishment in the state.

Henry was pushing for a bill which would have taxed Virginians to support "Teachers of the Christian Religion." Madison opposed the measure, and wrote a pamphlet in the summer of 1785 called the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments which set forth his views. It was distributed and read throughout Virginia, and circulated as a petition. The pamphlet argued for the "unalienable right" of every man to exercise his religion as "conviction and consciencemay dictate, " and it also claimed that religious establishment "is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world."

Largely because of Madison's efforts, Henry's bill died quietly in the fall session of the assembly. Madison followed up this victory by securing the passage of the Statute for Religious Freedom, which his good friend Thomas Jefferson had drafted before leaving for a diplomatic mission in Paris. Less successful were Madison's efforts against slavery, his efforts to establish a public school system in Virginia, and his efforts to reform the constitution of the state.

Madison served in the Virginia House of Delegates through the 1786 session, when he was called once again to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress, which was then meeting in New York. The delegates were engaged in debates over American commerce and constitutional questions, and they voted to call together a Constitutional Convention which would meet in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. Once and for all, a genuine settlement of the problems surrounding the Articles of Confederation would be attempted. Madison was one of the delegates voted to represent Virginia at this important convention, along with George Mason and the great George Washington.

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