Skip over navigation

James Madison

Summary

Context

Important Terms, People, and Events

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, was born on March 16, 1751 to Nellie Conway Madison and James Madison, Sr. in Orange County Virginia. He was the eldest of twelve children, only seven of whom survived infancy. He atttende school in Virginia for part of his youth and tutored at home until the age of eighteen, when he enrolled at the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University. He excelled at his studies, graduating early in 1771. He was frail and sickly, however, and suffered a nervous disorder that affected his spirits greatly as a young man. He lacked ambition until the outbreak of the American Revolution, when he devoted himself entirely into politics.

Madison was elected to office for the first time in 1774. Two years later, he took a seat at the Virginia Constitutional Convention, which played a major role in the drive toward American independence from the British Crown. Between 1777 and 1779, he was a member of the Virginia Council of State, serving Virginia governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, who became his lifelong friend. In 1780, Madison was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress, which met at Philadelphia. At twenty-nine, he was the youngest member of this Congress.

With the end of the Revolution in 1783 came the need to form a strong government for the United States. Madison took a leading role at the Constitutional Convention, drafting the Virginia Plan which became the basis of the U.S. Constitution. In defense of the Constitution during the crucial period of its ratification by the states, Madison authored a series of papers with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay which became known collectively as The Federalist.

During the presidential administrations of George Washington and John Adams, Madison became a major leader of the Democratic-Republicans along with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's pro-French politics and fear of a strong, commercial centralized government led him to disagree with the Federalists in the government. Madison married the young widow Dolley Payne Todd on September 15, 1794.

With Thomas Jefferson's election in 1800, Madison moved from Congress to the executive branch as Secretary of State. In this office, he oversaw the acquisition from France of the giant territory known as the Louisiana Purchase, which virtually doubled the size of the United States. Madison was elected president in 1808 on the Democratic-Republican ticket. The years of his presidency were occupied by trade disputes between the United States, Britain, and France. Madison urged his countrymen into war against Britain. The War of 1812 began and ended under his jurisdiction; the Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814.

In February 1817, Madison left office and retired to his estate, Montpelier, in Virginia. His retirement was long and active. He spent much of his time farming, working for the antislavery cause as a founding member of the American Colonization Society, and helping Thomas Jefferson to found the University of Virginia, of which he became rector in 1826. He was also active in Virginia state politics, serving as a delegate to the state's 1829 Constitutional Convention, where he stood as an opponent to the pro-slavery states' rights advocates and defended his view of America's fundamental unity as a nation. He died on June 28, 1836. He was eighty-five years old.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us