James Madison, Jr., was born on March 16, 1751, in what is today Port Conway, Virginia. Port Conway was the hometown of his mother, Nellie Conway, who had married James Madison, Sr., in 1749. His parents soon took him to the Madison estate, the slaveholding plantation that he would call home for the rest of his life. The estate was in Orange County, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Madison was the first of his parents' twelve children, only seven of whom survived infancy.
Madison Sr. was a leading squire and landowner in Orange County. He was also a vestryman at the nearby Brick Church, an Anglican parish. Anglicanism was the established faith in British colonial Virginia; other Christian denominations and non-Christian religious communities were not recognized by law, and the people of the colony were required to pay tithes to support the Anglican Church. Young James, though baptized in this church, came to oppose established religion as he grew into adulthood, favoring Unitarianism in his religious convictions.
When he was eleven years old, James's parents sent him to a school in King and Queen County, Virginia, about seventy miles away from the Madison estate. The school's headmaster was Donald Robertson, a well-respected scholar and teacher in the colony. James was an excellent pupil, studying Latin, Greek, French, geometry, algebra, and literature. At the same time, he was frail and sickly. After five years at Robertson's school, James went back home and was tutored by Reverend Thomas Martin, who was rector at Brick Church. Reverend Martin was a graduate of the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University.
Martin's connection to the College of New Jersey was significant to the shaping of Madison's own educational path. Following Martin's example, James matriculated at the College in 1769. The 300-mile journey to Princeton, New Jersey was a notable experience for the 18-year-old Madison, who had never ventured beyond his southern colony. Traveling the entire way on horseback with two companions and a black manservant from his father's plantation, Madison passed through bustling cities such as Philadelphia, which impressed him with their strangeness and bigness.
At the time, it was unusual for a young Virginian to travel outside the colony for his or her education. Most young men in Virginia who sought college degrees went to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Madison was one of only a handful of southern men to attend Princeton at this time. He did very well, and was a diligent, capable student. While in school, he joined the Whig Society, a political and literary club, and engaged in many journalistic debates with pro-British students.
Madison's studies in college proceeded rapidly. He completed four years' worth of coursework in two years, graduating in 1771. The fact that Madison spent these formative years far from his Virginia home cannot be underestimated when studying the development of his political views is concerned. Doubtless it had a broadening effect on his colonial Virginia sensibilities. Forming friendships with young men from other colonies probably gave him a sense of political fellowship with people from other parts of the country. He understood the similarities and unity of the American colonies. This sense of fellowship encouraged American patriotism in the young Virginian. Letters from Madison's college days show him to have looked upon British rule in over the colonies as a hindrance rather than a help to the welfare of his countrymen, especially when that rule involved the restriction of American trade. Under the mercantile system, American raw materials were exchanged for British goods; the Crown by the 1770s had put severe restrictions on American trade with other nations.
After graduation, Madison stayed on at the College of New Jersey for several months of postgraduate study, focusing on Hebrew and theology. He had an eye then for a career in the religious ministry, but after a short time he returned home to Virginia without a clear sense of where he was heading professionally. He had considered studying law or joining the military, but his health was still poor, and his spirits rather depressed. Indeed, he suffered from a severe nervous disorder, and his thoughts were often overshadowed by thoughts that he might die an early death.
While in this despondent state, Madison occupied his time at home in the early 1770s by tutoring his younger brothers and sisters. Uncertain and pessimistic about his future, he showed little ambition for any professional pursuit, though he seriously considered pursuing a legal career. This ambition was to change dramatically with the critical events leading up to the American Revolution.