James Madison was born March 16, 1751, in Point Conway, King George County, Virginia. Madison was brought up in Orange County, Virginia, and attended Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). A student of history and government, well-read in law, he participated in the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly.
In 1784, at age 43, he married the taller, much younger Dorothea Todd — nicknamed Dolly — who became a popular hostess and beloved first lady.
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled at Philadelphia, the 36-year-old Madison participated frequently and emphatically in the debates.
To air Constitutional issues and gain popular support for the then-proposed Constitution, Madison co-wrote with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay under the pen name of Publius a series of articles called The Federalist Papers. Perhaps the most significant public-relations campaign in history; many public relations classes study The Federalist Papers as a prime example of how to conduct a successful campaign.
Hamilton later served in the cabinet and became a major force in setting economic policy for the U.S. Jay became the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Madison was called “The Father of the Constitution,” but he himself stated that the document was not “the off-spring of a single brain,” but “the work of many heads and many hands.”
In Congress, he helped frame the Bill of Rights and enact the first revenue legislation. Madison felt Hamilton’s financial proposals would unduly bestow wealth and power upon northern financiers. Out of his leadership in opposition to Hamilton’s Federalist proposals, the Democratic-Republican, or Jeffersonian, Party, developed.
As President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Madison protested to warring France and Britain that their seizure of American ships was contrary to international law. The protests, John Randolph acidly commented, had the effect of “a shilling pamphlet hurled against eight hundred ships of war.”
Despite the unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which did not make the belligerent nations change their ways but did cause a depression in the United States, Madison was elected President in 1808. Before he took office, the Embargo Act was repealed.
During the first year of Madison’s Administration, the United States prohibited trade with both Britain and France; then in May, 1810, Congress authorized trade with both, directing the President, if either would accept America’s view of neutral rights, to forbid trade with the other nation.
Napoleon pretended to comply. Late in 1810, Madison barred trade with Great Britain. In Congress, a young group including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, the “War Hawks,” pressed the President for an even more militant policy.
The British impressment of American seamen and the seizure of cargoes impelled Madison to give in to the pressure. On June 1, 1812, he asked Congress to declare war.
The young nation was ill-prepared to fight, and its forces took a severe trouncing. The British invaded Washington D.C. and set fire to the White House and the Capitol. The Madisons fled the White House, but Dolly Madison managed to save some of its treasures, including Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
The British bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore, but they could not capture it. A lawyer named Francis Scott Key, sent by Madison to negotiate peace but held prisoner on British ship, watched the overnight the bombardment, and inspired by seeing the American flag still standing at dawn, wrote the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, which became our national anthem 100 years later.
By 1814, a few notable naval and military victories, climaxed by General Andrew Jackson‘s triumph at New Orleans, convinced Americans that the War of 1812 had been gloriously successful. An upsurge of nationalism resulted. The New England Federalists who had opposed the war — and who had even talked secession — were so thoroughly repudiated that Federalism disappeared as a national party.
At 5’3″ our shortest President, Madison was called “Little Jimmy.” During his term, Louisiana and Indiana became the 18th and 19th states admitted to the Union. His Vice Presidents were George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry. All were Democratic-Republicans.
In retirement at Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states’ rights influences that by the 1830’s threatened to shatter the Federal Union. Madison died on June 28, 1836. In a note opened after his death, Madison wrote, “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”