11 minute read

James Madison

Further Readings

James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, serving from 1809 to 1817. Before achieving the nation's highest office, he participated in the Virginia Constitutional Convention; was a delegate to the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS; drafted a proposal for the U.S. Constitution; supported ratification of the Constitution, through The Federalist Papers, written with ALEXANDER HAMILTON and JOHN JAY; served in the House of Representatives; helped write the BILL OF RIGHTS; and was Thomas Jefferson's SECRETARY OF STATE.

Born March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia, Madison was the first of 11 children in his family. His father, James Madison Sr., was the wealthiest landowner in Orange County, Virginia, and provided Madison with a stable and comfortable upbringing. Eleanor Conway Madison, his mother, was an affectionate woman who gave the family emotional support throughout her ninety-eight years of life.

Madison grew up on an isolated plantation in Montpelier, Virginia. As a teenager he attended school in King and Queen County, studying logic, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and French, among other subjects. Although Madison suffered from ill health during much of his youth, he developed a reputation as an intense and ambitious student at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), which he attended from 1769 to 1772.

By 1774 it was becoming clear to many observers that the differences between the colonists and the British government could not be resolved peacefully. During that year Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, which closed the Boston Port, restricted town assemblies, and authorized British authorities to house their troops in private colonial residences. In September 1774 the First Continental Congress convened to discuss the emerging crisis with Great Britain. Unlike many colonists, who were reluctant to take any radical measures before Parliament

James Madison.

could respond to the petition of grievances drafted by Congress, Madison favored immediate military preparations.

As Madison became more politically vocal, he became more politically active. In December 1774 he was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety, one of many colonial bodies formed to carry out congressional mandates such as the American boycott of English goods. In October 1775, six months after the Revolution began in Lexington and Concord, Madison was commissioned a colonel in the county militia. In 1776, at age 25, he was elected as a delegate to the Virginia Provincial Convention, where he helped draft Virginia's constitution.

In May 1776 the Virginia Provincial Convention, later known as the New House of Delegates, instructed its representatives at the Second Continental Congress to draft a declaration of independence, negotiate foreign alliances, and complete the U.S. ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION. The Articles of Confederation empowered Congress to govern certain areas of national concern, including foreign policy. The several states retained power to govern most other issues within their own borders.


In the New House of Delegates, Madison forged a friendship with Jefferson that would leave an indelible imprint on U.S. law and U.S. history. Jefferson and Madison shared a love for books, ideas, and solitude. Jefferson had authored the Declaration of Independence, and Madison would be considered the architect of the U.S. Constitution. But whereas Jefferson was idealistic and impetuous, Madison was more realistic and rational. Although Madison was eight years younger than Jefferson, his thoughtful temperament often helped palliate the mercurial Jefferson. From 1777 to 1779, Madison served as a cabinet member for Jefferson, who was the governor of Virginia.

In December 1779 Virginia chose Madison as one of its five delegates to the Continental Congress. Earning respect for his sober and methodical approach to lawmaking as well as his intellectual prowess, Madison helped Congress pass a revenue measure that rescued the fledgling nation from BANKRUPTCY. Over the next three years, Madison learned how to shape an agenda and to achieve results through compromise.

On April 15, 1783, Congress ratified a peace treaty with Great Britain that concluded the Revolutionary War, and won U.S. independence. This year also marked the end of Madison's tenure with the Continental Congress. After returning home to Virginia, Madison was elected by the voters of Orange County to the state legislature in 1784.

During the 1784 fall session, the Virginia assembly approved an act to incorporate the Episcopal Church, and postponed action on another bill that sought to subsidize Christianity by levying a tax on behalf of teachers who taught this religion. In response to this proposed bill, Madison anonymously published a short leaflet entitled Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. This leaflet called for a separation of church and state, denounced government aid to religion, declared the equality of all religions, and articulated a general liberty to worship according to the dictates of one's conscience without fear of persecution. Many copies of the leaflet were distributed to the state assembly in October 1785, along with supporting signatures, which helped influence enough legislators to defeat the Christian subsidy.

The following year Madison joined Hamilton in urging Congress to summon a national convention at Philadelphia to draft a federal constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to regulate commerce. As a result the thirteen states engaged in a series of trade wars with each other. Many states imposed discriminatory taxes and regulations on goods imported from other states, and some states refused to import any goods from neighboring states.

Also under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to tax. When Congress requested money to pay for the public debt and the Continental Army, the states often failed to respond. Consequently, the national debt grew and the Continental Army suffered a rash of desertions. Congressional ability to obtain credit dwindled. Madison observed that the 13 states would be in a precarious and vulnerable position if the country were required to defend its borders against foreign invasion.

Congress was the country's only federal government body; the Articles of Confederation did not provide for an EXECUTIVE BRANCH to enforce congressional will, or a judicial branch to resolve disputes. This single body was virtually powerless to do anything about outbreaks of

rebellion that were becoming more frequent in the states. For example, it offered no reasonable resolution for SHAYS'S REBELLION of 1786, an insurrection of nearly two thousand farmers who were protesting Massachusetts's land foreclosure laws.

Fifty-five delegates representing 12 states attended the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. Reaching Philadelphia on May 14, Madison was the first delegate to arrive from any state other than Pennsylvania. Business would not begin until May 25, when a quorum of seven states would first be present. Madison seized the intervening 11 days to draft a 15-point proposal that formed the underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution.

Known as the Virginia Plan, this proposal presented a radical departure from the Articles of Confederation. In it, with help from the other Virginia delegates, Madison suggested a constitutional system comprising a strong centralized federal government with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The sovereignty granted to each branch would be limited by the sovereignty granted to the other two branches and by the concurrent sovereignty retained by the states. This system of checks and balances had no predecessor in history.

The Virginia Plan provided the blueprint for a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature, with an upper chamber known as the Senate and a lower chamber known as the House of Representatives. As originally conceived, the plan gave Congress the indefinite power to legislate in all "cases to which the states are not competent." State governments would retain authority to legislate local concerns, and to create constitutional systems of their own. However, Madison made clear that the federal government would be supreme, and that any state law in contravention of the U.S. Constitution, a congressional enactment, or a federal treaty would be void.

At the same time, Madison's proposal for a broad grant of undefined congressional power was jettisoned. Madison argued that Congress should be given more legislative authority than state legislatures because state laws had been largely responsible for the recent trade wars and farmer rebellions. However, Madison was unable to explain why the federal government, made up of representatives from the several states, should be trusted to exercise its lawmaking powers any more prudently than had the state governments. Thus, the delegates persuaded Madison that the powers of the executive and legislative branches must be limited to those expressly enumerated in the Constitution. However, one of those enumerated powers, Congress's power to make all laws "necessary and proper" in the performance of its legislative function, has provided a broad constitutional basis for federal lawmaking similar to that originally envisioned by Madison.

The NECESSARY AND PROPER CLAUSE was only one of the constitutional provisions vigorously defended in The Federalist Papers, a series of essays written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay that explained and promoted the system of government created by the Philadelphia convention. Called The Federalist Papers because proponents of the federal Constitution were known as Federalists, this collection of essays was circulated among the delegates to the state ratifying conventions, in an effort to win their support. Opponents of the federal Constitution, known as Anti-Federalists, published and circulated essays and leaflets of their own.

Some Anti-Federalists eventually lent their support to the ratification movement when Madison and other Federalists promised to draft a bill of rights that would protect individual liberty and state sovereignty from encroachment by the federal government. In 1788 the Constitution was adopted by the states. The next year Madison was elected to the House of Representatives, where he subsequently represented Virginia for eight years. During the First Congress, in 1789, Madison drafted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, ten of which were ultimately adopted by the states, with some subtle changes in language, and now stand as the Bill of Rights.

Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights expressly mentions the power of JUDICIAL REVIEW, which is the prerogative of state and federal courts to invalidate laws that violate a constitutional provision or principle. Article VI declares that the federal Constitution "shall be the supreme Law of the Land." Yet it does not state whether the executive, legislative, and judicial branches possess the power to nullify laws that are unconstitutional. Although the Framers of the Constitution recognized that courts had traditionally exercised the authority to interpret and apply the law, the power of judicial review had never been a clearly established practice in Anglo-American LEGAL HISTORY.

In the landmark case MARBURY V. MADISON, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803), the U.S. Supreme Court established the power of judicial review in the United States. While serving as secretary of state to President Jefferson (1801–1809), Madison was sued by William Marbury, a judge who had been appointed to the federal bench during the waning hours of President John Adams's administration. Marbury argued that Madison had violated his duties as secretary of state by failing to deliver to Marbury a commission that he needed to complete his appointment to the federal judiciary.

Although the Supreme Court agreed that Madison had wrongfully withheld the commission, it denied Marbury's claim because it had been brought pursuant to an unconstitutional provision of a federal statute. By invalidating that provision, the Supreme Court established the power of judicial review. When Madison learned of the Supreme Court's decision, he criticized the judicial branch for attempting to usurp congressional lawmaking power.

Madison said that to allow unelected federal judges to overturn legislation enacted by the popularly elected branches of government makes "the judicial department paramount in fact to the legislature, which was never intended, and can never be proper." Madison changed his mind on this issue near the end of his life. As an elder statesman attending the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829, and as a director for the University of Virginia from 1826 to 1834, he assailed the nullification theories of southern legislators who proclaimed the prerogative to ignore federal laws in certain circumstances. Only the judiciary, Madison concluded, had the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional.

Serving as the fourth president of the United States (1809–17), Madison revealed the same propensity to reevaluate strongly held beliefs in light of experience. Earlier in his career, he had opposed the creation of a congressionally chartered national bank. He had initially believed that under no faithful interpretation of the Constitution was Congress authorized to establish a national bank. Yet, in 1816 Madison signed a bill that established the Second Bank of the United States, agreeing that it represented a constitutional exercise of congressional power. Popular acceptance of the First Bank of the United States had altered Madison's perception.

The WAR OF 1812 provided some of the best and worst moments of Madison's presidency. During the low point of the war with Great Britain, English troops occupied Washington, D.C., and burned down the White House. Despite other such humiliating moments for the U.S. military, Madison's troops rebounded in 1815 and soundly defeated the British in the final battle of the war at New Orleans. Although Americans gained nothing tangible from the war, they had successfully defended their soil.

The perseverance and resolve demonstrated by Madison and his troops during the war proved to be an important step in the maturation process of the young republic. By winning the War of 1812 and defeating British troops for a second time in less than half a century, JOHN ADAMS remarked, Madison brought more glory to the United States than any of his three predecessors in office. Madison also unified the country like never before in its short history, allowing his successors to build upon the emerging national identity.

After the close of his second term, Madison retired from public office and returned home to Montpelier, Virginia, where he devoted long hours to farming and became president of the local agricultural society. Madison welcomed retirement, seeing it as an opportunity to renew his passion for reading and resume his correspondence with THOMAS JEFFERSON.

He died on June 28, 1836.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Load Lines to Market value