Today March 16, 2011, marks the 260th anniversary of the birth of America’s fourth President, James Madison, also known as “The Father of the Constitution.”
While small in stature, and sometimes overshadowed by his more famous Virginian predecessors, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Madison must be considered one of the greatest of the Founding Fathers for the breadth and influence of his contributions.
James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. The son of a tobacco planter, he was somewhat sickly as a child and was mostly tutored at home. But he proved to be a true scholar and at age 16, chose the unusual course –at that time– of going north to study at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), rather than the College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg. There he came under the influence of the college President, John Witherspoon, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, and made a friend of fellow student, young Aaron Burr, son of the College’s founder.
Returning to Virginia, Madison became involved in patriot politics and became a close colleague of his neighbor Thomas Jefferson, serving as Jefferson’s adviser and confidant during the war years while Jefferson was Governor of Virginia.
In 1794, he married the widow Dolley Payne Todd, having been formally introduced by his college friend Aaron Burr.
A few Madison Highlights–
•Secured passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), an act that is a cornerstone of religious freedom in America. As part of that effort, he wrote the influential Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. (I discuss the “Remonstrance” in my article “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance” in the October 2010 Smithsonian.)
•Was the moving force behind the Constitutional Convention and was one of the principal authors of the Constitution
•With Alexander Hamilton and John Jay was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, arguments in favor of the ratification of the Constitution
•Was principal author of the Bill of Rights, which he originally thought unnecessary
Following ratification of the Constitution, Madison was a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia and a powerful Congressional ally of George Washington.
•Drafted the first version of Washington’s Farewell Address
•Supervised the Louisiana Purchase as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State
•Presided over the ill-prepared nation during the War of 1812, the “second war of independence”
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. –June 16, 1788
Madison died on June 28, 1836 at Montpelier, at age 85. He is buried at Montpelier.
The White House brief biography of James Madison
The Library of Congress Resource Collection on James Madison.
Madison’s Major Papers and Inaugural Addresses can be found at the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School.