Biography of President Madison and past presidents courtesy of the White House Historical Association.
James Madison, the fourth president of the United States (1809-1817), made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing the Federalist documents, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. in later years, he was called the “father of the constitution.”
At his inauguration, James Madison, a small, wrinkled man, looked old and worn; Washington Irving described him as “but a shriveled little apple-john.” But whatever his shortcomings in charm, Madison’s wife, Dolley, made up for with her warmth and playfulness. she was the star of washington.
Born in 1751, Madison grew up in Orange County, Virginia, and attended Princeton (then called the University of New Jersey). A student of history and government, well versed in law, he was involved in writing the Virginia constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly.
when delegates to the constitutional convention met in philadelphia, madison, 36, took a frequent and emphatic part in the debates.
madison made a major contribution to the ratification of the constitution by writing, with alexander hamilton and john jay, the federalist essays. In later years, when called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison protested that the document was not “the fruit of one brain” but “the work of many heads and many hands.”
in congress, he helped formulate the bill of rights and enact the first revenue legislation. Out of his leadership in opposition to Hamilton’s financial proposals, which he believed would unduly give wealth and power to Northern financiers, came the development of the Republican or Jeffersonian party.
As Secretary of State to President Jefferson, Madison protested to the French and British wars that their seizure of American ships was contrary to international law. The protests, John Randolph commented wryly, had the effect of “a shilling pamphlet thrown at eight hundred warships.”
Despite the unpopular embargo act of 1807, which did not cause the belligerent nations to change their ways but did cause a depression in the united states, madison was elected president in 1808. before taking office, the embargo act embargo was repealed.
During the first year of the Madison administration, the United States prohibited trade with both Great Britain and France; Then, in May 1810, Congress authorized trade with both, instructing the President, if either accepted the United States view of neutral rights, to prohibit trade with the other nation.
Napoleon pretended to obey. In late 1810, Madison declared no relationship with Great Britain. at congress a youth group including henry clay and john c. Calhoun, the “war hawks,” lobbied the president for a more militant policy.
The British impression of American sailors and the seizure of cargoes prompted Madison to bow to the pressure. On June 1, 1812, he asked Congress to declare war.
The young nation was not prepared to fight; his forces received a severe beating. the british entered washington and set fire to the white house and the capitol.
but some notable naval and military victories, culminated by gen. andrew jackson’s triumph in new orleans convinced americans that the war of 1812 had been a glorious success. there was a resurgence of nationalism. New England Federalists who had opposed the war, and even talked of secession, were so roundly repudiated that Federalism disappeared as a national party.
In retirement in Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states’ rights influences that in the 1830s threatened to destroy the federal union. In a note opened after her death in 1836, she stated, “The advice closest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the union of the states be treasured and perpetuated.”
Learn more about James Madison’s wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison.