Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

James Madison: The Key to Our Nation
The Young Madison
Preparation for Greatness

Montpelier Spring 2000

In an ironic twist, history has barely recorded the childhood episodes that forged James Madison, the one man we should understand best in order to better understand our nation and ourselves.

There is no early evidence or inkling that the young James Madison will one day lead the effort to put the theory of self-government into successful practice and author a Constitution that will become a beacon light for the watching world. That great chronicler of the founding of the United States didn't help much either, even in his later years, as he wrote for posterity. He kept to himself his thoughts and feelings about his youth.

We know the young Madison was a good student and lover of books, but he does not appear to have dazzled his family or schoolmasters with any special genius. Surely such observations would have been preserved. Nor did his parents leave any evidence that they harbored extravagant expectations of their first-born. As a young college graduate, even Madison wrote that he didn't see much of a future for himself. That woeful despondency over what he considered an unfulfilling choice of pursuits might be our only telling clue that he was destined for greater things.

And when he rose to the challenge of those greater things -the revolution and its chaotic aftermath - he lifted himself out of obscurity and transformed the colonies into a United States whose heritage is a continuation of the self-government debate he started. The proper balance of national versus state powers, for instance, and the reconciliation of majority rule with minority rights, still preoccupy us. We struggle with issues - slavery and its consequences - that the founders kicked under the rug at the Constitutional Convention. We have problems that they could not possibly foresee - like the great cyber revolution that enriches our lives while simultaneously threatening to destroy our privacy. We will stop struggling with these questions only when we have given up. The founders did find solutions to some of these issues - enough to set self-government moving for more than 200 years. So the question is relevant: What is it about James Madison, our unlikely hero, that prepares him to lead the great effort?

Born in 1751, Madison was the son of a planter, whose Mount Pleasant (later Montpelier) estate in Orange County at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains consisted of 4,000 acres and nearly 100 slaves. From this milieu of time, place, and social class, we can derive the broad contours of Madison's young life. That is, he grows up amid a diverse Piedmont culture that includes poor backwoods farmers, westward-looking frontiersmen, African and African-American slaves, and planters, the latter of whom tend to mimic English aristocracy and cultivate an Anglican faith. Madison's family has connections with friends and kin across Virginia and has ties to British merchants.

Politics, for those males eligible to participate, revolves around county, colony and crown; hence, the Madisons think of themselves as Orange County planters and Virginia colonists, but are equally proud of their English heritage and the civil and legal rights to which it entitles them. Beyond that, they have few ties - economically or socially - to the 12 other individual colonies on the Atlantic seaboard.

James will inherit Montpelier with its beautiful vistas, its 4,000 rolling acres and 100 slaves. How does it effect him that 100 people will be his slaves, subject to his every whim? George Mason, himself a slave owner, will say, "Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant." We see little of this in the gentle and soft-spoken Madison. Later he will say that slavery is evil, as will his good friend Thomas Jefferson. Nonetheless, neither Madison nor Jefferson free their slaves, not even in their wills. How do they reconcile the treatment of their slaves with their lifelong devotion to the cause of self-government? At times Jefferson's words reveal what must be racism. Madison, as in all things, is more cautious with his words.

As befits a Virginia planter's son, it would be customary for James to attend the colony's own College of William and Mary, but it is at this juncture that Madison's individual destiny begins to emerge. In 1769 his family sends the 18-year-old James to the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton). It's an arduous 300-mile journey, requiring three major river crossings, but one that the scholastically inclined Madison welcomes. Princeton draws many young scholars from throughout North America, imparting to them a transcendent view of the colonies as a whole greater than the sum of its 13 parts. The school, in fact, is one of the few colonial colleges that inculcates patriotic feelings for the disparate colonies, which are still a long, tumultuous 18 years away from becoming the United States of America.

Nonetheless, it's only 7 years before the Declaration of Independence and, as tensions between the colonies and England heat up, James is surrounded by a heady mix of theorizing and radical-leaning politics. The students study the great ancient and contemporary thinkers. They discuss the basis of government and the justifications for revolution. The more revolutionary among them - those advocating independence from the Crown - dress in black and engage in a bit of street-theater by burning an offending document.

In this politically charged environment, Madison sticks to a rigorous study regimen and completes his Princeton education in just two years. It's a feat, he writes years later, that required "an indiscreet experiment of the minimum of sleep and the maximum of application. ... The former was reduced for some weeks to less than five hours in the twenty four."

Do we see any evidence that Madison will lead his country from discord to union? Yes, he has become a scholar, recognized by his peers, who applies his learning to the questions of the day. Someday this talent will serve his country well. But in 1771, he is too diffident to speak at his own graduation.

Madison graduates in two years and returns home to Montpelier in 1772 exhausted and depressed by the emotional letdown and isolation. He misses the intellectual excitement of Princeton, as well as the occasional prankish camaraderie of friends.

And he faces what he considers an unfulfilling future. According to the dictates of his time and social class, his options are essentially three: He can study law, enter the clergy or seek a military career. He is too frail for soldiering, however, and finds the other two options dreary. He also sees that his father needs no help from his first-born to run Montpelier. Madison drops his customary reserve and pens a wildly inaccurate forecast, in a letter to his Princeton friend William Bradford: "As for myself, I am too dull and infirm now to look out for any extraordinary things in this world, for I think my sensations for many months past have intimated to me not to expect a long and healthy life. ..."

Adding to his depression is the religious intolerance clouding Virginia, where the church and colonial government are united in censuring and imprisoning dissenters from the reigning Anglican Church orthodoxy. For James it's an oppressive contrast to his university experiences in Princeton and nearby Philadelphia where open discussions about religion were encouraged. He "yearn[s]," he writes to another friend, "to breathe free air." Surely, this is a significant time for Madison in honing and internalizing his theory that individuals should be granted the right to worship freely.

As Madison mopes about his role in the world, extraordinary things are occurring beyond Montpelier. In 1773, Colonists dressed as Mohawks have dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest unfair and punitive taxation. In retaliation, the British shut down the harbor. In 1774, the First Continental Congress meets to coordinate resistance to the British. Throughout the colonies, local Committees of Safety are seizing control of government, and militia are organizing.

The excitement of the times reaches Orange County, and the 23-year-old Madison is elected to the Orange Committee of Safety along with his father and other influential landowners. Young Madison embraces the revolutionary cause and his despondency evaporates. He has found the calling that will dominate his life.

In later life, Madison will champion freedom of speech and of the press. He includes these freedoms in what will become the First Amendment. Now, in the contagion of the revolutionary fever, he is eager to tar and feather those who oppose the cause. Freedom of speech will have to wait a while.

With the insurrection gaining momentum throughout the colonies after militiamen defeat British regulars at the bridge in Concord and then lay siege to Boston, Madison is elected, in April 1776, to the Virginia Convention, a revolutionary assembly. Departing Orange, where he is the well-regarded and eminent son of one of the county's leading families, he arrives in Williamsburg to discover that he is just another member of another aristocratic family of colonial Virginia planters and merchants. Now among his peers, he must distinguish himself.

And George Mason provides the opportunity. The Virginia Convention adopts Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights. But the youthful Madison strengthens the section on religious freedom. Mason's draft spoke of "the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion," while Madison's less ambiguous substitute provides "the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." Madison's advocacy of the freedom of religion will be a constant theme of his political career.

Finding politics to his liking, within a year of the Declaration of Independence, Madison seeks election to the newly formed House of Delegates in Virginia. Despite his taste for deliberative politics, however, Madison fails to acknowledge his electorate's taste for fermented applejack. He loses the election, he later claims, because his opponent provides a keg of "spirituous liquors" on election day. It's the only election Madison will ever lose.

Despite the election loss, Madison none-theless has been marked as a tireless worker and thoughtful legislator. The House of Delegates elects him to serve on the Virginia Council of State, and in 1780, sends him to represent Virginia at the Continental Congress.

When he arrives, as Congress' youngest member, the excitement of the American Revolution is gone and its great leaders have moved on, leaving George Washington to fight a long, dreary war with little support. In Madison's first year, the last state ratifies the Articles of Confederation, and Madison finds himself serving in the Confederation Congress. He will serve until 1784 when term limits force the end of his service, and he returns to Virginia. The young man who was too diffident to speak at his own graduation now routinely debates before the national body. He speaks softly and always will, but others have learned to listen carefully.

He goes home to Virginia and begins an ambitious reading program. Using his own library, with the addition of books sent from Paris by Jefferson, he learns all he can of the history, theory and weaknesses of confederacies, ancient and modern. He seems to know that a great Constitutional debate is coming. He will be ready to lead the creation of a new nation on the North American continent.

Part III: The Constitutional Years

With their independence from England won, the 13 new American states squabble and bicker, and their weak national government flounders. It will take James Madison and his generation to engineer a new government that balances states' rights with a combined national interest.

by James Madison Center Director Devin Bent with Randy Jones

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