Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

James Madison: The Key to Our Nation
Montpelier Winter 2000

Mr. Maddison [sic] is a character who has long been in public life; and what is very remarkable every Person seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician, with the Scholar. In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention, and tho' he cannot be called an Orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent and convincing Speaker. From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed Man of any point in debate ... Mr. Maddison is about 37 years of age, a Gentleman of great modesty - with a remarkable sweet temper."

- William Pierce, delegate from Georgia

In 1781 the American Revolution is a success and the last of the 13 states ratifies the Articles of Confederation. The American experiment in self-government is under way. The great theory - government with the consent of the governed -is not new, but successful application of the theory is. The world watches. Years later, James Madison will write:

The rights of man as the foundation of just Government had been long understood; but the superstructures projected had been sadly defective.

By 1786, the great American experiment is in shambles. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation is far too weak. It can raise money only by requesting it from the states. That works as well as one might imagine. The 13 independent states, no longer held together by the pressures of the Revolutionary War, go their separate ways.

Many now believe that a national government with the consent of the governed is impossible. Some say the 13 states should break into smaller regional groups; others whisper of monarchy; many fear violence and despotism. The Americans discover, as so many after them will discover, that the revolution is the easy part; the hard part is building the new order.

But there are times when the man and the moment (or the woman and the moment) come together. In January of 1786, it is James Madison's turn. It is doubtful that he yet knows it, but his talents and the needs of the country, of the world, have come together. For the next five years Madison will be the driving force for the new order. He creates a record that no American can surpass.

James Madison is an unlikely hero. He has never received the acclaim he deserves, not in his own time and not now. He is not a Thomas Jefferson who pens the inspiring phrase. Madison specifies the details and lists the exceptions. Nor is he an orator, a Patrick Henry who stirs the emotions of an assembly. Madison is soft-spoken and speaks to the intellect, not the emotions. The short, frail Madison lacks the imposing physical presence of a George Washington.

Madison never seeks credit for himself. He is all too willing to step back and let others -first George Washington, and then Thomas Jefferson -receive the acclaim. But he deserves acclaim. He lived 200 years ago, but every day, we owe him our thanks for:

  • a government strong enough to defend and promote our interests around the world and yet not so strong as to invade our liberties at home;
  • a flexible government that works as well today for 50 states and hundreds of millions of people as it did for 13 states with a population of 4 million; and
  • a Bill of Rights that protects our liberties today better than it did 200 years ago.

The Constitutional Convention

By 1786 Madison has 10 years of legislative experience. He has served in the Virginia Constitutional Convention, the Virginia House of Delegates, the Virginia Council of State, the Continental Congress, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and again in the Virginia House of Delegates.

His service under the articles convinces him that an entirely new national government is required, and, as a master of policy formulation and the legislative process, he is uniquely prepared and talented to create that new government. In debate he is always the best prepared and the most effective. He reads and understands the great theorists, but ultimately he is a pragmatist, willing to change his opinions based on experience or reasoned argument. In retirement he will write:

I am far from regarding a change of opinions, under the lights of experience and the results of improved reflection, as exposed to censure ...

In January of 1786, Madison persuades the Virginia legislature to invite the states to an Annapolis convention, which ultimately calls for a national convention, a meeting of all the states, in Philadelphia in May of 1787.

Virginia elects a prestigious delegation to that Constitutional Convention, including Madison; George Mason; Edmund Randolph, the Governor of Virginia; and George Washington, the most revered American of his day, and for the next five years a critical partner of Madison's.

In Philadelphia, Madison secures the delegation's support for the Virginia plan, a 15-point outline of a new, stronger government. Madison does not dominate the convention. He loses many votes. But his Virginia Plan literally directs the convention step by step toward the creation of a new stronger national government in a new Constitution. This Constitution that emerges from the convention is as relevant to us today as it was in 1789.

The Constitution specifies that the removal of the president requires a majority vote of the house and a two-thirds vote of the senate. Madison wanted the removal of the president to be difficult, and it is. In that sense he would be pleased by the outcome of the recent impeachment efforts. What he would think of Bill Clinton is open to conjecture. He probably wouldn't say.

Federalist Papers

The Constitution was then, and still is, brief. It contains no justification or explanation of its provisions. Congress declares war, but the president is commander in chief. Why? The Constitution does not say.

To promote ratification, Alexander Hamilton enlists James Madison and John Jay in the preparation of newspaper articles to fill the void created by the brevity of the Constitution. The articles are first published in the New York press, but are reprinted widely. Those who support the new Constitution are styled Federalists; those who oppose, Anti-Federalists. The articles are soon collected and printed as the Federalist Papers.

Even today the Constitution carries little explanation of its provisions. We still turn to the Federalist Papers for the interpretation of our Constitution. Hamilton wrote the most papers, but the most widely read today are Madison's #10 on the advantage of a large republic and #51 on the separation of powers.


The news from Virginia, first optimistic, turns pessimistic, and Madison must return to Virginia to lead the ratification effort there. The requisite nine states ratify before Virginia, but the big strategically placed state is critical to the success of the new government. Madison is the leader of the Federalists at the Virginia ratifying convention, taking on George Mason, Patrick Henry and James Monroe. After 24 days of debate, Virginia votes to ratify and Madison has triumphed. Thomas Jefferson later writes:

Never wandering from his subject into vain declamation, but pursuing it closely in language pure, classical, and copious, soothing always the feelings of his adversaries by civilities and softness of expression, he rose to the eminent station which he held in the great National convention of 1787 [Constitutional Convention] and in that of Virginia which followed, he sustained the new constitution in all its parts, bearing off the palm against the logic of George Mason, and the fervid declamation of Mr. Henry.

Bill of Rights

The two states that have not ratified the Constitution are holding out for a Bill of Rights to protect individual freedoms. While Madison does not think a Bill of Rights is essential, he nonetheless agrees, as a price of ratification, to propose a Bill of Rights.

In 1789, as a representative to the first Congress, Madison goes through the numerous state proposals selecting, deleting, refining, and combining, all in an effort to produce a bill that will secure passage of the Constitution, protect liberties and yet not weaken the new government. Twelve of his amendments are soon approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. The last two states ratify the Constitution. Ten of the amendments are ratified by 1791. We know them as the Bill of Rights.

The quick adoption of the Bill of Rights and its continued effectiveness more than 200 years later show that Madison has achieved his objectives. The 1992 approval of one of the original amendments - which requires that Congress wait until after its next election before realizing any pay raise it voted for itself - demonstrates the continued relevance of Madison's work.

Madison, in the five-year period from 1786 to 1791, firmly attaches his name to three of the great documents of American history -the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights.

Two-Party System

But this is not all. Madison is only 40 years old in 1791 and will remain active in politics for another quarter century. While Washington is president, Madison, the master of the legislative process, is his floor leader in the House of Representatives.

Madison genuinely believes that the new government has only those powers reasonably drawn from the specific powers enumerated in the Constitution. Hamilton, however, sees sweeping powers drawn from general phrases. Washington supports Hamilton, and Madison is disillusioned. In January of 1792 he writes to a friend:

If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.

Madison looks for support and finds it in his friend, Thomas Jefferson. They come together to form the Democratic-Republican Party in opposition to the Federalists, and in doing so create the first two-party system.

James Madison, once the protégé of Washington, becomes the junior partner of Jefferson. It is puzzling why Madison, the Father of the Constitution, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and Architect of the Bill of Rights, voluntarily takes the second position to Jefferson, whose list is a little shorter. But Madison makes his influence felt, in part, through his choice of political partners: George Washington to establish a strong national government and Thomas Jefferson to preserve the powers of the states.

The Executive Years

After his years of work on the Constitution, Madison finds his ultimate partner. In 1794 he marries a young Quaker widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who we know as Dolley Madison. Their love will last until his death more than 40 years later. She ‹ a warm and welcoming hostess ‹ will be a tremendous political and social asset for her husband during his service in the executive branch. He first becomes Jefferson's secretary of state and then, during the dark years of the War of 1812, president. John Adams, once a Federalist president, now in retirement, writes to Jefferson after the war:

Notwithstanding a thousand faults and blunders, his [Madison's] administration has acquired more glory, and established more union, than all his three predecessors Washington, Adams and Jefferson put together.

Last of the Titans

Madison and Dolley retire at the end of his second term in 1817 and return to Montpelier. Madison outlives the other Titans by 10 years or more, and his opinion is actively sought. His letters address the Constitution, the issues of the day, and the great events of his time. His mind is sound to the end, and when his fingers fail him, he dictates to others.

Madison is the eldest child of a slave-owning family and has been dependent on the labor of slaves for his entire life. He thinks slavery is evil and in retirement supports efforts to send freed slaves to Africa. These efforts have little impact on the rapidly growing slave population. Madison dies in 1836 at age 84. He has remained dependent on slavery until his death.

Dolley returns to Washington and lives there in straitened circumstances until Congress purchases and publishes Madison's papers. What was long suspected is true. His are by far the most complete notes of the Constitutional Convention. They are worth far more than their purchase price. They are his last gift to the nation.

Madison's Mark on History

Madison's life is inextricably bound up with the great events, documents and issues of the times. His life thus provides a unique, unifying perspective on the period in which 13 sovereign independent states form into one nation.

If we wish to understand the intent of the founders of the Constitution, we must know the works of James Madison, for Madison is the greatest of the founders. He dominates the process from the call for a convention to the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Then, for the next 45 years he acts on and writes about his conception of the Constitution. Finally, he leaves to us the best notes of the Constitutional Convention.

Madison is no genius, however. He achieves his greatness by careful preparation. In the words of William Pierce, "he always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate." He represents a balance of scholarship and service that we all should emulate.

Madison plays the leading role in the development of the political institutions that make our nation possible, and his life provides a framework for its study. If we wish to understand ourselves, our nation, we must understand James Madison.

Madison Matters Can't wait for the next Montpelier installment to learn more about Madison's life and legacy? Visit the James Madison Center online, sponsored by the JMU College of Arts and Letters and directed by Devin Bent.

Story by Devin Bent

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