Fourth President of the United States: James Madison (1809-1817)

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James Madison, Architect of the Constitution

James Madison is perhaps best know as by the nickname “Father of the Constitution” a document he helped to form, an achievement long before his Presidency.

James Madison was born on a plantation in 1751 to an affluent Virginia family. At a relatively young age, in his mid-thirties, he would be hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” and irrespective of his two terms as President of the United States, his authorship was his greatest achievement in life.

Early Life

James Madison was born in 1751 on a plantation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. His family was wealthy as his father and both inherited wealth and came into more money by his marriage to Nellie Conway, the daughter of a wealthy tobacco planter. He was a scholarly boy who would go on to attend the College of New Jersey which later would become Princeton University. He he completed his studies in 1772 he had an excellent knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Although he studied law, Madison had no passion for it.

Public Service and the Coming of the American Revolution

Acquainted with Thomas Jefferson, Madison became a member of the Virginia Convention and would work with Jefferson on him on legislation with him including Jefferson’s work on religious freedom in the colony.

He lost a bid to become a member of the state assembly but in 1778 was appointed to the Virginia Council of State which directed Virginia’s participation in the Revolution. It was during those years that Madison developed a strong bond with Jefferson with whom he would become a close and trusted adviser.

In 1780, Madison would become the youngest member of the Continental Congress where he became a respected leader.

Father of the Constitution

Observing the fact that the new nation faced difficulties particularly because the Articles of Confederation which encompassed the law of the new land was weak in many areas including commerce. In May of 1787 he became the head of the Virginia delegation to attend meetings in Philadelphia to rectify the shortcomings in the confederation articles.

George Washington was drafted to become chairman for the meeting and that choice by the delegates choice was almost sure to provide a persuasive element in drafting a new constitution. During the ensuing weeks Madison became a powerful voice in advocating a strong central government.

The main elements of the document which was evolving included a legislative branch consisting of two chambers, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary.

To gain support for this proposed Constitution, Madison joined with John Jay and Alexander in authoring the Federalist Papers.

Blocked principally by his rival, Patrick Henry, Madison did not obtain the United States Senate seat he sought, but was instead elected to the House of Representatives.

In 1791, Madison introduced and guided the first ten amendments to the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, guaranteeing certain civil rights to the citizenry: freedom of speech, due process under the law, and freedom in religious practice.

Madison who had earlier been a strong supporter of Washington broke with him over issues related to both foreign and domestic policy and went with Jefferson in forming a new political party the Democratic-Republican Party.

When John Adams was elected President following Washington in 1796, Madison was a strong critic of the Alien and Sedition Act, designed to suppress criticism of Adams’s foreign policies concerning England and France.

With Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800, Madison became Secretary of State a post he would hold until his own election as president in 1808.

Campaign and Election of 1808

After Jefferson’s eight years in office, the Federalist Party was in disarray and leaderless. John Adams was seventy-three years old and retired and its other leader, Alexander Hamilton was dead. Instead of a new slate of candidates, they nominated Charles Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King who had served as Senator from New York. Not unlike the election of 1804, the Federalists were soundly defeated.

Madison’s first term of office was marked with criticism for both his domestic and foreign policies. By the time of the the election of 1812, he had reluctantly been forced into a declaration of war against Great Britain.

Campaign and Election of 1812

The United States was at war and the election became one of Madison’s conduct of the war. The Federalists put forth the nomination of DeWitt Clinton of New York to oppose Madison. In the election most of New England ended up supporting Clinton while the Middle Atlantic states and the South favored Madison for a second term.

The first two years of Madison’s second term were involved in the war’s conduct. The final two years the post war reconstruction.