On June 28, 1836 at the age of 85, President James Madison died at Montpelier. Virginia, making him the last of the founding fathers of the United States of America to die.
Although he was possibly best known for being the fourth President of the United States, he was also known as the “Father of the Constitution” and did most of the work on the Bill of Rights. He was a delegate to the Constitutional convention and one of the major contributors to “The Federalist," which has become known in present day as "The Federalist Papers," as well as a pioneer in the American tradition known as nullification.
In a 1981 essay, George F. Will, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, famously opined, “If we really believed the pen was mightier, or even more dignified, than the sword, the nation’s capital would be named not for the soldier who wielded the revolutionary sword, but for the thinker who was ablest with a pen. It would be Madison, D.C."
The eldest of 12 children, James Madison had an excellent education culminating in his graduation in 1771 from the College of New Jersey which is now known as Princeton University.
He originally gained public attention when he served on the committees which drafted the first Constitution of Virginia and the Virginia Declaration of Rights in the year 1776. Additionally, he served as a representative to the Virginia House of Delegates and the Continental Congress.
In the spring of 1787, at the age of 36, Madison became one of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention which was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Because of his prior positions, Madison understood the difficulties which would present themselves as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled with the question, “Now what?”
The first attempt at a ruling document, the Articles of Confederation, had been lefts wanting. The individual states, which held all power and were not apt to yield power to a central authority, held what may have been too much power, rendering it nearly impossible to stabilize the currency, pay off war debts, regulate commerce among the states, levy taxes, and address individual rights and freedoms such as religious freedom and freedom of speech.
Madison was one of the first of the founding fathers to realize that a stronger central government was necessary in order for the nation to survive. He did an exhaustive study of government structures throughout the history of the world. From ancient confederacies to modern nations, he outlined the reasons why democracy and representative government had failed. This study led him to write the Virginia Plan, which balanced the interest of individuals, states, and national authority with the creation of an “extended republic.” This plan helped him to win over George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Edmund Randolph, all important and prominent politicians.
At the beginning of the Convention, the infant nation of the United States was near collapse. The delegates worked throughout the summer to come up with a framework for the new government, and Madison was responsible for perhaps the most concise and complete notes that remain of the Convention.
Throughout the summer they debated and exchanged ideas, and in the end, many of his ideas ended up in the Constitution: checks and balances among the three branches of government, support for strong national executive, congressional representation based on population, and the concept that the federal system would assign certain powers to the national government while reserving most of the powers for the individual states.
After the Constitutional Convention, there was still the task of making sure that the individual states' representatives understood what was being proposed and why, so that they would ratify the new Constitution. In order to educate the public about the proposals, Madison -- along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton -- composed a series of essays known today as “The Federalist Papers.” Madison wrote the lion's share of those documents, which turned out to be successful tool in the creation of the foundation of the U.S. government.
In 1794 Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a widowed Quaker. They remained married for 41 years and although they never had children, Dolley's son from her first marriage, John Payne Todd, was raised by Madison as his own.
In response to the federal government's Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison wrote the Virginia portion of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, while Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky portion. The Virginia state legislature passed the Virginia Resolution on Christmas Eve of 1798.
Arguably, the Virginia Resolution was among the most important documents he composed during his lifetime.
It was in the Virginia Resolution that the idea of “interposition," the concept that the states have a right to interpose in order to prevent unconstitutional laws from harming them when the federal government enacts such laws, was first articulated. And it was the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which led to South Carolina's Nullification Crisis and which abolitionists quoted in their opposition of the Fugitive Slave act of 1850. Additionally, this was where the “Compact Theory” originally came from.
In January of 1803, Secretary of State James Madison was called upon to coordinate negotiations for land from Spain's King Ferdinand VII, England's King George III, France's Napoleon Bonaparte, and Russia's Alexander I. Madison first negotiated navigation rights to the Mississippi River, safe passage to the Pacific through the Indian and foreign-controlled territories in North America, and the right of deposit in the port of New Orleans. With the Louisiana Purchase, the shape and indeed the very destiny of the fledgling nation were sealed as Madison and President Thomas Jefferson began to act on their shared premise that nothing should stop Americans from reaching the Pacific Ocean as they claimed the land, natural resources, and individual liberties.
Madison was elected president in the 1808 election and was inaugurated in March of 1809. At the end of his first term, he declared war on England whose Navy was forcibly stopping United States trading ships and arresting American sailors.
This, the War of 1812, continued into his second term and in 1814, British troops burned the Capitol and the White House to the ground.
It was during this war that Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which eventually became the national anthem. It was also during this war that Dolley Madison personally saved the artwork and other treasures from the White House even as it burned.
When President Madison's second term ended in 1817, he and Mrs. Madison retired to his family home in Montpelier. Following in the footsteps of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Madison left office poorer then he entered it.
The end of his presidency however was by no means the end of his public service. In 1826, after Thomas Jefferson died, President James Madison replaced him as the Rector of the University of Virginia. In 1829 when he was 78 years old, Madison was elected to represent the constitutional convention in Richmond which had been called for the purpose of revising the Virginia state constitution.
There are nineteen counties and a parish which are named Madison County in honor of James Madison, numerous cities and towns named in his honor, and four institutions of higher learning, including University of Wisconsin-Madison in Wisconsin, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, James Madison College of Public Policy which is part of the Michigan State University system, and Madison University in Mississippi, bear his name. There are also United States Navy ships, Mount Madison in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire's White Mountains, and the Madison River in Montana which was named by Lewis & Clark. President Madison's portrait also graced the now-defunct $5,000 bill.
Additional reading on the topic can be found here: