James Madison was born in 1751 and died in 1836. He was the fourth president of the United States (1809-1817). Madison worked for American independence, helped to establish the government of the new nation, and went on to participate in that government as congressman, secretary of state, and president. Madison’s work on the Constitution of the United States gave him his best opportunity to exercise his great talents and is generally considered his most valuable contribution. More than any other person, Madison can be considered responsible for making the Bill of Rights part of the Constitution. His intense concern for religious and intellectual freedom led him to seek the strongest possible safeguards of individual liberty.
In 1776, Madison was elected a delegate to the Virginia constitutional convention. Madison wrote the article of the declaration of rights that asserted the right of all “to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” In December 1779, Madison was elected to the Continental Congress. He took his seat with the Virginia delegation in March 1780 and after the first few months, he assumed a leading role in Congress. In the spring of 1784 Madison again ran for election to the Virginia assembly and won. He served nearly three years there, advocating the strengthening of the federal government.
Madison was one of the first delegates to arrive in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. Madison proposed a government with strong central powers, including a national judiciary and an elected national executive, and with authority to veto legislation of individual states. Primarily, Madison sought to provide the central government “with positive and complete authority in all cases which require uniformity” and to prevent abuse of this authority by making the government responsible to the people. He favored a two-chamber legislature and a system of representation that would give the larger states an influence in proportion to their size. The compromise reached was that the states would be represented according to size in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, but would have equal voting power in the upper chamber, the Senate. Madison feared government by a minority and foresaw that the small states would be able to wield disproportionate power. After the convention adjourned, the Virginia assembly returned Madison to Congress, then in its final session under the Articles of Confederation. However, largely through the efforts of Patrick Henry, Madison failed to win a seat in the new U.S. Senate.
Madison ran for election to the House of Representatives and was elected in February 1789. In the first term of the new Congress, he introduced a measure to set up executive departments of the government. The second, introduced on June 8, 1789, presented a series of nine amendments to strengthen the Constitution. These were largely designed to guarantee personal liberty, including religious freedom and freedom of the press. Madison led the debate for his amendments and saw most of them approved. They formed, with the Tenth Amendment, the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.
Beginning about 1790, Madison’s political career closely followed Jefferson’s. In their personalities and modes of thinking they were very different, but they complemented one another. Statesman Henry Clay said that he preferred Madison and thought him the nation’s most distinguished political writer and, after Washington, its greatest statesman. Clay regarded Jefferson as having greater genius; Madison, greater judgment and common sense. He considered Jefferson “a visionary and theorist, often betrayed by his enthusiasm into rash and imprudent and impractical measures,” while he viewed Madison as “cool, dispassionate—practical, safe.” Madison’s party named him to succeed Jefferson as President. He received 122 electoral votes to his oppositions, Pinckney’s, 47. George Clinton, vice president under Jefferson, had 6 votes. Clinton also became Madison’s vice president. Chief Justice John Marshall swore Madison into office on March 4, 1809.
The eight years of Madison’s presidency were dominated by continuing and growing tensions between the United States and the governments of France and Britain, and finally by open warfare with Britain. When Madison took office, the Embargo Act of 1807 had been replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act, which reopened trade with countries other than France and Great Britain. By 1810 it was apparent to Madison that the American trade boycott was having no effect. American ships were being seized at a greater rate, if anything, by both countries. In May 1810, therefore, the Non-Intercourse Act was repealed, and the United States resumed trade with both France and Great Britain. But if one of them dropped its restrictions on American shipping, Madison was authorized to again prohibit trade with the other.
U.S.-British relations deteriorated further when the president received what he was led to regard as complete assurance that France was renouncing its policy of intercepting American ships. Unaware that he was being tricked by France, Madison declared in November 1810 that trade with Britain was to be halted. Although negotiations with British ambassadors continued in hope of a peaceable settlement, they were now almost certainly doomed to fail.
When the long-anticipated war with Britain came, the United States was ill prepared. Opposition to the war from various quarters also hampered Madison’s efforts. The Federalists had been against war with Great Britain from the start. Northerners generally showed no enthusiasm for taking over Spanish Florida. Southerners similarly regarded a conquest of Canada as merely adding to the strength of the North. Throughout the war the New England states balked at contributing their financial and military share. Northern opposition resulted in the so-called Hartford Convention, where representatives of the northeastern states seriously discussed a separate peace with Great Britain.
In 1808, Madison was reelected: 128 electoral votes to 89 for Clinton. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts served as Madison’s vice president in his second term.
Meanwhile the War of 1812, which New England Federalists bitterly called “Mr. Madison’s War,” proceeded. The U.S. Navy fought valiantly in the first year of the war, winning several notable victories. In 1813, however, the superior British navy captured many American ships and prevented those remaining from leaving port.
Until 1814, American land forces had only one victory, led by General Harrison, of Tippecanoe fame. His troops forced the British back into Canada after they had occupied the city of Detroit. Toward the middle of 1814 the American army began to show some competence and won several battles. American troops successfully defended Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, in September of that year. That battle inspired American lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key to write a poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which would years later become the national anthem. On January 8, 1815, after the war had officially ended, General Andrew Jackson won a decisive victory over British forces at New Orleans.
In the summer of 1814, Madison had dispatched Henry Clay, along with statesmen John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin, to hold peace talks with the British at Ghent, Belgium. On his instructions they negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814. The primary concession Madison won was surrender by Britain of American territory captured during the war.
A growing prosperity and a spirit of expansion in the United States marked the final two years of Madison’s presidency. Madison himself appeared to be swept along by the nationalistic feeling of the times. Although he persisted in a strict interpretation of federal powers under the Constitution, he felt it appropriate now to sign into law several pieces of legislation he had vigorously fought against in earlier years. Among these were a bill creating a national bank and a tariff act designed to protect American industries from foreign competition.