Authors: James Madison

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American political theorist and politician

Author Works


The Federalist, 1787-1788 (serial)

1788 (book, 2 volumes; with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton)

Letters of Helvidius, 1793

An Examination of the British Doctrine Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade Not Open in Time of Peace, 1806

The Writings of James Madison, 1900-1910 (9 volumes; Gaillard Hunt, editor)

The Papers of James Madison, 1962-1991 (17 volumes; William T. Hutchinson et al., editors)

The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826, 1995 (3 volumes; James Morton Smith, editor)


James Madison was born to Nelly Conway and Colonel James Madison. His antecedents had pioneered lands in Orange County, where he inherited the five-thousand-acre estate Montpelier, whose mansion he commissioned William Thornton to rebuild. Tutors prepared him in the classics, French, and Spanish. He received his B.A. from Princeton University in 1771 after two years of study, principally in history, government, and debate. His health compelled him to return to Montpelier, where he studied law, and limited his participation in the Revolutionary War to civilian service.{$I[AN]9810000485}{$I[A]Madison, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Madison, James}{$I[tim]1751;Madison, James}

James Madison

(Library of Congress)

He was a member of the Virginia Committee of Safety in 1775, the Constitutional Convention in 1776, the Executive Council in 1778-1780, and the House of Delegates in 1776, 1783-1786, and 1799. As a free-thinker, he advocated religious freedom and disestablishment of the Church. In 1784 he defeated Patrick Henry’s bill in the Virginia legislature to give financial support to “teachers of Christian religion.” Refusal to treat voters to liquor at the polls caused his only political defeat, reelection to the House of Delegates in 1777. In Virginia, Madison established his reputation for meticulous detail, linguistic ability, and grasp of principles of government.

As a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1780-1783 and 1786-1789 Madison kept valuable notes of its proceedings. He consistently advocated that the confederation raise revenue by a uniform tariff, voiced the ambitions of the Trans-Allegheny, helped persuade Congress to honor Virginia’s ownership and gift of the Northwest Territory, and blocked northern mercantile proposals to exchange Mississippi navigation for Spanish trading concessions.

Madison’s fame rests primarily on his contributions to the Federal Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. In hopes of broader interstate compromises, he had participated in the compromise of Virginia’s and Maryland’s maritime differences that had led to the convention. Although not the convention’s official secretary, he kept daily notes of its proceedings, which comprise the only eye-witness history of the convention. He became the leading advocate of a national government with coercive power as the alternative to monarchy or fragmentation. Although Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan to the convention, Madison’s influence upon it was immense, minimizing small-state fears by favoring strong executive and judicial departments as protection against omnipotent central government. Although in 1787 he asserted federal power to incorporate a national bank, as president he vetoed in 1812 the recharter of such a bank, denying that the “general welfare” clause enlarged federal power. He opposed restriction of the slave trade and reiterated his federal ratio of congressional representation. Insisting that experience, not theory, guide constitution making, Madison is justly called “Father of the Constitution.”

While at New York to persuade the old Congress to submit the new Constitution to the states without amendments, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay on essays, which were collected as The Federalist. Only George Washington’s endorsement did more to foster ratification. The Federalist is America’s most important constitutional commentary and contribution to political science. In his essays Madison argued that only the central government could reconcile economic rivalries, that property deserved protection from ephemeral popular majorities, and that states would not lose their identity under the federal system.

In Virginia’s 1788 ratifying convention Madison led Federalists against such opponents as George Mason and Patrick Henry. His support for Kentucky’s approaching separation from Virginia possibly contributed to the narrow Federalist victory. In the House of Representatives, 1789-1797, Madison not only helped frame the first ten amendments to the Constitution and revenue laws but also became the focus of the new Republican Party. Initially reluctant to embarrass the untried government by opposing the Federalists’ early measures, he came to protest Hamilton’s fiscal schemes as enrichment of speculators at popular expense. Sharing his friend Thomas Jefferson’s enthusiasm for early French revolutionary reforms and bitter at Great Britain’s illegal retention of border forts and interference with American trade, Madison condemned Hamiltonian measures he considered subservient to the British. He advocated commercial discrimination against the British, unless they dealt more fairly with America, and opposed Jay’s Treaty, saying that the United States gained nothing by promising freedom from such discrimination.

Madison’s collaboration with Jefferson in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-1800 protested impingement of the ultra-Hamiltonian Alien and Sedition Acts upon fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. His theory that a state could interpose its authority against that of the federal government required concurrent action by other states and avoided the stigma of disunion. The resolutions made a powerful campaign document in the Republican victory of 1800. They were, however, later advanced as justification for South Carolina’s doctrine of nullification, which Madison in old age vigorously opposed.

As Jefferson’s secretary of state, 1801-1809, and as president, 1809-1817, Madison tried by commercial discrimination against the warring British and French to secure recognition of America’s neutral maritime rights, complete control of its territory, and pacification of the western Indians. Ever a nationalist and superb politician, he restrained “war hawks” like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun from precipitating war with Great Britain. Ignorant that Great Britain was about to stop violating American sovereignty because of his and Jefferson’s policies of peaceful coercion, Madison did eventually lead the nation into what he declared a just and unavoidable war.

Madison the politician was more successful than Madison the commander in chief. American defeats in Canada and the humiliation of the British burning of Washington must be balanced against disunionist sentiment in New England that was inimical to more centralized military measures than the inefficient militia system. The inclusion of Clay and John Quincy Adams as American peace negotiators is indicative of Madison’s political mastery in making palatable a peace in statu quo ante bellum.

As an elder statesman Madison continued important services to his commonwealth and nation as Jefferson’s successor as rector of the University of Virginia, president of the American Colonization Society, and president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830. He married Dolly Payne Todd in 1794. During his nineteen years after leaving the presidency, Madison devoted himself to cultivating his farm and became notable for advanced agricultural practices. Although he consistently spoke against slavery, he found it impractical unilaterally to abandon slavery; he did, however, advocate government purchase of slaves for resettlement in Liberia. His political toleration of slavery has been explained by some as resulting from his loving the union more than ending a practice he disdained.

BibliographyAdair, Douglass. Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998. An important series of essays, worthy of a thorough reading.Alley, Robert S., ed. James Madison on Religious Liberty. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989. A collection of essays on Madison’s intellectual and political legacy of American religious freedom. In addition to historical and analytical papers, the book includes excerpts from Madison’s own writings on religion.Banning, Lance. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. An award-winning intellectual biography.Blackmun, Harry A. “John Jay and The Federalist Papers.” Pace Law Review (Spring, 1988): 237-248. Blackmun presented this speech at the Peter Jay family home on the occasion of the bicentennial of The Federalist. He discussed John Jay’s contributions to The Federalist and the flaws in the 1787 Constitution’s treatment of African Americans, American Indians, and women.Carey, George W. “The Federalist”: Design for a Constitutional Republic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. An examination of The Federalist.Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of The Federalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Epstein holds that the authors of The Federalist envisioned a new government that could accommodate both its most and its least pretentious citizens as well as make use of factions. Epstein devotes a chapter to essay 10, in which James Madison treated factions and also shows how the partisanship of the people, spirited election contests, and the exclusion of citizens in the aggregate help create a workable framework for republican government.Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of “The Federalist Papers.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. Furtwangler’s work provides a more critical and less reverential approach to the analysis of The Federalist. The author sees The Federalist as a piece of high-quality journalism that should be studied not with uncritical reverence but with an examination of the contradictions between different essays.Koch, Adrienne. Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration. 1950. Reprint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986. An important study of the relationship between Madison and Jefferson.Leibiger, Stuart Eric. Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic. Charlotte: University Press of Virginia, 2001. A study of the friendship and mutual political and intellectual influence between Washington and Madison. An illuminating look at Madison’s biography through the 1790’s.McCoy, Drew R. The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A biography that focuses on Madison’s later years. Especially illuminating on Madison’s views on slavery.Millican, Edward. One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Millican’s text stresses nationalism as the key factor motivating the authors of The Federalist. He connects Alexander Hamilton’s support of a strong, centralized government with the views of Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal liberals. Millican contends that both the political left and the political right fell short of Publius’s sound brand of nationalism in the 1980’s.Rakove, Jack N. James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2001. A well-regarded political biography.Read, James. Power Versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, Jefferson. Charlotte: University Press of Virginia, 2000. The chapter on Madison argues that he was a much more consistent political thinker than many previous scholars have believed. A very readable study.Rives, William C. History of the Life and Times of James Madison. 3 vols. 1859-1870. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. This old-fashioned biography does not go beyond 1797 but is important because Rives was a family friend and had access to both Madison’s and Jefferson’s papers before their dispersal.Sheldon, Garrett Ward. The Political Philosophy of James Madison. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. A study of Madison’s political thought.White, Morton. Philosophy, “The Federalist,” and the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. White analyzes the philosophical assumptions that guided Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in their writings as Publius. White finds that Publius was both a pragmatist and an ideologist who was sometimes troubled by conflicting beliefs such as the need to retain slavery in order to preserve the Union in the context of the realities of 1787. In conclusion, White holds that The Federalist was a philosophical hybrid of “Lockean rationalism” in morals and “Humeian empiricism” in politics.Wills, Garry. Explaining America: “The Federalist.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Wills, a convert from National Review conservatism to moderate liberalism, offers a unique perspective on the ideology of The Federalist. He illustrates Scottish philosopher David Hume’s influence on Hamilton and Madison as authors of The Federalist.
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