Madison, James Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

President Madison supported the republican principle of majority rule, the Jeffersonian ideas of strict construction of the Constitution, and the separation of church and state. One of his Supreme Court appointees, Joseph Story, was the prime molder of early U.S. private law, especially commercial and admiralty law.

In Virginia, Madison was a member of legislative bodies that challenged the established Anglican Church and sought to secure religious liberty for all citizens. He played a principal role in the passage of the state’s declaration of rights and bill of rights as well as a law establishing religious freedom.

In national politics, Madison recognized the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and led the movement for their revision as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1786. Madison was a member of the Virginia delegation at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and helped prepare the Virginia Plan, which included a provision for a federal judiciary that would consist of one or more supreme tribunals. He signed the draft constitution on September 17, 1787, and directed the campaign for its ratification. Madison, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, coauthored The FederalistFederalist, The[Federalist] (1788).

In the first Congress (1789), Madison served as floor manager of twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution, ten of which ultimately became the Bill of Rights. He also opposed efforts to dilute the power of the federal courts by giving state jurists concurrent power to interpret “federal question” cases.

As President Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state, Madison was the defendant in Marbury v. Madison[case]Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] (1803). He believed the Supreme Court’s decision was politically motivated and aimed at curbing presidential power. Madison disagreed with Chief Justice John Marshall’s judicial review as being contrary to the republican principle of majority rule.

As president, Madison vetoed bills that granted privileges to churches, objected to the use of public funds for chaplains in Congress, and refused to proclaim a day of fasting and prayer practices that he thought violated the establishmentReligion, establishment of clause of the First Amendment. Madison sought to strengthen the Republican (Jeffersonian) strict-constructionist position on the Court with his two appointments. Gabriel DuvallDuvall, Gabriel was a staunch Republican, but Joseph Story,Story, Joseph a New England attorney and legal scholar, became the principal supporter of Marshall’s Federalist constitutional doctrines. Although Madison initially vetoed a bill creating a second Bank of the United States, in 1816 he signed a revised version that adhered more closely to his ideas of strict construction, setting the stage for the landmark decision of McCulloch v. Maryland[case]McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] (1819) that upheld the implied powers of Congress.

In his latter years, Madison equated the Union and the Constitution. He denounced nullification during the controversy of 1832-1833 and maintained that only the courts could declare laws unconstitutional.

Further Reading
  • Ketcham, Ralph L. James Madison: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Peterson, Merrill D., ed. James Madison: A Biography in His Own Words. New York: Newsweek, 1974.
  • Rutland, Robert A. James Madison: The Founding Father. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
  • _______. The Presidency of James Madison. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1990.

Bill of Rights

Constitutional Convention

Duvall, Gabriel

Federalist, The

Jefferson, Thomas

McCulloch v. Maryland

Marbury v. Madison

Religion, freedom of

Story, Joseph

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