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A lot of the Founding Fathers seem to have grown up on farms or plantations in Virginia. Must have been something in the tobacco.
James Madison was no exception. His family was pretty wealthy and prominent by the time he was a kid, and his father ran a grand plantation called Montpelier, was the wealthiest man in the county, and was therefore very influential in local politics. As a result, his son got the best education available, including boarding school and private tutors at home (source).
Despite his cushy upbringing, things weren't always easy for little James Jr. He was plagued his whole life with bad health, especially seizures that resembled epileptic fits. This bad health made him come home from boarding school and would follow him through adulthood. Despite his major role later in the founding of the nation, he couldn't fight in the American Revolution because his body couldn't handle the military training.
When Madison was a young lad, most of the other young lads of his social class went to England for their higher education. Madison instead chose the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University), where he studied philosophy under a man named John Witherspoon.
Witherspoon brought over strong ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment, especially ideas related to the relationship between church and state, which would later be part of one of Madison's major contributions to American political ideology (source).
Madison was so into philosophy, he stayed an extra year at the college—which meant he was there for three years total.
Things were different then.
So, as we mentioned, Madison was too chronically ill to be a soldier during the American Revolution, but that doesn't mean he wasn't involved.
Maybe Madison couldn't fight physically, but he used his intellectual skills to serve the cause. After helping Virginia declare independence in May 1776 and develop their republican government, he was elected to the Virginia Council of State, which basically ran the show during the Revolutionary War years. That's where he became buddies with Thomas Jefferson, with whom Madison would stay bros for the rest of his life (source).
Then, Madison took on a leading role getting together the 1787 Philadelphia convention to write the Constitution. He even made it a personal task to get George Washington there (source). He also co-wrote The Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton to convince the states to ratify the final document.
Not only that, but the Constitution itself is largely based on what's known as the Virginia Plan, which was Madison's brainchild. The Virginia Plan generally created a three-part government that included executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
It's the basic structure of the U.S. federal government—because it was adopted at the Constitutional Convention.
Madison was also a major force behind the passage of the Bill of Rights. He suggested amendments like protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a speedy trial, and oh, yeah, freedom of speech. A revised version of his suggestions was eventually adopted and passed (source).
No wonder he's known as the "Father of the Constitution," although he protested that nickname (source). Why anyone would protest an awesome nickname like that is beyond us, but to each his own. Maybe he preferred something like "Mad Jimmy" or "Dread Pirate Roberts"—it's anyone's guess, really.
Madison's relationship with George Washington ended up being one of the more major political turnarounds in American history. Madison went from being one of Washington's closest advisors to helping form the first opposition party running against him.
Maybe you remember when we mentioned that Madison and Thomas Jefferson were buddies. Well, Jefferson disappeared for years to go be the first U.S. ambassador to France, and while he was gone, Madison grew closer to Washington, becoming one of his most trusted advisors.
But once Alexander Hamilton unveiled his plans for a centralized U.S. economy, Madison basically said, "Hmm, maybe those Anti-Federalists were right about some stuff" (source). He saw Hamilton's economic plan as a way to serve the interests of wealthy Northerners and take away states' rights (source).
Despite having written publicly against political factions and how they corrupt democracy, Madison got so fed up with Hamilton's policies and Washington's foreign policy with regard to France and Britain, he shifted his loyalty to Jefferson and the Anti-Federalist crew. They soon formed the first opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans, running their first candidate, for vice president, in 1793 (source).
So, basically, the American two-party system as it essentially exists today was largely born out of Madison's split with Washington.
All that being said, Washington still approached Madison in 1792 to write his farewell address.
Wait—wasn't the farewell address in 1796?
Yes, but Washington wanted to step down earlier than that. He was planning to retire in 1792, but he stayed on because Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton—basically everyone—begged him to stay (source).
That's right, even an Anti-Federalist like Jefferson said, "Please don't go, George!" (Or something like that, we imagine.)
In the meantime, though, Madison wrote Washington an eight-paragraph address and recommended he publish it in a newspaper in mid-September. Which is exactly what Washington did, just four years later. Washington also retained the first few paragraphs of Madison's version of the address—which Madison had asked him not to use because they weren't really friends anymore by that point. Washington did it anyway (source).
We can't decide if that's a burn or a compliment.
Madison made his way up the food chain, becoming Jefferson's secretary of state and then president himself in 1808.
He wasn't necessarily a shoo-in for president, though. His powerful influence on Jefferson's foreign policy had led to legislation that banned all foreign trade. It was pretty devastating—so devastating, some Northern states that relied on trade actually talked about secession (source).
You thought South Carolina invented that idea in 1861? Nope.
Still, Madison was elected.
His presidency was largely consumed with figuring out how to deal with Great Britain and France. By this point, the trade embargo had been reduced to just Britain and France, but it wasn't having the desired effect. Americans were just going against the law and trading with them anyway, and both countries were still attacking American ships and impressing their sailors (source).
In this case, "impressing" means forcing them to serve in the other country's navy, not wowing them with their magic tricks and/or knowledge of naval knots.
Finally, Madison and Congress agreed to enter the War of 1812, which you can read all about here. In the lead-up to the war, the Federalist Party (Madison's opposition) was severely weakened and the National Bank that Hamilton had created was dismantled, leaving the United States with very little funding for the war (source).
Yet Madison was re-elected, and the war came and went.
After the end of his second term, Madison retired to Montpelier and lived the rest of his life watching over his plantation. He didn't just relax and disappear, though. He was involved in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829 and served on the board of his good friend Jefferson's University of Virginia once it was founded.
He was also a major founding member of the American Colonization Society, which advocated for the removal of African Americans back to a designated colony in Africa as the best way to rid the country of slavery. Until abolitionism became more acceptable, this was a pretty popular solution.
Of course, in true early-American fashion, Madison had a bunch of slaves on his plantation, despite being so involved in the colonization idea.
Virginia, in particular, seemed to struggle with the slavery issue. It had come up during the writing of Virginia's constitution in 1776, and Washington had struggled with how to handle it, too. The economy was too tied to slavery for politicians to feel comfortable getting rid of it, but they did have moral objections to it (source).
In 1834, when it looked like Madison was going to die from chronic rheumatism and liver problems, his family kind of hoped he'd pull a John Adams and Jefferson and poetically die on the Fourth of July. He didn't quite make it though, dying on June 28th (so close!). He still got a pretty big crowd at his funeral, though (source).
It's so heartwarming when people don't judge you for what date you die on.