James Madison: Federalist & President

Instructor: Lucia Reyes
'If men were angels, no government would be necessary.' James Madison said these words in defense of the government he helped create. Read this lesson to learn about Madison's role as one of the 'Founding Fathers' of the United States.

Portait of James Madison
Portait of James Madison

Early Life

James Madison was born in 1751 to a wealthy Virginian family. Although little James may not have been a healthy or rambunctious child, he was very studious and spent much of his time reading. This would later come in handy.

Madison grew up in a tumultuous time during which America found itself engaged in a struggle for independence from England. As a student at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he became increasingly interested in history and politics. In 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was ratified, Madison helped create the Virginia State Constitution as a member of the Virginia State Legislature.

Madison's Role as the 'Father of the Constitution'

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and the united colonies became the United States. It was time to see if the country could govern itself. Unfortunately, the plan for government - the Articles of Confederation - wasn't proving to be of the best design. In reaction to having been ruled by a tyrannical king, Americans had given too little power to their federal government. Instead, the Articles gave the majority of power to the states, resulting in varied and inconsistent laws and a lack of central structure.

Realizing they needed to revamp the Articles, delegates from twelve of the thirteen states met in 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was during this Constitutional Convention, that a new plan for government was formed. James Madison attended as a Virginia state delegate and would prove to be one of the most important contributors.

Madison had prepared vigorously for the Convention, reading over a hundred books on history and political philosophy. He offered insightful and well thought out suggestions. He was even referred to as the 'best informed man on any point in debate.' In fact, Madison actually wrote much of the Constitution.

Constitutional Convention

However, not everyone liked the new government plan. These Anti-Federalists felt it gave way too much power to the federal government. Madison, on the other hand, was a Federalist and worked hard to gain support for the Constitution. To convince the states to ratify the Constitution, Madison and two of his allies wrote a series of political essays called the Federalist Papers.

In these essays, Madison supported the ideas held in the Constitution. He argued in support of a representative government in which citizens vote for government representatives who then vote on laws. He also wrote that the separation of the federal government into three branches and the creation of a system of checks and balances would prevent abuse of power.

In 1789, nine of the thirteen states voted to ratify the Constitution, making it the official new plan for government. However, key states, such as New York and Madison's home state of Virginia, still hadn't approved it. To appease their fears of an overly strong central government, Madison wrote a Bill of Rights. These ten amendments were created to protect the rights of citizens from abuses by the government. With this added, the remaining states ratified the Constitution by 1790. For all his efforts in helping to create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison is often called the Father of the Constitution.

Bill of Rights

Madison Helps Create the Country's First Political Party

As a member of Congress, Madison became a vocal critic of the first couple of Presidents. According to Madison, the creation of a national bank during Washington's term was un-constitutional. He also disagreed with expanding the standing army. During the administration of John Adams, Madison claimed that the government was trying to limit free speech.

Although Madison supported a strong central government, he thought there was an abuse of power taking place. So, together with Thomas Jefferson, Madison helped form the Democratic-Republican political party. Their goals were to limit the role of the federal government and stay true to the Constitution. In opposition, Washington's former Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, formed the Federalist Party. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson became the first Democratic-Republican president and made Madison his Secretary of State.

James Madison Becomes the Fourth U.S. President

James Madison became the fourth president in 1808 and served for two terms. In a position of power, Madison took the opportunity to shrink the size of the military and get rid of the national bank. Little did he know that the U.S. would need a strong military and plenty of money soon.

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