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James Madison in the American Revolution

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

James Madison was the nation's fourth president, but before that he had played his own role in the Revolution. In this lesson, we'll explore this history, and see what impact Madison had on the war that established American freedom.

James Madison

It shouldn't be surprising to learn that most of the first American presidents had participated in the American Revolution. Most people involved in early American politics had served in some capacity. One such person was James Madison (1751-1836), the nation's fourth president. However, Madison's experiences were a little different. Beset by health issues, he never fought in the war like George Washington had. Instead, he fought the political battles of the Revolution. Considering that the Revolution was an unprecedented experience without a clear answer as to how a nation could actually exist with a representative-style of government, Madison would end up being involved in some of the most uphill battles of revolution.

James Madison was the fourth president of the United States
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Before the Revolution

In the 1760s, James Madison was educated and prepared to assume his place amongst the wealthy, landed gentry of Virginia. His father was a successful plantation owner who had never received a formal education, and looked to young James to cement the family's rise into status. James was a teenager when American colonists broke into protest against the Stamp Tax. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton) in 1771, not long after the Boston Massacre resulted in the repeal of the hated Townshend duties.

As this happened, Madison was being educated in all of the grandest ideas of the Enlightenment, the philosophical movement that provided the basis for American ideas about representative government, the rights of humans, and the goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Madison himself was particularly invested in the concepts of religious freedom and civil liberties.

Madison returned to his family plantation as protestors in Boston were dumping thousands of tons of tea into the harbor, and the British were responding with the aptly named Coercive Acts. Madison's revolutionary-minded county began recruiting militia members, and Madison learned to use a rifle. He also started finding a place in Virginia politics, fighting against the jailing of unlicensed preachers.

The Revolution Begins

When the American Revolution officially broke out in 1776, Madison was prevented from enlisting due to poor health (a condition that followed him for many years of his life). Instead, he sought and won election to the state convention, which was assembled to write an independent constitution for the state of Virginia. Madison brought his education and passion to the assembly, and was instrumental in changing the convention's policy of religious tolerance to one of absolute religious freedom. The Virginia state constitution was one of the first in the nation, and it was amongst the most revolutionary. Fully dedicated to the Enlightenment ideals of the rights of the people, it went on to set the bar for nearly every state constitution to follow.

Patrick Henry speaks to the Virginia assembly, the body with which Madison would help draft the state constitution
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