James Madison & Thomas Jefferson

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about the friendship and collaboration between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. You'll learn a little bit about how they met, what they accomplished together, and how they influenced the political life of the United States.

Founding Friends

Two of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had a rich and long friendship. They collaborated on numerous political ideas and decisions that have shaped our country.

Both men were from wealthy Virginian families who owned plantations and slaves. Jefferson was eight years older than Madison and looked the more virile of the two men standing six foot three inches, while Madison was a mere five foot six inches and often described as feeble-looking. Madison first met Jefferson during the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776, but it wasn't until three years later that the two cemented their friendship working together daily while Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia, and Madison was on the Council of State.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

And it wasn't just politics that the two spoke about. They were both fascinated by the natural sciences. While Jefferson was serving abroad as a minister in France, he sent Madison all sorts of scientific gadgets like a telescope and phosphoretic matches, while Madison sent different examples of native flora and fauna of North America to show off to the French.

Although Jefferson certainly acted as a mentor to Madison, the two men had a relatively equal relationship and they collaborated well. Jefferson was a deep thinker with his head in the philosophical clouds, but Madison was bright enough to take these philosophical insights and turn them into concrete action.


One of the accomplishments that the two men made together was guaranteeing the right to religious liberty in Virginia. In fact, Jefferson was so proud of this that its one of the only three accomplishments he wanted to be listed on his epitaph.

The Anglican Church had been the established church of Virginia since its founding, and Jefferson had long wished to cut it loose from the state. In 1776, when the Virginia constitution was passed, young delegate, James Madison, changed the wording about religious freedom from simply toleration to establishing religious freedom as a natural right of all men. This was a much more powerful concept.

Jefferson pushed it further drafting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777 and introducing it for a vote in 1779. It would guarantee religious liberty, and disestablish the Anglican Church. It failed in its first vote, and the fight over religious liberty raged for several years. In 1784, Jefferson left to serve in France, but Madison kept up the pressure. It wasn't until 1786, that Madison was able to reintroduce Jefferson's bill in the Virginia legislature where it finally passed. Guaranteeing this right in Virginia almost certainly led to its inclusion in the Bill of Rights.

You probably remember that Thomas Jefferson is the revered writer of the Declaration of Independence. But James Madison was no slouch. He is the Father of the Constitution. The Constitution was mostly based upon his Virginia Plan. Jefferson was still away serving in France in 1787, so he couldn't attend the constitutional convention, but Madison shared the details and debates with him. Jefferson helped convince Madison that a Bill of Rights was necessary to the Constitution.

James Madison
James Madison

Political party

During George Washington's terms as president, a political party began forming around Alexander Hamilton's ideas about a stronger federal government. This party was called the Federalists. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were getting pretty worried about creating another monarchy that would limit the rights of Americans. By voicing their opposition to Hamilton's plans, they birthed the nation's first opposition party. They would be called the Democratic-Republican Party.

Jefferson was Washington's Secretary of State, but he was getting worn out from constantly battling Hamilton, so he resigned and took a step back in 1793. Madison stepped up, and over the next three years he strengthened the party and defined its platform. It was Madison who took Jefferson's political ideas and truly built a political party with them.

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