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James Madison - Fourth President of the United States

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Great people and great civilisations often follow in the paths of a wise lawgiver. The Athenian  democracy had Solon. Babylon had Hammurabi. Sparta had Lycurgus. The Jews had Moses. The USA has James Madison. Unlike other lawgivers of history, Madison was deeply flawed and very unlike any other mythological character.

James Madison, Broadly

Madison was obsessed with consistency. He once actually forged Thomas Jefferson's handwriting in a letter in order to remove the appearance of his own inconsistency on a political issue. He never addressed the subject openly, but probably believed that taking two sides on an issue was a sign of inferior intellect - or, worse, a sign that he really did not have principles at all.

Such an obsession seems odd given that Madison, one of the most important of the US Founding Fathers, had the political equivalent of multiple personality disorder. After playing the superlative role in the shaping, writing and adoption of the United States Constitution, he underwent one of the greatest personal ideological shifts in the history of the republic. He withdrew the fire of his intellect, which had lit the uncharted path of the US Federalists and nationalists. Having successfully worked alongside Federalists George Washington and Alexander Hamilton for years, he left them to join the fold of his charismatic Republican neighbour Thomas Jefferson and form a famous partnership which is still studied more than two centuries later.

Madison would become the fourth president of the USA. However, unlike most holders of that office, his presidency does not comprise the top line in his obituary - which is testament, perhaps, to his lacklustre performance in that role. In fact, Madison was ill-suited to any executive role. He was by temperament a legislator and distinguished himself by writing and thinking, rather than by acting. He was the architect of the US constitution, principal co-author of The Federalist Papers, and originator of the first ten amendments to the constitution, which would become the Bill of Rights. Madison was the first-floor leader in the House of Representatives and exerted a great deal of control over the early precedent-setting decisions of Congress.

From all of this, you would expect Madison to have a spot on Mount Rushmore, or at the least his portrait displayed on a piece of currency1. However, Madison is often mis-remembered as one of the lesser of the US 'Founding Fathers', for many reasons.

He possessed none of the charisma or gravitas of other great revolutionaries. History might have forgotten his small frame2 (five feet, four inches tall and weighing about 100 pounds3) if he had not always seemed in a perpetual state of illness. His speaking voice was unimpressive, and his favoured method of debate stiff and mechanical, using all the rhetorical flair of a parking ticket hearing. Madison seldom smiled4 and could be struck mute in social settings. He did not, in short, have the qualities which history tends to associate with 'great men'.

Most importantly, while Madison was indisputably a great thinker, he did not always show great judgment in office. He was also not the beneficiary of a great event which would ensure his legacy (as in the case of Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase); rather he was the victim of historical circumstances.

There was a saying in the days of the early republic that if God was in the details he would find Madison to greet him upon arrival. Appropriately, it is only in the details of Madison's life that we can find the mess of contradictions, hypocrisy, genius and accomplishment which make up his largely unexplored greatness.

The Details

Madison would only call one place home for his entire life: a tobacco plantation in north Virginia which had been owned by his wealthy family for years. The estate, which he later named Montpelier, was a critical retreat and important symbol of his status as a member of the Virginia governing class. He spent most of his childhood years there, until he went north to study law at the College of New Jersey5 (today known as Princeton University).

He graduated in 1771, having studied more intensely than would generally be considered healthy. In fact, Madison may not have been an entirely mentally healthy young man, apparently suffering from hypochondria. He often exaggerated the symptoms of an illness and falsely claimed to be sick when he was not. On the other hand, this complaint probably gave him a desired excuse to read broadly and think in solitude.

Even after he left New Jersey, Madison always remained a studious intellectual. While many aspiring young men of the time sought military glory in the Revolutionary War, Madison served in the Virginia government. During 1776, probably the most important year in the American Revolution, Madison spent much of his time studying Constitutional issues and working on the Virginia state constitution.

In 1779, he was elected to serve in the Continental Congress (at 29, he was its youngest member - and looked even younger). Madison served the maximum of three one-year terms and worked hard to distinguish himself. Perhaps out of frustration at the inability of the national government to get anything done (which he had seen first-hand, and which endangered the American cause during the Revolutionary War), Madison pushed to give the Continental Congress greater control over the states. His experience with the dire consequences of an impotent central government led to his participation in a meeting which would shape the rest of his life.

'August and Respectable Assembly'

I was not absent a single day, nor more than a casual fraction of an hour in any day, so that I could not have lost a single speech, unless a very short one.

It began with a river. Following the successful resolution of a dispute between Virginia and Maryland over the Potomac River, a convention was called in 1786 to discuss the growing problem of arbitration between the states. The attendees were to meet in Annapolis, Maryland. However, delegates from only five of the 13 states showed up. Worse still, most of the delegates were intellectual and political lightweights. There were arguably only two great minds present: Madison and a New York delegate named Alexander Hamilton.

Madison knew Hamilton a bit from their time in Congress together, and they quickly became close allies. Both men agreed that major changes needed to be made to the current system of federal government, the Articles of Confederation, which had a very weak central government. At their urging, the Annapolis Convention issued a call for another convention to consider amending the Articles, to be held in Philadelphia the following year.

Although Madison deserves much credit for actually bringing the Philadelphia convention about, he should also be applauded for ensuring its legitimacy. Madison pestered the universally respected Washington until he agreed to lead the Virginia delegation to Philadelphia. With General Washington in attendance, no one could claim that the meeting had any nefarious or conspiratorial intent.

While the overt purpose of the convention was to discuss ways to amend the Articles, it evolved into a discussion about replacing the Articles entirely. Given that the Articles themselves prescribed an alternative and legal means of amendment and replacement, this Philadelphia convention could actually be construed as an illegal attempt to overthrow the government. However, because the popular image of Washington was above any form of suspicion, it seemed impossible that anything to do with him would be treasonous. In this way, Madison helped to ensure that the Philadelphia convention did not suffer from the poor attendance of the Annapolis meeting, and that the delegates would not be hanged for their participation.

Madison arrived early in Philadelphia to prepare his arguments and research the history of confederacies. The quality of the minds at the Philadelphia meeting presented a contrast to its Annapolis forerunner. Ben Franklin called it the most 'august and respectable assembly' he had ever seen. Madison must have agreed. He attended every single session and was present for every important vote, speech and debate. He also took the most complete set of notes on the Convention, which have come down to posterity as the most important guide to it6. In debate, Madison exerted himself as a proponent of a strong central government. He wrote the 'Virginia Plan', which called for a strong, three-branch federal government, led by a bicameral7 legislature with representation determined by population. Although quite a few things would change from this original vision, the Virginia Plan is remarkably similar to the ultimate product of the convention: the US constitution. For all his efforts, Madison is widely considered to be the father of it. He would also be one of the constitution's strongest defenders once it took effect.


Once the Philadelphia Convention8 had finished its work, the proposed constitution was sent to the 13 states for approval. It would take effect once nine of the 13 states ratified it. In order to win over public opinion, Madison joined up with Hamilton to produce a series of essays favouring the document's ratification. Later to be called The Federalist Papers ('Federalist' being the term given to those in favour of the constitution, and only later to a political faction), these 85 essays by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay were widely published throughout the colonies.

While the use of the common pseudonym 'Publius' makes it sometimes difficult to exactly ascertain the authorship of each essay, Madison appears to have written about a third of the pieces (with about five written by Jay and the rest contributed by Hamilton). Madison's most famous essay is the first he contributed, 'Federalist Number Ten', which deals primarily with the problems inherent in factions (read: political parties) in a republic, and how best to minimise their negative effects9. In the years since their publication, The Federalist Papers have become an essential guide to understanding the intentions and rationale behind the constitution.

The Little General

Once the constitution was ratified by enough states to take effect - and Madison saw to it that his home state of Virginia was one which ratified it - he wasted no time getting involved. While he probably could have won a Senate seat, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives from Virginia. Once there, Madison quickly fulfilled one of the promises which proponents of the constitution had to make in order to assure the ratification of the document: the passage of a bill of rights. Madison personally authored 19 constitutional amendments. Congress trimmed the number down to 12, and the states only ratified ten. These ten would become the US Bill of Rights.

After creating the Bill of Rights, Madison often found himself at legislative odds with his old friends Washington, now president, and Hamilton, now secretary of the treasury. He led the fight in the House of Representatives against many of Hamilton's legislative proposals. He even led the charge against a treaty with Great Britain negotiated by Jay - even though the House of Representatives technically has nothing to do with the ratification of treaties (according to the document Madison had done so much to create).

It was around this time that Madison's loyalties began to shift. He joined forces with secretary of state Jefferson against the perceived 'monarchist' faction led by Hamilton. Madison's reversal from fervent Federalist to Jeffersonian Anti-Federalist has been highly scrutinised by history. He went from being one of the most impassioned proponents of a strong central government to favouring states' rights wherever possible. No one can really tell why he switched sides as he did, but the Anti-Federalists, led by Jefferson, gained a strong voice in the process.

Jefferson and Madison worked together frequently against the Federalists, who they perceived to be monarchical, corrupt, conspiratorial, and quite possibly an incarnation of pure evil. Their paranoia mounted until they eventually invented a code by which to exchange letters. In these letters (now code-broken), you get the sense of Jefferson being the senior partner, setting the overall strategy but allowing Madison to take care of all the tactical details (although Jefferson often deferred to Madison's superior judgment on constitutional matters).

Among the manoeuvres which Jefferson and Madison masterminded were the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (the year after Madison retired from Congress). The John Adams administration, which had been elected in 1796 to follow Washington, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, which limited free speech and allowed for the easy deportation of immigrants. Madison and Jefferson correctly saw this as an illegal infringement of the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech and a free press. However, because the Act itself made critical speech illegal, the two were afraid to speak out against it. Instead, they had the Virginia and Kentucky state legislatures adopt bills which called for the 'nullification' of the Federal Alien and Sedition Acts. This was a radical new doctrine of states' rights, but it had no immediate effect other than to solidify Anti-Federalist support against Federalist infringement of free speech.

Heir Apparent

Today, a vice-president is widely seen as the natural successor to a president. However, in the early days of the republic, the secretary of state was seen as next in line. Therefore, much can be read into the fact that Jefferson, upon his election in 1800, selected Madison to be secretary of state. In this position, Madison was the principal adviser to the president, especially in the areas of foreign relations and trade. Madison's greatest success as secretary of state came from his supporting role in the successful negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase from France, which doubled the size of a young USA.

The greatest diplomatic problem Madison had to deal with was the ongoing conflict between the USA and Britain. For years, Britain seized US ships and impressed US sailors into service. Relations with France were problematic as well. When the situation became intolerable, both Madison and Jefferson baulked at the prospect of war - not because they were pacifists, rather because they despised the idea of levying taxes to pay for such a war. Instead, they came up with a scheme to punish their European foes by cutting off all exports from the USA with the Embargo Act of 1807.

This backfired in spectacular fashion, as US businessmen were hit hard and the Europeans barely took any notice. Ironically, Madison and Jefferson used the military to enforce the unpopular embargo, which would seem to be the sort of threat to liberty and freedom which the two so vehemently claimed to despise. When Madison became president, he pushed for an even tougher embargo, but there was little support for this transparently counter-productive scheme.

Presidency and Legacy

Nature has cast him in too benevolent a mould. Admirably adapted to the tranquil scenes of peace, blending all the mild and amiable virtues, he is not fit for the rough and rude blasts which the conflicts of nations generate.
- Henry Clay

Madison was easily elected to the presidency in 1808. With Jefferson in retirement, he was the de facto leader of the Democratic-Republican party. Madison found that this party had become increasingly splintered over the years. He had to make appointments to the Supreme Court, cabinet and military with as much regard to factional and regional balance as to actual qualification. The result was that Madison was surrounded by incompetents for the early part of his presidency.

These appointments were unfortunate because, as tensions between the USA and European powers grew, he was saddled with a physician as secretary of war (William Eustis) and an alcoholic as secretary of the navy (Paul Hamilton), not to mention generals who were worse than worthless10.

With an incompetent secretary of state chosen for his political connections, France - under Napoleon Bonaparte - cleverly pushed the US' hapless and slightly naive president towards open war with Britain. The USA was not well prepared for a war, to say the least.

One of the reasons for the poor state of readiness was the ideological entrenchments of the country's leading Republican politicians. The country's armed forces had eroded over time. Republicans firmly believed that the main theatre of any upcoming war would be in Canada, so they let the navy suffer. They also believed that funding and training a standing army would be an unnecessary expense, as US citizens would form into militias - so the army's ranks dwindled. The charter of the national bank (which most Republicans hated) was also allowed to lapse. This made financing the war effort much more difficult.

The War of 1812 was called 'Mr Madison's War' by his opponents. In fact, while Madison could have done much to stop or stave off a showdown with Britain, a conflict was probably inevitable given all the pressures from Europe, Congress, the public, and inside the Madison administration. The war ended up being just a spectacular failure - an embarrassment to the USA for years. The dramatic climax came with the burning of Washington DC, and first lady Dolley Madison fleeing the White House with a famous portrait of Washington.

Ironically, the only real US military successes in the early part of the war came from the few frigates which remained in the US navy. The navy had been severely neglected by presidents Jefferson and Madison, who opposed spending money on frivolous things like security and defence. The USSConstitution and the USS President won important symbolic victories in the Atlantic, and later Oliver Hazard Perry would defeat British forces on Lake Erie. It was largely because of these naval victories and the accompanying boost of public support that Madison managed to win a closely fought re-election battle in 1812.

In his second term, the war continued to be unpopular. Three times during the course of it, Madison offered another embargo as a solution. When Congress finally agreed, several New England states actually threatened to secede from the union (New England was a bastion of Federalist sentiment and was very much anti-war, and was also the area most devastated by the ongoing embargoes). Their treasonous frenzy was cut off, however, when a peace treaty was signed in Belgium, ending the war. By then, Madison had successfully replaced much of his cabinet, and many of his worst diplomats and military officers, and the government operated more smoothly.

Following the conclusion of the War of 1812, most US citizens felt a sense of pride (though few historians would call the war a true victory; some have said the USA was lucky even to retain its independence).

For the remainder of his second term, Madison focused on uncontroversial things like internal improvements in the western states. He was highly popular for his last few years in office, which is sometimes termed the 'Era of Good Feelings' for the non-partisan, nationalistic mood the country fell into. More than anything, Mr Madison's War was a victory for US nationalism. As a rule, when citizens are feeling good about their country, their politicians are well regarded. Madison's popularity helped elect fellow Virginian James Monroe (who had taken over as secretary of state in Madison's cabinet) to succeed him as president in 1817.

Madison was relatively quiet after his presidency, but lingered on for two decades until his death in 1836. As he lay on his deathbed, the last living signatory of the US constitution, he looked distraught. His niece asked him what was the matter. He replied: 'Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear. I always talk better lying down.' Thus passed a US titan, inconsistent to the last.

1Actually, Madison did appear on the 5,000 dollar bill until its discontinuation. This should not be considered any great honour, though, as bills in such denominations rarely saw the outside of a bank vault.2As in the case of Alexander Hamilton, who was only an inch or two taller than Madison but commanded just about any room he entered. Hamilton was memorably described by a contemporary as the 'Little Lion'.3That's seven stone, two pounds, or 45kg.4Of course, the same is said about George Washington, but to highlight his dignity and reserve, rather than his awkwardness.5A more conventional educational choice for a son of Virginia would have been the College of William & Mary, but Madison detested its Anglican administration.6Later in life, Madison tried to sell these notes, along with the rest of his papers, for the princely sum of $100,00007A legislature based on two houses.8Although now known as the Constitutional Convention, it would not be called that for years.9His words are still widely cited in discussions of political parties, although it is hard to separate his early views from the fact that he eventually became the acknowledged leader of the strongest political faction in the country.10According to historian Garry Wills: 'The men were as fit for their posts as Benjamin Franklin would have been for the corps de ballet.'

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