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Known as the architect of the Constitution, James Madison was born in Virginia on March 16, 1751. He came from a wealthy family and had a classical education. He graduated the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in two years. Madison was a small shy man but had a powerful mind, and is said to have a fondness for ribald humor and doing his homework. In Philadelphia, Aaron Burr set up a meeting with a woman 17 years his younger, named Dolley Todd. They married in 1794. She was charismatic, attractive, and gregarious: all things that Madison was not. Her influence on early Washington, D.C., social life, Madison’s political prospects, the early diplomacy of the republic, and the position of first lady was monumental. Theirs was a loving marriage and while detailed in few letters, their affection for each other was epic. Madison, like other founders, held slaves.
Wealth afforded him the leisure to pursue politics, and his classical education in philosophy and languages provided a rich source of influences on his thought and writings. At the age of 29, Madison was the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress. He won acclaim for his preparation and skill. Ancient and Enlightenment thought, especially Aristotle, Montesquieu, Milton, and Locke, greatly influenced the young Madison. In 1776 he was a member of the Virginia Convention, where he would combat Patrick Henry’s entanglements of the affairs of state with the sphere of religion. His time spent reading the texts sent back by Jefferson while he was in France - especially the problems confronting ancient confederacies - provided additional powerful influences on his political thought. Much of this work makes appearances in the Federalist papers 18 -20.
In 1801 Madison became Jefferson’s Secretary of State. In 1809 he became president. The partisanship between the Democratic Republicans (Madison’s and Jefferson’s party) and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party was vitriolic and the tests the new nation would face would be difficult. Madison presided over the war of 1812, threats of secession by New Englanders, small scale revolts, and see the burning of Washington DC by the British in 1814. He retired to his plantation and guided the University of Virginia. While Madison owned slaves, like many founders, his was a conflicted relationship with the institution. He was a founding member of the American Colonization Society, which supported the emancipation of slaves and resettlement in Africa. James Madison died at 85 on June 28, 1836.
Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University
Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 6th Edition
The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison & the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 1995