James Madison (1751 – 1836) was a founding father of the United States who is famous for his contribution towards the U.S. Constitution. He drafted the Virginia Plan, an outline for a new constitution; directed the Philadelphia Convention towards forming a new constitution; and contributed to the Federalist Papers, which promoted the ratification of the constitution. Apart from being the Father of the Constitution, Madison is also regarded as the Father of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. He served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson before becoming the fourth President of the United States in 1809. The foreign affairs during his presidency were dominated by the War of 1812 with Great Britain while his domestic policy focused on an effective taxation system and a well-funded standing professional military. Know more about the contribution of James Madison to the constitution as well as his foreign and domestic policy as President through his 10 major accomplishments.

 

#1 He directed the Philadelphia Convention towards forming a new constitution

The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States. It established U.S. as an association of sovereign states with a weak central government. Also it gave the Congress effectively no power to enforce its requests to the states. Due to this, Madison, as well as several other founding fathers, feared national bankruptcy and disunion. The Philadelphia Convention was held in 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation. Madison had earlier done extensive scholarly research on various forms of government. He wrote what became known as the Virginia Plan, an outline for a new constitution. At the convention, he convinced other Congressmen that, instead of amending the ineffective Articles, it was time to supersede them with a new constitution. Madison spoke over two hundred times during the convention, which lasted from May 25 to September 17. He is said to be the best informed man at any point during the debate and his performance was rated highly by fellow delegates.

Scene at the Signing of the US Constitution
Scene at the Signing of the US Constitution, September 17, 1787 – Famous painting by Howard Chandler Christy

 

#2 Madison drafted the influential Virginia Plan

The Virginia Plan was drafted by James Madison but presented to the Philadelphia Convention by Edmund Randolph, the governor of Virginia. It most importantly called for the number of votes each state received in Congress to be based on population. This was countered by the New Jersey Plan, which called for one vote per state regardless of population. Ultimately, the Convention decided to create a House of Representatives apportioned by population and a Senate in which each state is equally represented. Other proposals of the Virginia Plan included a legislative branch consisting of two chambers (bicameral legislature); and a three part government consisting of executive, legislative and judicial branches. Though the Virginia Plan was extensively changed during the debate, it did help shape the way the United States government works. Most disputes during the Philadelphia Convention were on the balance of power between the central and state governments. Madison is credited for shifting the debate toward a compromise of “shared sovereignty”.

The Virginia Plan front page
The front page of the Virginia Plan

 

#3 He was one of the three contributors to the famous Federalist Papers

After the Philadelphia or Constitutional Convention, each state was asked to hold a convention to determine whether or not to ratify the Constitution. This led to an intense battle between the ones who supported the Constitution, the Federalists; and the ones who opposed it, the Anti-Federalists. Under the pseudonym “Publius”, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a collection of 85 articles and essays to promote the ratification of the constitution known as The Federalist Papers. Madison contributed 29 of these essays. The Federalist Papers have been called “the most important work in political science that ever has been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United States.” They have also been frequently cited by the Supreme Court as an authoritative contemporary interpretation of the meaning of the provisions of the United States Constitution. Among the essays written by Madison is Federalist No. 10, which is famous for its advocacy for representative democracy and is among the most highly regarded of all American political writings.

#4 James Madison is considered the Father of the Constitution

Nine states were required to ratify the Constitution for it to succeed. However, it was believed that if Virginia, the most populous state at the time, did not ratify the constitution, the new government would fail. Also, it would have disqualified Virginian George Washington from being the first president. The powerful orator Patrick Henry was an Anti-Federalist. This led to a battle between Henry and Madison. Although Henry was by far the more powerful and dramatic speaker, Madison successfully countered his emotional appeals with rational arguments. It was a close battle and it was after much negotiation by Madison that the convention in Virginia approved the Constitution on June 28, 1789 by a vote of 89 to 79. Nine states had ratified the Constitution by June 21, 1788 and it came into effect on March 4, 1789. United States Constitution has had an international impact and it has been a notable model for governance around the world. For his contribution to it, James Madison is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”.

US Constitution page 1
Page one of the original copy of the Constitution

 

#5 He drafted the United States Bill of Rights

Madison was initially opposed to the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. However, during the ratification debates, he understood its importance. Also, Madison feared that if this was not done, the Anti-Federalists could open the entire Constitution to reconsideration. On June 8, 1789, Madison introduced his bill proposing amendments consisting of Nine Articles comprising up to 20 potential amendments. 17 amendments were sent to the Senate which further reduced it to 12. 3 to 12 were ratified as additions to the Constitution on December 15, 1791, and became Amendments One through Ten of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights added to the Constitution specific guarantees of personal freedoms and rights; clear limitations on the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings; and explicit declarations that all powers not specifically delegated to Congress are reserved for the states or the people. James Madison is considered the Father of the Bill of Rights.

United States Bill of Rights
United States Bill of Rights

 

#6 He co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party

Prior to the Constitutional Convention, James Madison had served from March 1, 1781 to November 1, 1783 as the youngest member of the Confederation Congress, the governing body of the U.S. at the time. He had also served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 to 1786. Madison was elected to the new United States House of Representatives from Virginia. He served as a Representative for eight years from March 4, 1789 to March 4, 1797. Initially he worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government. President Washington looked to him as the person who best understood the constitution. In the early 1790s, Federalist Party, the first American political party, came into being. It advocated on centralizing policies and a strong national government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed concentration of power and in opposition to the Federalist Party, they found the Democratic-Republican Party in 1791–1793. From 1801 to 1825, their new party controlled the presidency and Congress as well as most states.

Democratic-Republican Party tricolor cockade
Tricolor cockade used by the Democratic-Republican Party

 

#7 He served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was a mentor to Madison. The two had played an important role in the passage of the landmark Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. The Act disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths. Thomas Jefferson became the third President of U.S in 1801 and he chose Madison for the position of Secretary of State. Along with Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, Madison became one of the two major influences in Jefferson’s cabinet. He also supervised the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which doubled the size of the United States and was by far the largest territorial gain in U.S. history. James Madison served as the 5th United States Secretary of State from May 2, 1801 to March 3, 1809.

Louisiana Purchase Map
Map depicting the region added after the Louisiana Purchase

 

#8 James Madison served as the fourth President of the United States

In the nominations for the 1808 presidential election, Madison faced stiff competition from former Ambassador James Monroe and Vice President George Clinton. Ultimately the Democratic-Republican Party chose Madison as its candidate for president and Clinton as its candidate for vice president. In the United States presidential election of 1808, James Madison easily defeated the Federalist candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He won 122 electoral votes to Pinckney’s 47; and 64.7% of the popular vote. In the 1812 presidential elections, Madison defeated his own party’s DeWitt Clinton. He was re-elected with 128 electoral votes to Clinton’s 89; and 50.4 percent of the popular vote to his opponent’s 47.6%. James Madison served as the fourth President of the United States from March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817.

1816 Portrait of President James Madison
1816 Portrait of President James Madison by John Vanderlyn

 

#9 He led the nation during the difficult War of 1812

In the beginning of the 19th century Great Britain was involved in a conflict with France. America’s policy was to trade with both the nations. However, in 1807, Britain passed the Orders in Council which required neutral countries to obtain a license from its authorities before trading with France or French colonies. Also, the British seized several U.S. ships and forced captured crewmen to serve in the British navy. These factors led to tension between U.K. and America. On June 18, 1812, President Madison signed the declaration of war upon the United Kingdom, beginning the War of 1812. Madison faced many challenges during the war including a superior enemy, divided cabinet, obstructionist governors, incompetent generals, and militia who refused to fight outside their states. U.S. suffered many costly defeats at the hands of British, Canadian and Native American forces. These included the burning of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., in August 1814. However, American troops were able to repulse British invasions in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans. The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 restoring the status to “the state existing before the war”. The War of 1812 increased national pride in America and led to a prosperous age known as the Era of Good Feelings.

Battle of New Orleans
Battle of New Orleans – The most famous American victory in the War of 1812

 

#10 The final years of his presidency saw unprecedented prosperity in America

After the war of 1812, the Madison administration focused on domestic affairs. The government budget was brought back into surplus; an effective taxation system based on tariffs was implemented; a well-funded standing professional military was established; pensions were extended to orphans and widows of the War of 1812 for a period of 5 years at the rate of half pay; and the Tariff of 1816 was passed to protect U.S. manufactured items from overseas competition. The Tariff of 1816 was the first actual protectionist measure in U.S. and it greatly helped the American industries compete with foreign goods in the domestic market. Though Madison had long opposed a national bank, in 1816, he chartered the Second Bank of the United States with a twenty-year term. The final years of the presidency of Madison years began an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, which was called the Era of Good Feelings. James Madison is usually ranked among the top ten U.S. presidents by scholars.

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