James Madison served as the fourth President of the United States from March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817. Born in a rich family, Madison was a bright student who did his four-year graduation course at Princeton in just two years. At Princeton, he founded the American Whig Society. During the American Revolutionary War, Madison served as a politician in Virginia. Around this time, he met Thomas Jefferson and the two became lifelong friends. Their friendship is considered one of the most fruitful political partnerships in American history. After the war, Madison played a pivotal role in the formation of the U.S. Constitution due to which he is regarded as the Father of the Constitution. After serving as Secretary of State under President Jefferson, Madison became President in 1809. At 5ft 4in, he was the shortest U.S. president to date. Madison suffered from ill health most of his life. He married a widow named Dolley Paine and adopted her 2 year old son. Madison didn’t have any children of his own. Know about the family, life, education, political career, final years and death of James Madison through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 His father was the largest landowner in Orange County

Born on March 16, 1751 at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway, Virginia, James Madison was the eldest child of James Madison Sr. and his wife Nelly Conway Madison. James Sr. and Nelly had 12 children. However three of them died in infancy; and their daughter Elizabeth (age 7) and son Reuben (age 3) died from a dysentery epidemic in 1775. James Madison Sr. owned the plantation house known as Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia. He acquired more property to eventually own 5,000 acres, making him the largest landowner in the county. He also served as a colonel in the militia during the American Revolutionary War. Nelly Conway Madison was the daughter of a prominent planter and tobacco merchant. During those times, slave labor powered the Southern economy and slaveholders formed the political elite. James Sr. owned 108 slaves by the time of his death. Being the eldest son, James Madison inherited his property and slaves after his death.

James Madison's Montpelier
James Madison’s Montpelier, located in Orange, Virginia

 

#2 He completed his four-year graduation course at Princeton in two years

In 1762, at the age of 11, Madison was sent to a boarding school run by Donald Robertson, a Scottish teacher who tutored a number of prominent plantation families in the South. At the age of 16, he returned to his father’s estate Montpelier where he received private tuition for a couple of years. In 1769, at the age of 18, James Madison enrolled at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. He proceeded to blaze through the four-year course in only two years, often sleeping just four hours a night. His studies included Latin, Greek, science, geography, mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy. After graduation, Madison remained at Princeton for another year to study Hebrew and political philosophy under direction of the university’s president, John Witherspoon. Madison also studied law; not with an intention to practice but due to his interest in public policy.

Nelly Conway Madison and James Madison Sr
Parents of James Madison – Nelly Conway Madison (left) and James Madison Sr

 

#3 He was a close friend of the American poet Philip Freneau

Madison’s roommate at Princeton was Philip Freneau and the two developed a close friendship. Philip Freneau later became an influential American poet and was called the “Poet of the American Revolution”. Also when Madison and Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican party in 1791, they asked Freneau to move to Philadelphia. Here Freneau worked as an editor for the Democratic-Republican newspaper National Gazette. Its objective was to counter the influence of the rival Federalist newspaper, the Gazette of the United States. At Princeton, Madison co- founded the American Whig Society in direct competition to fellow student Aaron Burr’s Cliosophic Society. Aaron Burr later served as the third Vice President of the United States. The American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society were the primary student organizations at Princeton until the end of the 19th century. In 1928, they were merged to form the American Whig–Cliosophic Society.

Philip Freneau
Philip Freneau – Madison’s roommate and friend at Princeton University

 

#4 Madison had a lifelong friendship with Thomas Jefferson

In 1774, Madison was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety, a patriot pro-revolution group. The American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In October, Madison was commissioned as the colonel of the Orange County militia, serving as his father’s second-in-command. However, he soon left that position due to his election as a delegate to the Fifth Virginia Convention. This Convention declared Virginia an independent state and produced its first constitution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Around this time, Madison met Thomas Jefferson and the two became lifelong friends. Their friendship is considered one of the most fruitful political partnerships in American history. Apart from other things, the two drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom; co-founded the Democratic-Republican party; and Madison served as Secretary of State during the presidency of Jefferson.

 

#5 He was the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress

In 1777, Madison lost the election to the new state assembly of Virginia. The reason for his loss was that he refused to provide free liquor to the voters on election day while his opponent adhered to the old practice to win the contest. However, the following year he was appointed to the Virginia Council of State, a powerful government body that directed state affairs during the Revolutionary War. In 1780, at the age of 29, James Madison became the youngest member of the Continental Congress, the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution. After serving Congress from 1781 to 1783, Madison won election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784, a post he held till 1786. In this capacity, he battled Patrick Henry’s attempts to tax citizens in support of the Christian religion.

James Madison at age 32
Congressman James Madison at age 32 – Portrait by Charles Willson Peale

 

#6 James Madison is famous for being the Father of the 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. He then wrote many articles in support of the Constitution as the states held conventions to vote on whether or not to ratify the Constitution. The United States Constitution was ratified by June 21, 1788 and it came into effect on March 4, 1789. For his contribution to it, James Madison is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”.

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

 

#7 At 5ft 4in, Madison was the shortest U.S. president to date

In 1789, James Madison was elected to the new United States House of Representatives from Virginia. He served as a Representative for eight years till 1797. When Thomas Jefferson became the third President of U.S in 1801, he chose Madison for the position of Secretary of State. He served in this position till 1809. In the United States presidential election of 1808, James Madison easily defeated the Federalist candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to become the fourth President of the United States. He was re-elected in 1812 and served as President from March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817. James Madison stood at just 5 feet 4 inches tall and he rarely weighed more than a 100 pounds. He is till date the shortest and lightest person to serve as the American president.

Engraving of President James Madison
Engraving of President James Madison

 

#8 The White House was burned by the British during his presidency

The most important event during the presidency of James Madison was the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom. Initially U.S. suffered many costly defeats at the hands of British, Canadian and Native American forces. On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force occupied Washington and set fire to many public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. President Madison, members of his government and the military had to flee the city. They eventually found refuge for the night in Brookeville, a small town in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is known today as the United States Capital for a Day. Late in the war, 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 conflict with Britain increased national pride in America and led to a prosperous age known as the Era of Good Feelings.

Burning of Washington DC by the British
Illustration of the Burning of Washington DC by the British

 

#9 He married a widow named Dolley Payne and adopted her 2 year old son

On September 15, 1794, the 43yearold James Madison married 26-year-old Dolley Payne Todd at Harewood, Jefferson County, West Virginia. Dolley Payne had married John Todd in 1790 but she lost her husband and one of her two sons three years later in a yellow fever epidemic. She met Madison at social functions in Philadelphia. Dolley was a Quaker and she was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying Madison, who was not a Quaker. Madison and his wife had no children of their own. Madison adopted her one surviving son, John Payne Todd. Dolley Madison worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to furnish the newly constructed White House. She sometimes served as widower Jefferson’s hostess for official ceremonial functions when he was president. When she became the official First Lady, Dolley was renowned for her social graces and hospitality, and contributed to her husband’s popularity as president.

Dolley Madison
1804 portrait of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison

 

#10 His final years were marred by financial troubles and ill health

Post presidency, Madison, aged 65, retired to his tobacco plantation Montpelier, along with his wife Dolley. His plantation experienced a steady financial collapse, due to the continued price declines in tobacco and also due to his stepson’s mismanagement. Madison experienced bouts of ill health throughout his life. He described them as “a constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy.” The final years of Madison were marred by financial troubles as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. He became very concerned with his legacy and began modifying documents. Once he even forged Jefferson’s handwriting. In 1830, his stepson Payne Todd went to debtors’ prison in Philadelphia and Madison had to sell land in Kentucky and mortgage half of the Montpelier plantation to pay his debts. For the better part of 1831 and 1832 Madison was bedridden. James Madison died of heart failure at Montpelier on June 28. 1836. He was buried in the Madison Family Cemetery at the plantation.

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