The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Madison, James

Edition of 1920. See also James Madison on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

MADISON, James, fourth President of the United States: b. Port Conway, Va., 1751; d. Montpelier, Va., 28 June 1836. Madison was the eldest son of James Madison, a Virginia planter, and of Nelly Conway, daughter of Francis Conway, of King George County, Va. His father, a man of independent means, lived on an estate now known as Montpelier in Orange County. James was born at Francis Conway's home on the Rappahannock while his mother was on a visit to her parents. His educational advantages were excellent for the times; he attended the school of a Scotchman, Donald Robertson, was well prepared for college by the clergyman of the parish, the Rev. Thomas Martin, and entered Princeton in 1769. His application to his studies was excessive, and was in part the cause of later ill health; he succeeded, however, in taking his studies of the last two years in one year and took his B.A. degree in 1771. He remained at Princeton for another year doing special work in Hebrew under Dr. Witherspoon, the president. After his return home he tutored his younger brothers and began a systematic course of reading in theology, philosophy and law. At this time his study of Hebrew and theology seem to indicate a desire to enter the ministry, but he soon abandoned this and prepared himself for the legal profession and for public service. His theological studies bore good fruit later as is evidenced by the stand he took for religious liberty.

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Fourth President of the United States

Madison was by instinct a politician and not a soldier; he look no active part in the Revolutionary War, but as early as 1774 he was appointed a member of the Committee of Public Safety for Orange County, and in 1776 was elected delegate to the convention which framed the constitution of Virginia. From that time until he retired from the Presidency he was honored with high public offices by his State and by the nation. In the Virginia Convention Madison succeeded in substituting for a clause in the Bill of Rights permitting the “fullest toleration” in religion, a clause allowing the “free exercise of religion.” This was a distinct blow to religious intolerance for, as he said, toleration implies jurisdiction, and the State should have no coercive power over religious thought. He was a member of the first Virginia assembly but failed of re-election because, as his biographer Rives tells us, he refused to conform lo the universal custom of his day and “treat” his constituents; he was, however, made a member of the governor's council and so distinguished himself that in 1780 while still under 30 he was chosen at delegate to the Continental Congress. In this Congress he was conspicuous for his opposition to the issuance of paper money by the States; for his efforts to secure for Congress the right of taxing imports, and for his determined stand to retain for the States the right of navigation on the Mississippi. Madison saw clearly that a government so organically weak that it could not enforce its requisitions and could pay its debts only by increasing its debt could never be effective; hence he labored unceasingly to enlarge the power of the central government. The office of delegate was limited to one term, so Madison was not returned to Congress in 1784, but the high esteem in which he was held was shown by his immediate election to the State assembly. Virginia was a very influential State and her attitude toward national questions was of great importance. In the assembly Madison tried to indoctrinate the people of Virginia with his ideas concerning the Federal power. His bill to regulate trade in Virginia and to provide ports of entry led first to the conference between Virginia and Maryland with reference to trade on the Potomac and later to the Annapolis Convention which met in 1786 to consider the trade and commerce of the United States. This Convention at Annapolis urged upon the States the appointment of commissioners to meet in convention at Philadelphia “to devise such further government as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” The summoning of the Philadelphia Convention was largely due to the wise bills introduced by Madison in the Virginia assembly and to his direction of public sentiment, and it was eminently fitting that he should be one of the delegates of the Virginia Commission at whose head was George Washington. Madison's views on government are clearly defined in his “outline system” which formed the basis of the Virginia plan proposed to the Convention. His system demanded that there should be a due supremacy of national authority without the exclusion of local authority, that the national authority should extend to the judiciary and to the militia; that the national legislature should be composed of two bodies, the larger elected for a short, the smaller for a longer term; that Congress should have certain coercive powers; that a national executive should he provided and that the basis of representation in Congress should be changed from States to population. The “Virginia plan” was the germ of the Constitution and Madison is rightly called the “Father of the Constitution.” His arguments in favor of the proposed government were exhaustive and convincing, and his private notes of the work of the Convention and of his debates purchased from his widow and published by Congress form a valuable addition to our knowledge of this stormy period. While the Constitution was before the people for consideration Madison, Hamilton and Jay wrote a series of papers called in collected form The Federalist, in which they discussed government in general, defined the character of the proposed union, met objections and proved the advantages to be derived from effective central government. Madison was a member of the Virginia Convention which met to consider the ratification of the Constitution and by his keen analysis and clear-cut argument contributed more than any other man to secure its adoption. His chief opponent was Patrick Henry; his ablest ally, John Marshall. Owing to Henry's antagonism, Madison was defeated as candidate for the Senate, but was elected as representative to Congress and took his seat in April 1789. During this session of Congress, Hamilton and Madison, who had hitherto been as one in their efforts to centralize power, drifted apart, and Madison gradually began to endorse Jefferson's position as to certain inalienable States' rights. There is no reason to accuse him of bad faith; his statesmanship was never overbold, and Hamilton's commercial system, his extensive financial schemes, especially the funding of the national debt and the assumption of State debts by the general government, gave so much power to Congress that Madison withdrew his support from the Secretary of the Treasury and vigorously opposed his measures. Although Madison had now definitely cast in his fortunes with the Republican opposition his moderation and good sense enabled him to retain the friendship of most of his political opponents.

From 1793 to 1796 the country was greatly agitated over the relation of the United States toward France, and on the outbreak of war between France and England the President issued a neutrality proclamation to the great disgust of the French, who had expected active friendship from the United States. Although both countries interfered shamefully with American commerce, popular sentiment and the Republican party sided with France. In 1794 Madison, supported by Jefferson, introduced a bill demanding retaliatory measures against Great Britain, and a temporary embargo was laid on British commerce. The signing of the Jay treaty by the President was a signal for an outburst of popular indignation, and Madison, as leader of the opposition in Congress, opposed the appropriation of money to carry out the terms of the treaty. In 1797 Madison retired and enjoyed for a short while the pleasures of private life. A year later he was aroused to activity by the passage of the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts. The Virginia resolutions written by Madison denounced these laws and declared that in case of a dangerous exercise by the Federal government of powers not granted by the compact the States had the right to interfere. These resolutions still further emphasized the position of the Republican party and pledged it to the support of States' rights. The year 1801 brought an overwhelming defeat to the Federalists; Jefferson was inaugurated President and Madison became Secretary of State. He was thoroughly in sympathy with the President's views and shared the popularity of that brilliant administration. The last years of Jefferson's second term were clouded by the insulting actions of England and France with reference to the American navy. The orders of the British and the decrees of Napoleon concerning the seizure of neutral vessels were ruining American commerce. Vessels were seized by the English and by the French, American seamen were impressed and ports blockaded. Jefferson was opposed to war in his efforts to coerce France and England by commercial restrictions he induced Congress to lay an embargo on British trade. Instead of injuring England this seriously crippled American commerce and was soon repealed. In this troubled condition of affairs Madison became President in 1809. Like Jefferson he was opposed to war and tried diplomacy. He attempted through Erskine, the British envoy, to have the British Orders in Council withdrawn. Erskine agreed, but the British government repudiated the action of its envoy. Negotiations with another British Minister, James Jackson, were also fruitless. Continued insults were heaped upon American ships and men; the country demanded definite action against the aggressors; even the peace-loving President, weary of the offensive attitude of England, at last gave his consent to war. On the 18th of June 1812 war was declared and continued with varying success until the Peace of Ghent in 1814. After nearly three years of fighting, after ruinous loss of money and property, the country was practically just where it stood in 1812, “its boundary unchanged, its international rights still undefined, the people still divided.” Madison lacked vigor as a war President, nor had he sufficient determination to secure advantageous terms of peace. He was far greater as a framer of the Constitution than as an executive.

In 1817 Madison retired from office and settled on his estates of Montpelier. He had married in 1796 Mrs. Todd, afterward the celebrated Dolly Madison, and with her he enjoyed 20 peaceful years in his country home. He was interested in farming, he thought and wrote much on all topics of public interest. He discussed social and moral questions, slavery and education. “Education,” he maintained, “was the true foundation of civil liberty.” The last public appearance of the venerable statesman was in the Virginia Convention of 1829 which met to amend the State constitution. In character Madison was thoughtful, reserved and cautious; in a time of hard drinkers he was notably abstemious. Moderation characterized all his habits. Dignified and kindly and an excellent conversationalist among those he knew well, he made and retained warm friends. His knowledge was profound and accurate, and he was considered an authority on all constitutional matters. His literary style was labored, but his arguments were keen, comprehensive and convincing.

Consult Lives of Madison by J. Q. Adams (1850); Rives (1859-68); Gay (1884); also ‘Letters and Writings of Madison’ edited by Hunt (9 vols., New York 1900-10); Adams, Henry, ‘History of the United States from 1801 to 1817’ (1889-90). Consult also Hunt G., ‘Life of James Madison’ (New York 1902); Taylor, H., ‘The Real Authorship of the Constitution of the United States Explained’ (Washington 1912); Wilson, J. G., ‘Presidents of the United States’ (Vol. I, New York 1914).

Of the University of Tennessee.