Future President James Madison is born on this day in 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. Madison, one of the key drafters of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, became America’s fourth president in 1809. He is considered the Father of the Constitution, though he humbly referred to its development as the work of many heads and many hands.
Madison graduated with a liberal-arts degree from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). In 1779, he joined the first Continental Congress and helped pass the Articles of Confederation. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he then published the The Federalist Papers, a series of articles that successfully argued for ratification of the Constitution in 1787. Although installments of The Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym Publius, it is estimated that Madison wrote at least half of the articles.
Madison later split with his fellow Federalists over fiscal policies he believed unjustly favored the interests of northern merchants. He was also deeply disturbed by Federalist President John Adams’ passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, a series of acts Madison felt were designed to curb freedom of speech and unfairly stifle Republican opposition. He soon found that his model of government resonated more with Thomas Jefferson’s brand of Republicanism than Federalism and, in 1801, Jefferson made Madison his secretary of state. Like Jefferson, Madison advocated strict separation between church and state and helped Jefferson draft the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779.
Madison served as president for two terms between 1809 and 1817, during which he attempted to keep America out of conflicts, but was stymied by the outbreak of the War of 1812. During Jefferson’s administration, Britain, desperate for sailors in its ongoing war with France, began blockading and confiscating American ships, and impressing, or involuntary drafting, American sailors to serve on British warships. President Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Britain in 1812 for its continued affronts to U.S. autonomy. In 1814, British troops captured the city of Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, but not before Madison’s plucky wife, Dolley, saved George Washington’s portrait from looters. America emerged victorious in this second war of independence against Britain and as a result gained a stronger sense of national identity. After the war, Madison returned his attention to domestic matters, working to balance a strong federal government with respect for states’ rights.
Madison, at a diminutive 5′ 4, was brilliant and talented but socially reserved. His wife Dolley, however, proved a spirited and gregarious White House hostess whose highly visible presence in Washington contrasted with her more reserved predecessors, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. (When Madison was vice president, Dolley had also performed White House hostess duties for the widowed Jefferson.)
Madison retired from the presidency to his estate in Virginia, where he continued to be active in Virginia’s political and cultural circles. In 1826, Madison succeeded Jefferson as president of the University of Virginia. Ten years later, he died peacefully at the age of 85.