James Madison (1751-1836) was a founding father of the United States and the fourth American president, serving in office from 1809 to 1817. An advocate for a strong federal government, the Virginia-born Madison composed the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution." In 1792, Madison and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) founded the Democratic-Republican Party, which has been called America's first opposition political party. When Jefferson became the third U.S. president, Madison served as his secretary of state. In this role, he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803. During his presidency, Madison led the U.S. into the controversial War of 1812 (1812-15) against Great Britain. After two terms in the White House, Madison retired to his Virginia plantation, Montpelier, with his wife Dolley (1768-1849).
More to Explore
People and Groups
This Day in History
On this day in 1795, Josiah Bartlett, a New Hampshire Patriot and signatory of the Declaration of Independence who also served as the state's governor and…
Get to know the leaders of the United States, from George Washington to Barack Obama.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) authored the Declaration of Independence and served as America's third president from 1801 to 1809.
James Monroe served as America's fifth president from 1817 to 1825.
Did You Know?
Montpelier, James Madison's Virginia plantation home, was established by his grandfather in 1723. An estimated 100 slaves lived at Montpelier when Madison owned it. The property was sold after this death. Today the estate, which covers some 2,600 acres, is open to the public.
- Early Years
- Father of the Constitution
- Ratifying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
- New Beginnings
James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia, to James Madison Sr. and Nellie Conway Madison. The oldest of 12 children, Madison was raised on the family plantation, Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia. At age 18, Madison left Montpelier to attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
After graduation, Madison took an interest in the relationship between the American colonies and Britain, which had grown tumultuous over the issue of British taxation. When Virginia began preparing for the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), Madison was appointed a colonel in the Orange County militia. Small in stature and sickly, he soon gave up a military career for a political one. In 1776, he represented Orange County at the Virginia Constitution Convention to organize a new state government no longer under British rule.
During his work in the Virginia legislature, Madison met lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. As a politician, Madison often fought for religious freedom, believing it was an individual's right from birth.
In 1780, Madison became a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He left Congress in 1783 to return to the Virginia assembly and work on a religious freedom statute, though he would soon be called back to Congress to help create a new constitution.
Father of the Constitution
After the colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776, the Articles of Confederation were created as the first constitution of the United States. The Articles were ratified in 1781 and gave most of the power to the individual state legislatures who acted more like individual countries than a union. This structure left the national Congress weak, with no ability to properly manage federal debt or maintain a national army.
Madison, after undertaking an extensive study of other world governments, came to the conclusion that America needed a strong federal government in order to help regulate the state legislatures and create a better system for raising federal money. He felt the government should be set up with a system of checks and balances so no branch had greater power over the other. Madison also suggested that governors and judges have enhanced roles in government in order to help manage the state legislatures.
In May 1787, delegates from each state came together at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and Madison was able to present his ideas for an effective government system in his "Virginia Plan," which detailed a government with three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. This plan would form the basis of the U.S. Constitution. Madison took detailed notes during debates at the convention, which helped to further shape the U.S. Constitution and led to his moniker: "Father of the Constitution." (Madison stated the Constitution was not "the off-spring of a single brain," but instead, "the work of many heads and many hangs.")
Ratifying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Once the new constitution was written, it needed to be ratified by nine of the 13 states. This was not an easy process, as many states felt the Constitution gave the federal government too much power. Supporters of the Constitution were known as Federalists, while critics were called Anti-Federalists.
Madison played a strong role in the ratification process, and wrote a number of essays outlining his support for the Constitution. His writings, along with those penned by other advocates, were released anonymously under the title "The Federalist," a series of 85 essays produced between 1787 and 1788. After extensive debate, the U.S. Constitution was signed by members of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787. The document was ratified by the states in 1788 and the new government became functional the following year.
Madison was elected to the newly formed U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1789 to 1797. In Congress, he worked to draft the Bill of Rights, a group of 10 amendments to the Constitution that spelled out fundamental rights (such as freedom of speech and religion) held by U.S. citizens. The Bill of Rights was ratified by the states in 1791.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up
Classroom Study Guides
Jefferson is an insightful 2-hour presentation on HISTORY which examines his many identities and asks viewers to answer for themselves: who was the real Thomas Jefferson, and what is his most lasting legacy in our world today?