The lifespan of James Madison (1751-1636) encompasses the genesis of the United States of America. James Madison was politically active in the push for American Independence, and the primary author of the U.S. Constitution. He then served as his country’s fourth president, successfully steering America through the War of 1812, before retiring from mainstream politics. Back home in Virginia, he devoted his remaining years to the twin causes of anti-slavery and higher education.
James Madison was born and raised on the Montpelier plantation in Virginia, which he later inherited. His early life was influenced in turn by tutors, Donald Robertson and the Reverend Thomas Martin. Later, James Madison became a student at the College of New Jersey – now Princeton. An outstanding student, he studied philosophy, geography, Latin and Hebrew, graduating after just two years.
At the start of his political career, James Madison served in the Virginia administration on three occasions between 1776 and 1800. He was then elected to the Council of State in Virginia (1778-79), before joining the Continental Congress (1780-83) and then serving a term as a US Representative from 1789 until 1797. Prompted by the Alien and Sedition Acts, he drafted his famous ‘Virginia Resolutions’ during 1798.
The writing of the US Constitution in 1787, Madison’s crowning achievement, was largely completed at the Constitutional Convention. This document gave the United States a strong federal government.
Having been Secretary of State from 1801, James Madison won the presidential nomination in 1808. Supported by Ex-President Jefferson, Madison was duly elected president. He then succeeded in winning a further term in 1812.
The major crisis of James Madison’s presidency was the War of 1812. With the failure of his Non-Intercourse Act, and America thus caught up in rivalries between Great Britain and France, Madison persuaded Congress to declare war on the British who were harassing American shipping in a trade dispute. Though America was initially on the back foot and suffered setbacks such as the burning of Washington, fortunes then improved and the war was concluded in 1814 by the Treaty of Ghent, with America’s economic power enhanced as a result of this ‘Second War of Independence’.
On his retirement from the presidency, James Madison returned to Montpelier in Virginia. Maintaining a profile in regional politics, he opposed state challenges to political union and adopted an anti-slavery stance, founding the American Colonisation Society which sought the resettlement of former slaves in Africa.