1902 Encyclopedia > James Madison

James Madison
4th president of the United States (1809-17)

JAMES MADISON, (1751-1836), fourth president of the United States, was born in King George county, Virginia, on the 16th of March 1751, during a temporary visit of his mother to her relatives. His father was the owner of large landed estates in Orange county, Virginia, and was a man of distinction in the county. In 1769 Madison entered Princeton College in New Jersey, and graduated as B.A. in 1771; but he remained another year at Princeton study-ing under the direction of President Witherspoon. His close application to study had seriously impaired his health, which continued delicate for many years. Returning to Virginia in 1772, he pursued his reading and studies, how-ever, with the same zeal as before, the subjects chosen being particularly those of philosophy, theology, and law.

Madison had as yet taken no active part in the exciting politics of the time. In 1775, however, he was chairman of the committee of public safety for Orange couuty, and in the spring of 1776 he was chosen a delegate to the new Virginia convention, which formed a constitution for the State. Failing to be re-elected in 1777, he was chosen in that year a member of the council of State, in which he took a prominent part until the end of 1779, at which time he was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, later the Congress of the Confederation. It was in this assembly that Madison first displayed those powers which ultimately made him the founder of the constitution of the United States. He was in Congress during the final stages of the revolutionary war, and one year after the establishment of peace, at a time when the confederation was in a chronic state of collapse, occasioned by the neglect or the refusal of the States to respond to the requisitions of Congress for supplies for the federal treasury, Madison was among the first to advocate the granting of additional powers to Congress. In 1781 he favoured the amendment of the articles of confederation, giving to Congress the power to enforce its requisitions ; and in 1783 he zealously advocated the proposed plan by which the States should grant to Congress for a period of twenty-five years the authority to levy an impost duty. Accompanying this plan was an address to the States drawn up by Madison. This address is one of the ablest of his state papers, and with others of this period placed him in the front rank of American statesmen.

In November 1783, the constitutional limit of his term as deputy having expired, Madison returned to Virginia, and the next year he again took a seat in the legisla-ture of that State. As chairman of the judiciary committee, he was particularly instrumental in revising the statute laws of the State. He opposed the further issue of paper money by the State, and tried to induce the legislature to repeal the law confiscating British debts.

As a member of the legislature of Virginia, Madison did not lose sight of the interests of the confederacy. He looked beyond mere local interests, believing that the highest good of the. State would best be advanced through a respected central Government. Virginia and Maryland possessing a common jurisdiction over the waters of the Potomac river and the Chesapeak Bay, it became necessary to come to some agreement between them as to the com-merce and navigation upon those waters. On Madison's proposal, commissioners of the two States met at Mount Vernon in March 1785. Maryland having proposed to invite the States of Pennsylvania and Delaware to join in the arrangement, Madison saw an opportunity for a more extended and general concert in regard to commerce and trade, and proposed that all the States should be invited to send commissioners to take into consideration the trade of the United States. This resolution was adopted by the legislature of Virginia; and thus was inaugurated the move-ment which led to the meeting at Annapolis in 1786, and later to the convention at Philadelphia in 1787. The palpable defects in the government of the confederation had led Madison to make an extended study of con-federacies, ancient and modern. Among his papers was found one bearing the title Notes on Confederacies, but he gave the results of these researches more at length in Nos. 17, 18, and 19 of The Federalist. His conclusion was that no confederacy could be long successful which acted upon States only, and not directly upon individuals.

As the time for the meeting of the convention approached, he drew up an outline of a new system of government to take the place of the articles of confederation.

As expressed in a letter to General Washington of the 16th of April 1787, it was in substance that the individual sovereignty of the States is totally irreconcilable with the aggregate sovereignty, and that a consolidation of the whole into one simple republic would be as inexpedient as it was unattainable. He sought therefore some middle ground, which might at once support a due supremacy of the national authority and not exclude the local authorities whenever they might be subordinately useful. He proposed, to this end, to change the basis of representation in Congress from States to the population.

The national government should have authority in all cases requiring uniformity. In addition to this positive power, the national government should have a negative on all State laws "as heretofore exercised by the kingly prerogative." This negative, he thought, would best be vested in the senate, which should be a comparatively permanent body.

The national supremacy should extend to the judiciary depart-ment and to the militia. The legislature should bo composed of two branches—one, the more numerous, elected for a short term, the other, few in number, for a longer term. A national executive should be provided for, and the States should bo guaranteed against both internal and external dangers. The right of coercion should be expressly declared. "But the difficulty and awkwardness of operating by force on the collective will of a State rendered it desirable that the necessity of it'should be precluded." He thought the negative on State laws might answer the purpose. This was a weak point in Madison's theory of government. He thought, with Jefferson, that there could be found some means of governing without resorting to force. Lastly, '' to give the new system its proper validity and energy, a ratification must be obtained from the people, and not merely from the legislatures."

These ideas, somewhat modified and extended in details, formed the Virginia plan of government, presented in the convention by Edmund Bandolph; and this plan, again, became the basis of the extended deliberations in the convention which resulted in the constitution adopted in that body on the 17th of September 1787. In the convention, as a delegate from Virginia, Madison took a leading part in the debates, of which he kept notes which were afterwards published by order of Congress. It was his influence which largely shaped the form of the final draft of the constitution. But the labour was not finished with this draft; the constitution was yet to be accepted by the people ; that it was accepted was due in an eminent degree to the efforts of Madison. In order to place the new constitution before the people in its true light, and to meet objections brought against it, he joined Hamilton and Jay in the publication of a series of essays, which were published in a collected form in 1788 under the name of The Federalist, and which are still worthy of careful study.

In the Virginia convention for ratifying the constitution he was again called upon to defend that instrument, and against such staunch patriots as Patrick Henry and George Mason. Madison here appeared at his best. He answered every objection in detail, calmly, yet with an eloquence and zeal that carried conviction to his audience. The result was a victory against an adverse public opinion, as well as against the eloquence of his opponents.

Although he remained in the public service for nearly twenty-five years longer, his greatest work was finished with the adoption of the constitution. He had gained the well-earned title of "father of the constitution." The part he had taken, however, alienated from him the support of a majority of the people of his State. He was defeated as a candidate for United States senate, though he was chosen in his own district as representative to Congress. Taking his seat in the Lower House in April 1789, he assumed a leading part in the legislation necessary to the organization of the new government. To Hamilton's measures, how-ever, for the funding of the debt, the assumption of the State debts, and the establishment of a national bank, he was opposed. On other questions, too, he sided with the Anti-Federalists, and gradually assumed the leadership of the opposition in the House of Representatives.

One would have expected to find him advocating with Washington, Hamilton, Marshall, Jay, and others those measures which would strengthen still more the federal government. On the contrary, we find him labouring to confine the powers of the national government within the narrowest possible limits.

Much has been said in regard to Madison's change of principles at this time. It has been intimated that he was influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by the decided attitude of his State, but especially by the dominating mind of his most intimate friend, Jefferson. Probably there is something of truth in this charge, yet it must be said that Madison had shown on many previous occasions an aversion to a liberal construction of granted powers. Timid by nature, he was frightened at the bold and com-prehensive measures of the secretary of the treasury. He thought he saw in them a constructive latitude of inter-pretation and a centralization of interests dangerous to republican principles.

Madison opposed also the foreign policy of the administration in 1793-96, in its attempts to maintain a neutral position between Great Britain and France, then at war with each other. And under the signature of " Helvidius " he published in the public journals five papers of great power and acuteness, criticizing the " monarchical preroga-tive of the executive " as exercised in the proclamation of neutrality of 1793, and the right of the recognition by the president of foreign states. So far as the question of international law was concerned, Madison was essentially right, but in regard to the authority of the executive, and the question of the expediency of Washington's neutral policy, the subsequent practice of the Government and the general verdict of history condemn his view. In 1794 Madison introduced in the House of Eepreseutatives resolutions based upon Jefferson's report on commerce, advising retaliatory measures against Great Britain and a discrimination in commercial and navigation laws in favour of France. Again, in 1796 he strenuously opposed the appropriation of money for the purpose of carrying into effect the treaty of 1794 with Great Britain. He scouted the idea as visionary that Great Britain would go to war on a refusal to carry the treaty into effect. It was not conceivable, he thought, that she would " make war upon a country which was the best market she had for her manu-factures." It had been a favourite theory with Madison, as with Jefferson, that foreign nations could be coerced through their commercial interests. The fallacy of this doctrine was well exemplified by its utter inefficiency when put in practice by them in 1807-12.

In 1797 Madison withdrew to private life, though not to a life of inactivity. In 1798 he was induced by Jefferson to join in a movement in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Laws passed by the Federalists in that year, and was himself the author of the Virginia resolutions, which declared—

"That the constitution of the United States was a compact, to which the States were parties, granting limited powers of govern-ment ; that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exer-cise of other powers, not granted by the compact, the States had the right, and were in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evils and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties pertaining to them ; that the Alien and Sedition Laws were such infractions of the compact; . . . . and finally that the State of Virginia declared those laws unconstitutional and not law, but utterly null, void, and of no effect, and invited the other States to join her in this action."

These resolutions, with those of Kentucky drawn by Jefferson, met with decided objections from the other States. Upon these objections Madison made a report to the legislature of Virginia, consisting of an elaborate and carefully considered argument sustaining in every point the resolutions of 1798. Thirty years later these argu-ments were freely made use of by Calhoun and his school of nullifiers as the basis of their doctrine. But Madison, in 1830, repudiated the idea that the resolutions of 1798 involved the principles of nullification. He wrote at that time many letters to public men, and especially one to Edward Everett, in August 1830, to prove this position. The nullifiers were not convinced, however, by this reason-ing, and continued to use his arguments in favour of their doctrine, till it became a source of great annoyance to him.

With the rise of the republican party to power in 1801, Madison became secretary of state in Jefferson's cabinet,— a position for which he was well fitted both by his temperament and his training, well versed as he was in constitutional and international law, and practising a calmness and fairness in discussion which are essential qualities of the diplomatist. In defending the neutral rights of the United States against the encroachments of European belligerents (1801-9), there was almost constant need of the use of all those qualities. The most important of his papers during this period was An Examination of the British Doctrine which subjects to capture a neutral trade not open in time of peace, that is, the so-called "rule of the war of 1756," as extended by Great Britain in 1793 and 1803. This treatise, published in 1806, was an argument against the British doctrine, drawn from a careful inves-tigation of authorities on international law, and was a valuable contribution to the discussion of a question which, for various reasons, has now lost its importance.

In 1809 Madison was elected president to succeed Jefferson, whose peace policy—a policy of commercial restrictions to coerce Great Britain and France—he con-tinued to follow until, in 1812, he was forced by his party to change it for a policy of war. He had been, under the lead of Jefferson, a great lieutenant; he had for the most part furnished the arguments in support of the republican policy since 1790 ; but he did not possess the qualities of a leader. His cabinet was in part forced upon him in 1809 by a senatorial clique, and his administration lacked vigour, particularly during the war of 1812-15. He had never been a partisan in politics, and was averse to forcing his views upon others, except in so far as he could do so by impartial arguments. In argument, he was not satisfied with generalities; his reasoning went to the foundation of principles—to the minutest details, sometimes almost painfully so. His analysis of the arguments was powerful aud searching. In this he resembled Hamilton: but his conclusions were reached through a laborious process of induction, whilst those of Hamilton seemed more the result of intuition. Madison, moreover, lacked Hamilton's boldness of conception and courage in assuming the responsibility of his theories. The difference between them was the difference between great talent and genius.

Madison served two terms as president, and in 1817 retired to Montpellier, his country seat in Virginia. For nearly twenty years thereafter he was engaged in agricultural pursuits, but was ever interested in literature and politics. To the time of his death he continued to be consulted by statesmen as an oracle on all constitutional questions.

In character he was mild and conciliatory ; and, whether in power or in opposition, he never lost the friendship or confidence of his political opponents. His death occurred on the 28th of June 1836.

His Letters and Writings, in 4 vols., were published by order of Congress in 1865. The Madison Papers, a report of debates during the Congress of the Confederation, and reports of debates in the Federal Convention, were also published by order of Congress. The History of the Life and Times of Madison, by William C. Rives, in 3 vols., comes down only to 1794.

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