JAMES MADISON | 1809-1817
At his inauguration, James Madison, a small, wizened man, appeared old and worn. But whatever his deficiencies, Madison’s wife Dolley compensated for them with her warmth and gaiety. She was the toast of Washington.
Born on March 16, 1751, Madison was raised in Orange County, Virginia, and attended Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). A student of history and government, well-read in law, he participated in the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly.
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled at Philadelphia, the 36-year-old Madison took part in the debates. He made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the Federalist essays. Years later, when called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison said that the document was not “the off-spring of a single brain,” but “the work of many heads and many hands.”
In Congress, he helped frame the Bill of Rights. And out of his opposition to Hamilton’s financial proposals came the development of the Republican, or Jeffersonian, Party.
As President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Madison protested to warring France and Britain that their seizure of American ships was contrary to international law. Despite the obvious failings of the Embargo Act of 1807, Madison was elected president in 1808.
The difficulties continued with Britain and France. In Congress a young group called the “War Hawks” pressed the president for a more militant policy. The British impressment of American seamen and the seizure of cargoes impelled Madison to give in to pressure. On June 1, 1812, he asked Congress to declare war.
The young nation was not prepared to fight. The British set fire to the White House and the Capitol. But a few notable victories, climaxed by General Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans, convinced Americans that the War of 1812 had been gloriously successful. The New England Federalists who had opposed the war – and who had talked secession – were so repudiated that Federalism disappeared as a national party.
In retirement, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states’ rights influences that by the 1830s threatened to shatter the Federal Union. In a note opened after his death in 1836, he stated, “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”
Permission granted to re-post by The White House Historical Association