Official White House portrait of James Madison, by John Vanderlyn

Official White House portrait of James Madison, by John Vanderlyn

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

James Madison was born March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. He was the oldest of ten children born to a distinguished planter family. Madison’s formal education began at the age of 11 when he attended a boarding school taught by Donald Robertson. This Scott introduced young James Madison to the Scottish Enlightenment, of which he became a life-long student. From 16 to 18, Madison was tutored by another Scot, the Reverend William Martin who happened to have graduated from The College of New Jersey (est. 1746; 1896 name changed to Princeton) and in 1769, Madison was accepted as a Sophomore and graduated in 1771. He remained at the college for a graduate year under the Reverend John Witherspoon (signer of the Declaration of Independence).

In 1772, while reading for the law at Montpelier, he began his life-long support to the cause of religious freedom. In 1774 he was appointed to the Orange Safety Committee and passionately entered into the Independence movement. While Madison was a colonel in the Orange militia in 1775, his health precluded any service in the field. He was elected to be a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776, serving also in the General Assembly, and met Thomas Jefferson; beginning their 50 year friendship and brilliant political partnership. Madison framed the Virginia Constitution in the House of Delegates and later served as Council of State (1778-1780).

In 1780 Madison became the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress. An early advocate of a strong central government, Madison attended both the Mount Vernon Conference and the Annapolis Convention. He earned the title “Father of the Constitution” from his preparations, research and writings prior to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention while in his Montpelier library; his efforts to drive the Constitution through (speaking over 200 times, never missed a session, negotiated and compromised) and his dedicated efforts toward the ratification of the Constitution. Madison, along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, authored the Federalist Papers, essays supporting ratification. In 1788, he campaigned tirelessly for the Constitution’s ratification in Virginia. He faced stiff opposition in his home state but finally gained support with the promise of a Bill of Rights; the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution.

In the spring of 1794 Madison was at the pinnacle of the political world when introduced to his future wife, a Quaker widow and mother, Dolley Payne Todd. After a brief courtship they were marred on September 15, 1794. While they had no children during their 41 years of marriage, Dolley’s surviving son (Payne) from her first marriage to Quaker attorney John Todd was raised as Madison’s son.

After a period of semi-retirement (1797-1800) James Madison became President Jefferson’s Secretary of State for two terms (1801-1809). He was involved in many events fleshing out the Constitution and it’s actual implementation as well as westward expansion through the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

He served as the fourth president of the United States for two terms, 1809-1817. The War of 1812 proved that the country could be at war and citizens could still retain their rights as guaranteed under the Constitution. During the war, it was the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key’s writing the words to The Star Spangled Banner after the August 24, 1814 burning of Washington City’s governmental buildings and the presidential mansion (The White House).

James and Dolley Madison retired to his beloved Montpelier in 1817 where he remained interested and active in the political world. He served on the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia and became Rector upon Jefferson’s death, received countless visitors, including the “Nation’s Guest” the Marquis de Lafayette, founded the American Colonization Society (a group dedicated to the freedom and transportation of slaves back to Africa) and even attended the 1829 Virginia Constitutional Convention.

James Madison died at Montpelier the morning of June 28, 1836 at the age of 85.


"The President's House" by George Munger (ca. 1815), showing the burned remains of the White House after the Burning of Washington

In 1789, Madison won a seat in the first House of Representatives, where he served until 1797. By this time he was a committed leader of the Democratic-Republicans, and he became Secretary of State in 1801 when his friend and co-founder of that party, Thomas Jefferson, became president. Madison succeeded Jefferson in 1809, and it was during his administration that the long-standing tensions between Britain and the United States finally erupted into the War of 1812. The British burned Washington to the ground 1814, though later that year, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and returned Anglo-American relations to status quo ante bellum (the state of things before the war).

After his second term as president, Madison retired to his plantation, Montpelier, where he edited the journal he kept during the Constitutional Convention. He wrote newspaper articles supporting fellow Democratic-Republican (and fellow Virginian) President James Monroe. Madison acted as Monroe’s informal adviser on foreign policy. In his last years, Madison became actively involved in the American Colonization Society, an organization that encouraged the emancipation of slaves and their resettlement in Africa.

“Each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expense of other generations.”