• James Madison was born in Virginia and grew up with a love for reading and learning. He studied at the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University), and afterward began studying law but didn’t love it. He never became a full-fledged lawyer; instead, at age 24 when fighting began in the American Revolution, he took up the cause for American independence from Great Britain.
• Madison started out serving on the Committee of Safety in Virginia, then became a delegate to the Virginia Convention where he first worked with Thomas Jefferson. He was a member of the Virginia Council of State before becoming a member of the Continental Congress. At 29 years old Madison was the youngest member of the congress, and became a respected contributor.
• Madison was part of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and his work laying out much of what became the U.S. Constitution in the Virginia Plan led to Madison being called the “Father of the Constitution.” Along with Alexander Hamilton, Madison published essays — which came to be known as the Federalist Papers — that laid out the meaning of the new laws of the land.
• His work continued as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he pushed through the Bill of Rights, and he served as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state before winning the presidency himself in 1808.
How he defined the office
• Madison was probably more accomplished before he became president than during his time in office, but one of the effects he had on the office was through his marriage to Dolley Payne Todd. Dolley Madison served as an occasional hostess at the White House during Jefferson’s presidency, when her husband was secretary of state, and was thus a popular figure in Washington when James became president. Dolley was much more interested in public life than the two previous first ladies had been, and set a tone for the role that others since have followed.
Successes and failures
• Madison inherited Jefferson’s policy of not trading with France and England while they were at war, and when England insisted that they would continue to seize American ships, the United States Congress voted to declare war on Britain in April 1812.
• The War of 1812 dominated Madison’s presidency. His opponents called it “Mister Madison’s War,” and others referred to it as the Second War For Independence. During the war the British took control of the Northwest Territory and invaded Washington, D.C., burning the White House, but they couldn’t advance past Baltimore and Fort McHenry.
• “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their won governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”