You Be the Judge
The Struggle Continues
Faces of Freedom
Marketplace of Ideas
Censorship: What Is It?
Musical Hit List
Draw the Line
Founding Generation > James Madison
James Madison knew early in life that wanted to be in politics and support the colonies’ quest for independence. In 1780, at the age of 29, Madison became the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress. The principal author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Madison, a Federalist, did not initially believe a bill of rights was necessary. But Thomas Jefferson and Virginia’s voters changed his mind. Navigating the Bill of Rights through Congress proved so exasperating that after months of deliberation, Madison referred to it as a “nauseous project.” Madison is credited with writing Federalist Paper No. 10, an important paper in American Political theory.
Thoughts on the Constitution
Madison was a Federalist, which meant that he supported a strong centralized government. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, a set of 85 essays that advocated for the Constitution’s ratification. The following are quotes from the Federalist Papers written by Madison:
"Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction" (10).
"In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself" (51).
"In a compound republic partaking both of the national and federal character, the government ought to be founded on a mixture of principles of proportional and equal representation" (62).
Thoughts on the Bill of Rights and personal liberties
Madison didn’t initially feel a bill of rights was needed. On his lack of faith in the efficacy of a bill of rights: “Wherever the real power of government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our governments the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of constituents.”
While he was advocating for the Constitution’s ratification in Virginia, he realized the lack of a bill of rights was one the main reasons residents were opposed to it. Madison knew the government would need to address this in some way. He said that, “If we can make the Constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness in the judgment of those who are attached to it.”
When he drafted the bill of rights, Madison’s proposed amendments were extracted largely from proposals submitted at state ratifying conventions.
Madison personally believed in religious liberty and advocated for its inclusion in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. In 1784 he wrote "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments." This essay helped persuade the Virginia General Assembly to pass Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom into law. It also defeated efforts by fellow statesman Patrick Henry to collect and distribute tax revenues to Episcopal religious denominations.
Madison felt that the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 greatly infringed on civil liberties. Along with Thomas Jefferson, the pair drafted the 1798 Virginia Resolutions to try to counterbalance the federal law and circulated it to other states hoping they would endorse it. His position on the resolutions before the Virginia House of Delegates led to the essay, “Report of 1800.” In the essay, Madison defends freedom of the press against government censorship and punishment.
Madison had conflicting views about slavery. Although he inherited slaves from his father’s estate, he never approved of the practice. Madison believed in emancipation for slaves as long as their masters were compensated and that it should be up to an individual slave whether he or she wanted to be freed. Toward the end of his life, Madison was actively involved in the American Colonization Society and served as its president for a few years. The group supported abolition and resettling slaves in Africa.
Friends and Foes
Madison and fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and George Mason were good friends. He left the Federalist party and served as Secretary of State under Jefferson before succeeding him as president in 1809. Madison and Mason, an Anti-Federalist, were divided over the Constitution. Their relationship was severely strained after the Constitutional Convention and it wasn’t until many years later that they resumed their friendship.
back to Founding Generation
James Madison biography
James Madison biography
Library of Congress
The Papers of James Madison, digital edition
University of Virginia
James Madison’s Home, Montpelier