The Madisons, Part I - "Father of the Constitution"
By DS Gands
Nov 18, 2003
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Author’s note:  It would be an injustice to suppose that one could write a remarkable account of the life and accomplishments of President James Madison, for the man himself cannot be captured in the assimilation of mere words, other than those of his own and his peers, who lived it with him.  Writings about James Madison, Jr. are simply reflections of greatness.

If you study the journals, quotes, prose, and poetry of his time, many in his name or of his pen, you find that the times were extraordinary and the people in and of them, inestimable.  For if you look about, in this day and time, at all opened before us of which to partake with the natural senses, the best of these are the visions with subsequent thoughts, emotions, fears, and tears that fill the mind, body and soul when we take a mental journey into our nation’s history.  There is nothing on this earth governed by man more precious than freedom; nothing more fulfilling than knowing, remembering and honoring those who have blessed us with it.

The majestic and truly awe-inspiring lives of James and Dolley Madison are facets in our history that offer us the very marrow in the definition of ‘America’.  James Madison was a powerhouse in setting this country on a course of true liberty, actual freedom, and open democracy.  Dolley Madison is the definition of grace and goodwill, and the woman for whom the title ‘First Lady’ was coined.  We, the descendents of and participants in a free America, owe to them our true respect and loyalty for a standard that came of age with their service to this great nation.

Knowing that one can bring no more to their story than what has been laid down in the annuls of the past, the following is an attempt to breathe a bit of life onto the virtual page in an attempt to share that moment in time when America stood in the balance.   Part I is dedicated to the life, teachings, and accomplishments of James Madison, Jr., President.  Part II shall extend to his wife, their 42 years of marriage, her devotion to our nation, her honor to our Presidents, her remarkable appeal, their retirement from public life, and her strength and struggles as President Madison’s widow.  Come with me through a century of journey that was and remains, today  – The Madisons.

"Born, March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia, James Madison, Jr., was not a ‘little’ man.  Though he grew to be only five feet four inches in height and a fleet one hundred pounds, James Madison stood as a pillar of America, and one of the tallest and strongest of its foundation, and serving as the fourth President from March 4, 1809 to March 3, 1817.

Madison’s childhood was spent on his father's plantation, Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia.  His grandfather, Ambrose, came to America from England and later purchased 4,675 acres of the Virginia frontier in 1723.  Ambrose died from poisoning at the hand of his on slaves in 1732, shortly after moving into their new home.  James Madison, Sr. was born on the plantation, in the first of many homes (Mt. Pleasant) and abodes to be constructed on the land, but James, Jr. was born at his maternal grandmother’s home, and brought to the plantation as an infant.  At the age of nine, his father had just completed their first home in 1760, which had taken five years to build, and he recalled later in life having helped with moving into the final Madison family home which was named Montpelier.

When he turned eleven, he went to Donald Robertson's school in ‘King and Queen’ County, where he remained until the age of sixteen, at which time he returned to Montpelier to run the plantation with his father. There, his education continued at the same time under the guidance of a tutor, Thomas Martin, until he was eighteen.

Madison attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), where he studied law and philosophy and completed a four year university program in just two years.  Following his return home to Virginia, he entered politics in 1774.  His service included his state and his county in the Orange County Committee of Safety, the Virginia House of Delegates, and the Continental Congress through the Revolution.  Madison’s political career began on the local level than advanced as he became a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776, a member of  the Continental Congress from 1780-83, a member of Virginia Legislature from 1784-86, and a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.   

As a fellow Democratic-Republican and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson,  only eight years his senior, a vast friendship was formed.  It has been written that the two could not have been closer if they were birth brothers, and their perspectives and careers paralleled throughout their journeys.  Madison was a lawyer and Episcopalian by faith.   Madison believed that people should be allowed to live their lives as they wished, as long as they did not harm another.  He was an ardent champion of liberty, and dedicated himself to formulating a proposal for a new form of government, that he hoped all would support.  His writings capture the rousing debates over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Jefferson was the fiery statesman, who brought the passion and perspective of  democracy and discipline to a fever pitch.  Most of all, they were fellow Virginians with the future of America in their hands, which neither of them took lightly.  They were four years away from going to Washington for a sixteen-year joint venture as presidents in succession, and confidantes for life.   It was 1787.  Madison was 36, and Jefferson, 44.

James Madison became known as "Father of the Constitution" at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.   A strong supporter of freedoms of speech and worship, he believed that people should freely choose representatives in government.  Madison was a staunch believer in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The Constitution that Madison helped to write encompassed and embraced these ideals creating a balanced government that promised to protect individual liberty.

In 1789, James Madison began serving as a member of the United State House of Representatives, and did so through 1797.  During his terms in the House, Aaron Burr introduced to him to Dolley Payne Todd, a Quaker widow living in Philadelphia.  She had lost her husband and infant son to fever, and had a young son, who Madison would raise as his own.  He was instantly smitten with the young woman, and following a whirlwind romance, he married her on September 15, 1794.

The newly married Madisons returned to Virginia to make their home.  Arriving in Virginia with his new bride and son, they moved into Montpelier with his parents.  Soon, James was adding a thirty foot four room, two-story addition onto the mansion, with separate entry.  It was as if the home was divided to live their separate lives, but the close attachment to family and home remained.  The Madisons would not inherit his family home for many years and late in life, but James Madison brought to the plantation in gathering trees and gardens of rare quality to populate the area.   Though they maintained a servant labor force on the farm, many of these were trained in the arts and skills of construction, a profession which Madison, Sr. was known. 

When James Madison, Jr. came to oversee Montpelier, he never raised a hand to a servant or slave, nor did he allow any other to do so.  It has been noted that discipline was private, and not public, and the debt for indiscretion or folly was a penance to be repaid in time, toil, or wage.  Throughout his life he extended education and training to all who served under him or for him, including the internship of such as master gardener apprentices at the White House and Montpelier.

It was soon 1801, and Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected President of the United States, appointed him to the position of Secretary of State, a capacity he would serve until 1809, when Madison assumed his role as President.

Then Secretary of State Madison presided over one of the most influential offices in Jefferson’s administration.  Among his duties were oversight of the Patent Office, issuing federal commissions, ensuring that the newly passed public laws went to print, and he served as the chief liaison between Jefferson and the governors of states and territories.  Madison was responsible for co-signing treaties between the U.S. government and Indian tribes and nations, as well.  His most arduous and important task was responsibilities for foreign policy.  All diplomatic correspondence that came to the Executive Mansion from the president's three ministers, a dozen commissioners, and fifty-one consuls around the world was put to Madison to read and review.   His position required him to keep Jefferson informed on world issues, diplomatic intrigues, and foreign politics on a daily basis. As Secretary of State, Madison was required to maintain full knowledge and current status on global affairs.

Spain took over  The Louisiana Territory from France in 1762.  In 1800, in the the Treaty of Idelfonso, it was reclaimed by France. In 1801, when President Jefferson and Secretary Madison heard these rumors of treaty, they sent Charles Pinckney to Spain, and Robert Livingston to France to negotiate for a small portion of land along the Mississippi River, to secure passage to New Orleans. President Jefferson feared that if French troops took possession of the port, "we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation" against Napoleon's military power. Jefferson did not want to become too allied with the old nemesis, England.

Jefferson was determined to discover a route to the Pacific.  His public claim was for commerce, but privately, he and Madison both believed in western expansion for the ever-growing population of America.

In January of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson secretly called upon his Cabinet to help develop a plan for exploration beyond the muddy waters of the Mississippi. James Madison, his secretary of state, was given the task of coordinating negotiations for more land from King Ferdinand VII of Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, Alexander I of Russia, and King George III of England.   Madison worked with American dignitaries to negotiate for navigation rights to the Mississippi River, a right of deposit in the port of New Orleans for commerce, and safe passage to the Pacific Ocean through Native American and foreign-controlled territories in North America.

Negotiations stalled, and Madison immediately sent James Monroe to France to close the deal on the Louisiana Territory with Napoleon. France, in debt and encumbered, made an offer of approximately 900,000 square miles of the Louisiana Territory for $15,000,000, or about $44.00 an acre. Spain felt this was a breach of the Idelfonso treaty and threatened retaliation against France, but lack of funding and military strength reduced the complaint to paper.  King Ferdinand VII of Spain had no choice but to approve the transaction.

On December 8, 1803 Secretary of State Madison received written confirmation of the sale from his agents in New Orleans, which read:

 "we announce to you the peaceful Transfer of the Province of Louisiana by the Commissioners of Spain."

On December 20th, official representatives William C.C. Claiborne and James Wilkinson accepted transfer of Louisiana from French authorities in New Orleans. Immediately following the exchange of flags, Claiborne became the Governor of Louisiana, and Wilkinson became its military commander.

Madison’s role regarding the Lewis & Clark expedition was that of financial oversight.  He was to secure the purchase of territory west of the Mississippi so that any explorations would be legal. Madison released the financing for the expedition and launched the Corps of Discovery's twenty-eight-month journey.

In late spring, 1803,  the plan for the expedition was in place and approved and all of the necessary equipment and personnel had been assembled. The ladies of Washington assisted in the acquisition of much of the needed material and supplies, and Dolley Madison was among Washington's society women who gave silver utensils, cloth for sacks, wax for candles, lamps, oil, spices for cooking, canned goods, dried goods, writing accouterments, and clothing.

It was May 14, 1804, when Lewis and Clark set out on the expedition which became "an enterprise of many aims and a product of many minds." (D. Jackson, editor, The Letters of Lewis & Clark, 1978).   "The captains", as they were called, named rivers and streams for members of the Corps, their friends, family and some government officials. When they reached the headwaters of the Missouri in July of 1805, they honored President Jefferson, Secretary of State Madison, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin by naming the three tributaries that made up the Missouri after them. The “Madison River Valley” is said to be as wild and untamed today as it was 150 years ago.

Twenty-eight months after the Corps started their journey, they returned to Washington laden with gifts from Indian dignitaries, samples collected along the route, and journals filled with scientific data.   President Jefferson was elated by the success of the journey and sent other explorers west. This "great unknown" was the soon to known as ‘The Great Frontier”.  Thousands of Americans began to migrate west.

James Madison was the first President to have served in Congress.  During his presidency, America found herself at war with Great Britain, again, in 1812.  Many exceptional events took place during his terms, but he had chosen a lackluster cabinet and regretted the outcome.  His presidency was in turmoil, he relied heavily on the advise of Jefferson and Monroe, and both of his vice-presidents died while in office.  But still there was to come, the War of 1812, again, fighting with the British.  On August 24, 1814, the White House was set ablaze, and damaged.  Madison was the first President to ever be in the field of battle under fire. 

Dolley Madison wrote a letter to her sister, Anna, about her escape from the White House, documenting the chaos and fear that all were experiencing in the final moments before the British attacked.  Her instructions were outlined as she explained that she was not able to release the secured frame of General Washington’s portrait from the wall, so she ordered the frame broken and the portrait removed, rolled up, and stowed in a wagon of valuables she had instructed to be saved.

In the first days following the battle in Washington, Mrs. Madison was fleeing from house to house, and kindness to kindness, but also discovered that there was a vast dislike for her husband for this war.  At times, she was ordered from homes, and put on the street to once again, search for shelter and safety.  On the third day, she found James Madison, whom she had feared dead, and they returned to Washington, and the destruction.

Paul Jennings, a servant and slave of the Madison’s who had witnessed these events, wrote:

"[Mrs. Madison]  then returned to Washington, where she found Mr. Madison at her brother-in-law's, Richard Cutts, on F street. All the facts about Mrs. M. I learned from her servant Sukey. We moved into the house of Colonel John B. Taylor [Tayloe?], corner of 18th street and New York Avenue, where we lived till the news of peace arrived.

“In two or three weeks after we returned, Congress met in extra session, at Blodgett's old shell of a house on 7th street (where the General Post-office now stands). It was three stories high, and had been used for a theatre, a tavern, an Irish boarding house, &c.; but both Houses of Congress managed to get along in it very well, notwithstanding it had to accommodate the Patent-office, City and General Post-office, committee-rooms, and what was left of the Congressional Library, at the same time. Things are very different now.

“The next summer, Mr. John Law, a large property-holder about the Capitol, fearing it would not be rebuilt, got up a subscription and built a large brick building (now called the Old Capitol, where the secesh prisoners are confined), and offered it to Congress for their use, till the Capitol could be rebuilt. This coaxed them back, though strong efforts were made to remove the seat of government north; but the southern members kept it here.

“After the news of peace, and of General Jackson's victory at New Orleans, which reached here about the same time, there were great illuminations. We moved into the Seven Buildings, corner of 19th street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and while there, General Jackson came on with his wife, to whom numerous dinner-parties and levees were given. Mr. Madison also held levees every Wednesday evening, at which wine, punch, coffee, ice-cream, &c., were liberally served, unlike the present custom.”

The Madison Presidency was wrapped in the praise and pride of a victory, and was a successful and fruitful effort for Madison in his second term.  On April 10, 1816, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered under Madison’s administration.

In 1817 James Madison's second term as president concluded, with his successor and friend Monroe being elected, and the Madisons retired to Montpelier.  Dignitaries and visitors came to visit the Madison's from around the world for many years at their family home in Verginia. They came to enjoy the famous Dolley Madison hospitality, and to talk to and get advice from President Madison, who was heralded by his peers as one of the wisest men in America.   In those years, he penned many letters, and stayed abreast and remotely involved in politics.

“Declaration of Independence. . . It has always been my impression that a re-establishment of the Colonial relations to the parent country previous to the controversy was the real object of every class of people, till despair of obtaining it, and the exasperating effects of the war, and the manner of conducting it, prepared the minds of all for the event declared on the 4th of July, 1776, as preferable, with all its difficulties and perils, to the alternative of submission to a claim of power, at once external, unlimited, irresponsible, and under every temptation to abuse from interest, ambition, and revenge.“ - James Madison, letter to Jared Sparks, January 5th, 1828

“Nothing can be more absurd than the cavil that the Declaration contains known and not new truths. The object was to assert, not to discover truths, and to make them the basis of the Revolutionary act. The merit of the Declaration, therefore, could only consist in a lucid communication of human rights, in a condensed enumeration of the reasons for such an exercise of them, and in a style and tone appropriate to the great occasion, and to the spirit of the American people.” -  James Madison, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 6, 1823.

On June 28, 1836 James Madison died at Montpelier at the age of 85.  He was encouraged to sit for a final portrait that showed the age, but not the true ailments.  He had been stricken with a particularly crippling form of arthritis, and only entered public life once after leaving the White House.  Dolley Madison spent the balance of his life maintaining the plantation home and caring for her husband.

Paul Jennings, Madison’s man servant to the end, was present with Madison’s niece, Mrs. Willis, when she asked him what was the matter.   He was having difficulty swallowing after his breakfast was served to him.  Jennings wrote of Madison’s final words and serene end:

"Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear."

‘His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.’

Historical Documents of James Madison:

First Inaugural Address (1809)

Second Inaugural Address (1813)

Memorial and Remonstrance (1785)

The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison (1787)



POTUS – Presidents of the United States

A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison -- by Paul Jennings

Dolley Madison’s Letter to her sister, Anna

National Center for Public Policy Research

James Madison Center – James Madison University

James Madison’s Montpelier

American Memory - Popular Demand – Searchable Portrait Collections

The Dolley Madison Project

National Archives